News is coming out that Yogventures, an adventure game in development by Winterkewl Games and with the imprimatur of popular web outfit Yogscast, has been cancelled. Another cancelled game. It’s sad, assuming that it will cost some people their jobs, but these things happen. What’s interesting about this is that the game was funded by Kickstarter funds. Not only that, but the game raised double the amount initially posted on the crowd-funding site. Now, it’s cancelled and backers are receiving Steam keys to an entirely different game, TUG. As Lewis Brindley, co-founder of Yogscast, chose to put it:
“In many ways TUG is the game we were hoping Winterkewl would create,” Brindley continued. “It has huge potential for the future. We’ve been playing the Early Access version on Steam and you’ll soon be able to see us playing the game on Yogscast channels.”
Oh good. Well that’s okay then.
Oddly, Brindley is claiming that Yogscast are under no obligation to do anything. That’s not true. In the autumn of last year Kickstarter posted a blog post specifically to address issues raised by a report on NPR’s “All Things Considered.” One of these issues was what happens when a project fails or peters out. Kickstarter, it seems to me, are fairly unequivocal: the creators are legally obliged to deliver on the project.
So what do we have now? A huge mess, essentially. Winterkewl is going out of business and Yogscast appears to think giving backers a key to another crowd-funded game none of them asked for (and some of them have already backed) is an adequate response. It clearly isn’t, and this is exactly the kind of thing that people in the various communities that comprise the broad audience of video game fandom should be worried about. The idea seems to be that once you’ve put your money into a Kickstarter project it’s gone and you have no protection. Why should we assume this?
There are a number of factors at play here, not least of which is the fact that Yogscast are probably quite confident that they’re not going to be sued. The nature of crowd-funding at this level means that the majority of the backers provided small amounts, usually around twenty US dollars at a time. If you put twenty dollars into a project and got screwed, would you really take on the stress, time commitment and financial commitment of a lawsuit? How would you go about convincing other backers to join you? It’s a logistical nightmare. Essentially, there is no referee. You’re completely reliant on the creator. In this case, Yogscast wants you to take a code to some other game and go away. This new game, by the way, more clearly reflects the game they wanted to make anyway. They want a do-over.
The problem for video games at large is that the (sometimes phenomenal) expense involved in video game development has made crowd-funding a popular option. This has resulted in a choppy sea for both creators and the audience, with a multitude of projects aligned to ever changing release schedules. Early access games on Steam are becoming ever more common. At what point are these games being finished? So far we’ve been fortunate and crowd-funding has made possible the creation of some absolutely fantastic games, but the potential for more and more of these scenarios emerging in the next few years is high.
Game development, however, despite being heavily reliant on engineering is ultimately a creative project. Creative projects cannot always guarantee results. This is the crux of the issue, as it’s very difficult to guarantee the game will be finished, particularly if the development studio in question is inexperienced. For the last couple of years I’ve wondered what would happen when we get the first spate of crowd-funded games that just aren’t that good. Many video game fans are a little too sensitive when it comes to review scores for games they’re invested in emotionally; how will they react when Gamespot gives a 65 to a game they have literally financially invested in? This raises another issue: what are we going to do when the game never shows up?
Giving backers a code for a different game misses the whole point, and feeding them a line that this new game is actually closer to Yogscast’s vision anyway is insulting. It’s clear that the video game community as a whole hasn’t resolved itself to what this new era of video game development really means. Enthusiasts and potential backers have to be careful. Backing a game doesn’t entitle you to demand a refund if the game is terrible, but surely there has to be some kind of recourse if the game is never completed, or even released in a “broken” state?[ref]This third scenario would of course cause problems; I’m inclined to consider a “broken” game in the same category as a terrible game, so the creators would have fulfilled their obligation.[/ref] On the other hand, the whole benefit of crowd-funding is the freedom it affords developers, which in turn could have a negative effect on various developers’ creative processes.
This isn’t going to be all love and rainbows, unfortunately. People are going to get screwed and the fact they’re being screwed out of twenty dollars and not twenty thousand dollars does not mitigate the ethical problems involved.