Shenmue III’s Pitch Just Plain Sucks

Put down your pitchforks and torches, Shenmue fans. I already defended the existence of Shenmue’s campaign and your participation in it. Check my previous blog post, or click this link. Although you’ll be angry that I didn’t like the original Shenmue, because it totally matters how others feel about stuff you love. Especially if there’s a voice in your head telling you that the thing you love isn’t really as good as you say it is but you can’t just make it shut up unless you convince everyone in the world to love the thing you love as much as you think you do or convince yourself and others that their opinion on the thing you love doesn’t matter. Deep breaths, please. I’m on your side. Kinda.

Anyway, Shenmue III’s pitch sucks. Or maybe it doesn’t, because maybe it’s not a pitch at all. As some of my readers joked, they didn’t even really need to make a pitch. They just needed to post a donation box and say “we’re making Shenmue III. Give us money.” Which is pretty much what they did. And yes, that was all they needed to do. Maybe this wasn’t a campaign so much as it was a telethon. But as someone who has spent the last few years encouraging indie developers to work harder on their Kickstarters so that their campaigns don’t come across as greedy cash grabs, I sort of have to point out the lack of effort displayed. Their pitch is weak, vague, lacks transparency, and has some truly obnoxious stretch goals. When indie developers present me with campaigns this bad, it usually results in me sending back dozens of pages of notes asking for changes, with swear words and insults scribbled between the margins.

Fun fact: Shenmue is the Japanese term for "Money Pit"

Fun fact: Shenmue is the Japanese term for “Money Pit”

Shenmue III’s campaign has no budget breakdown. When people ask for my advice on a campaign, this is the first thing I require. I want every cent accounted for. And it’s not just because those backing the game have a right to know (although they totally do have a right to know). It’s because it prepares those getting the money to be accountable for that money. The thing about money is, it doesn’t discriminate who gets to wield it. Once money is in your possession, you can spend it anyway you see fit. Sure, there might be consequences later down the road if you don’t use it the way you’re supposed to, but the money itself doesn’t stop you from doing so. A budget breakdown also doesn’t stop you, but having one shows a certain awareness of expectations. The more specific that breakdown is, the bigger a sign it is that consideration and maturity are possessed by the people asking for the money. It’s one of many things a campaign can do to show your money is safe with it.

Not only does Shenmue III skip this most important of steps, but they’re being cagey about who their partners are on this project, and what they are contributing. Sony we know about, though that wasn’t clear at the time the campaign launched. It’s probably not a stretch to think Sega is involved somewhere, even if they’re just collecting a royalty on the IP. Yu Suzuki isn’t answering, only saying that his studio has backers. Okay, who? How much? You’re asking strangers (and fans are still strangers) for money. They worked very hard for that money. They’re putting that money on the line for a game series with a pretty sordid history. Don’t they have a right to know where their money is going?

"So my agent says 'Kingdom Hearts? Pssh, do you want to be doing Mickey Mouse projects or do you want to be in a big-budget blockbuster?' And to think, I could have been Sora!"

“So my agent says ‘Kingdom Hearts? Pssh, do you want to be doing Mickey Mouse projects or do you want to be in a big-budget blockbuster?’ And to think, I could have been Sora!”

I don’t really understand the caginess. There’s not a single fan that backed Shenmue III who would walk away just because Sony is involved. If anything, the truly diehard among them are probably ready to jump on Team PlayStation 4, if they weren’t on board already. As for other backers, I’m sure it’s probably boring things like banks, venture capitalists, or displaced gaming executives. You know, the types of institutions any large-scale gaming start-up gets their capital from. But, why not say it? Why leave an air of suspicion, especially when you don’t stand to alienate a single, solitary potential backer?

I’ll make a single concession to this issue: Japanese business culture is vastly different from Western business culture. Cards are often played closer to the chest. Awareness of strategic partnerships sometimes never makes the financial pages. Laws about disclosures or accounting practices differ in ways each-other’s cultures don’t understand. It’s often even a little socially taboo to talk about things like bank loans. Fine. All of that is fine. As long as you don’t ask Westerners for crowd funding. You did, so none of those cultural differences matter.

Frankly, discussing other issues I have with the campaign is a bit overkill. They missed the single most important step. I would never endorse an indie campaign that didn’t include a budget breakdown. Shenmue III isn’t an indie, and I’m sure they know what they’re doing and have reasonable certainty the project will be completed on budget (whatever that is) and on time (December 2017, assuming there is no delays, which games of this scope typically do have). And no, my dislike for Shenmue as a game isn’t why this pitch irks me.

"HA! Too bad Ryo, old chap. I get to be in a long-delayed third installment WITHOUT begging people off the street! LOSER! HA!"

“Too bad Ryo, old chap. I get to be in a long-delayed third installment WITHOUT begging people off the street! LOSER! HA!”

It’s because these industry veterans should be role models for indies. I knew this day was coming. The day where a major gaming property would be revived from the ashes by crowd funding. Imagine my disappointment when the game I genuinely thought should break this new ground phoned in their pitch. Shenmue III’s campaign is shamefully lazy, lacking thoughtfulness and/or the feel of a genuine need for money. As I pointed out in my previous editorial, Shenmue III clearly couldn’t exist outside of Kickstarter. So why does the language of those in charge of it make it seem like they’ve got significant backing already? Maybe they don’t. Maybe they’re going to raise additional capital through traditional channels, based on the success of this campaign. We don’t know. And we should.

Above all, I hope that Shenmue III’s glorified cash grab of a campaign doesn’t inspire a new wave of indie developers to just expect gamers to throw money at them. The salad days of indies getting away with campaigns like Shenmue III’s ended about a year and a half ago. As a community, we’ve grown up. Who knows? Maybe the mainstream gaming scene wasn’t paying as close of attention to what indies accomplished with crowd funding as I suspected. Maybe AAAs will go through the same trials and tribulations with crowd funding as you guys did over the last three years. Maybe it’ll take the AAA crowd funding scene just as long to adapt and expect better of their campaigns as the indie scene did. Shenmue III certainly won’t be the last AAA to have a Kickstarter campaign. Maybe that’s why, deep down, I’m happy the Shenmue III campaign exists. Because now, for the first time ever, I can genuinely say that my beloved indie scene is ahead of the curve as an industry.

Don’t Boo Shenmue III

Shenmue wasn’t for me. I was 11 when I got my greedy little hands on it. Maybe I was the wrong age, but I found it to be incredibly slow and boring. I never finished it as a kid. Around the time I turned 20, I gave it another look-over, but by that point gaming had come a long ways. Especially open-world games. No longer a technical marvel, Shenmue felt even more slow and clunky than it did when I was a kid. So, I have no horse in this race. Shenmue III doesn’t interest me in the slightest bit. But a lot of people were moved by the franchise. I know this because the amount of butt hurt they seem to feel when anyone can’t see how they could possibly enjoy such a plodding, badly written mess leaves them very angry. They also were pretty dang pissed when the game series abruptly ended and DEMANDED that Sega continue to lose money for their enjoyment. Fiscal responsibly? Pssh, who has time for that when you left us on a cliffhanger?

While Shenmue’s base might not get why Shenmue III could never happen before now, anyone with a sense of business did. Gaming is a business, remember. If a game can’t make money, the game shouldn’t be made. Shenmue as a franchise lost so much money that you could build a decent sized cottage out of the stacks of dollars they essentially torched while developing it. Whether fans want to admit it or not, Shenmue’s budget running amok is one of the most irresponsible financial decisions in gaming history. This at a time when Sega had failed to meet sales projections for the Dreamcast, lost millions in SegaNet, and was beginning to make inroads that would later lead to them becoming a third-party publisher. To put the volume of loss in context, getting World of Warcraft off the ground, game and online infrastructure, was done for half of what Sega spent developing and marketing Shenmue.

Shenmue’s existence wasn’t necessarily looked upon by Sega as a potential blockbuster franchise as much as a token of appreciation for the man behind it. Yu Suzuki had been a loyal soldier for Sega, and they wanted to reward him by giving him the funds to make his dream project a reality. Perhaps a gold watch would have been wiser. You can’t even use the “they hoped to make the money back in the long run” excuse. With a new generation of consoles looming and Moore’s Law in effect, there was no hope that the technology created for Shenmue would be viable (even with upgrades) in the window they needed it to be. They also needed unprecedented penetration rates for Shenmue, with no bumps along the road, along with all the hype and critical acclaim games accumulate. Shenmue was critically acclaimed, and the original did meet the penetration percentage Sega had hoped for. Here’s the problem: that penetration rate was for a user base that was significantly below Sega’s expectations. Frankly, Shenmue’s chances for success ended the day Sony announced the PS2 would have DVD playback, before the Dreamcast even made it to America. When people stopped anticipating Dreamcast and started to save for PlayStation 2, Shenmue’s fate was sealed, along with Sega’s. Had Sega chairman Isao Okawa not forgiven Sega’s considerable debt to him and returned all of his equity in Sega (totaling nearly $700,000,000 in US dollars) as a parting gift before passing away in early 2001, people probably would speak of Shenmue today in the same tone they reserve for THQ’s uDraw, or Atari’s E.T. Don’t shoot the messenger, Shenmue fans. It’s true.

The cash cow certainly didn't say "Shen-MOOOOOO!" on this one.

The cash cow certainly didn’t say “Shen-MOOOOOO!” on this one.

Fast forward to 2015. Shenmue is long dormant, although fans of it never gave up on hope. Sega could never logically revive the series. Yu Suzuki certainly wanted to continue the story, but funding would have to come elsewhere, in a way where IP owners Sega would not have to put a single dime in the line of fire.

Enter Kickstarter.

Kickstarter, or crowd funding in general, is a life ring to defunct, high-risk franchises with followings that are loyal, if not legion. No franchise fits this bill quite like Shenmue. A financial loss leader that a business can’t be expected to put money towards, but whose fan base would. And has! $3.35 million dollars in just a few days as of this writing. If anything, I’m sort of surprised that it’s not higher. I predicted it would set records within just a few hours, grossly overestimating the size of the fanbase. Or, perhaps I underestimated the negative backlash against the idea of a AAA dipping its toes in crowd funding.

I expected some anger or those who wouldn’t understand, but nowhere near the scale I’ve seen on social media. I guess some feel that Kickstarter is the exclusive property of indie developers. This would probably be a good time to point out that most people who are backing Shenmue probably aren’t super likely to spend a lot of money on indie campaigns. Moreover, the notion that Shenmue fans are being duped into taking an unfair share of the risk while Suzuki and Sony are reaping the rewards is just silly. Fans of Shenmue aren’t taking a share of the risk. They’re taking all the risk. And they should. Again, this is a failed game series. They couldn’t even bring out a low-cost mobile version exclusively to Japan without having it fail. And yeah, maybe Shenmue would have done better if it had launched on PlayStation 2, or if Sega hadn’t sold the exclusive North American rights for Shenmue II to Microsoft (perplexing to this day, though to Sega’s credit, if you’re going to be financially stupid, be consistently financially stupid). Shenmue III wouldn’t exist if not for its fanbase’s eagerness to accept all the risk.

If you don’t believe me about Shenmue’s fanbase, just ask them. You can’t buy the kind of loyalty Shenmue has. It’s something you simply pick up along the way. I don’t think any of them cared about Sony’s partnership being undisclosed at the time the campaign started. If anything, said partnership is likely to cause any Shenmue loving PS4 holdouts to adopt the console. And as for some of the Shenmue fans not understanding that there’s a chance the game might get further delayed, OH COME ON! Just because they like an overrated, slow and clunky, poorly written, over-hyped, mediocre franchise doesn’t mean they’re morons. I think they probably grasp that something could go wrong at some point during development and delays could happen. Given that the average pledge is $80 as of this writing, I’m guessing they would be more than willing to wait until 2018 or later if needed. They seem slightly enthusiastic. And by slightly, I mean they’re probably pointing ICBMs at my house for saying a single negative word about this piece of shit game property as we speak.

Actually, I’m quite happy for Shenmue fans. How many fanbases get a second chance like this? Of course, with Kickstarter, now a lot of fans for properties that just didn’t make it could decide to step up and put their money towards reviving long-lost potential. During Ubisoft’s conference, fans on social media were convinced that, at any given time during the presentation, Beyond Good & Evil 2 could be unveiled. It didn’t happen, nor is it likely to happen as long as Ubisoft has to pay the bills. I liked Beyond Good & Evil, but to say it was a financial disappointment is an understatement. It received a wide release, got stellar critical marks across the board, won nearly every conceivable “most underrated and/or overlooked” game award (giving it a potential second wind months after release), and later received a digital re-release on next generation platforms. And it still didn’t sell. There’s no real reason why it didn’t. Sometimes quality products like this flop without explanation. Yes, a sequel did enter production, but it did so before the Xbox Live Arcade re-release. When that failed to grab an audience, I’m sure that signaled the end for Beyond Good & Evil as a viable franchise.

Unless they crowd fund it. So I pose this question to those angry that Shenmue III has invaded their Kickstarter space: would you back Beyond Good & Evil 2? Admit it, you would at least be tempted. Or, if you’re a Nintendo fan reading this, would you back a new 2D Kid Icarus? What about crowd funding doesn’t make it okay for financially stable AAAs to use it? If small but loyal fan-bases are rabid for revivals, let them pay with their hard-earned money to make those revivals a reality. For those who say Yu Suzuki isn’t taking any of the risk, I ask you to rethink that. The man took his share of the risk over fifteen years ago when Shenmue was being created. Ubisoft took their share of the risk a decade ago on Beyond Good & Evil. And those risks didn’t pay off. The difference between those risks and the risks gamers are taking a share of today? Gamers in general know what they’re getting into. They’re not putting their livelihoods in jeopardy. Collectively it might add up to millions, but individually, it’s a proportional and responsible share of risk. It’s a sign that gamers have matured with the industry. Shenmue III’s campaign is a milestone moment in game financing. It’s where gamers and AAAs game makers came together and said it’s our industry. It’s ironic that Shenmue fans get to test these waters. The franchise might not be with the times, but its fans sure are.

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