It's tempting to think of the rise of Kickstarter and crowdfunding as a rebuke to traditional games publishers. "Hah," goes the narrative. "You didn't want my game but, look, see how the public flocks to us now."
InXile's Brian Fargo is one who didn't shy away from that narrative in his Kickstarter video pitch
, mocking the ignorance and childishness of decision-makers at Big Games Corp. His approach helped drive a hugely successful campaign for the RPG Wasteland 2
, which garnered nearly $3 million.
It's true -- the big game publishers are typically extremely conservative organizations, terrified of risk and addicted to established patterns. Perhaps this aversion to newness will be their undoing.
Speaking this week with Chris Roberts -- the maker of Wing Commander
and now of the upcoming crowdfunded PC space shooter Star Citizen
-- I found a gentler perspective, which accepts that publishers have very good reason to stay away from games that have anything less than blockbuster potential.
"A lot of it is to do with the scale," he said. "When I used to make games [in the 1990s], if you sold 50,000 or 100,000 copies, it was a huge deal. Then it was several hundred thousand. Then it was a million. Now we're seeing games that sell 20 million.
"If you can manage a business that sells 500,000 copies of a game, it's a good business. But EA or Activision aren't interested in that business, because in their cost structure, they have to be making $100 million dollars plus in revenue, no matter what. They're only interested in something that sells four or five million units."
It's a reflection of the same story that we've been hearing for the past two or three years: mid-tier developers -- the ones that are somewhere between low-cost productions and high-budget, high-profile releases, continue to be squeezed out. The publishers, by focusing on blockbusters, have created a vacuum that talented developers with an understanding of social media have been only too willing to fill.
"You look at a Tim Schafer or Chris Taylor -- these people who used to be name designers and had a following. They are always going to be able to sell a million copies of a game. But they're not getting financed by the publishers like they used to.
"Take [Obsidian Entertainment's] Project Eternity
, that's a kind of game there's a strong demand for. But if you talked to Activision or EA, they'd say, 'Looks great. They had 75,000 people give them money and they got $4 million dollars. But that doesn't move the needle for us.'
"These other avenues, digital distribution and crowdfunding are giving a voice and a marketplace to games that won't sell 10 or 20 million copies, but they can sell a million copies. It does show you that the big publisher model doesn't connect with the whole audience. It's the low end of the mass market, if you see what I mean."
Via Kickstarter, Star Citizen
has raised over a million dollars, with over a week left in the campaign. Another $2 million is coming in direct to Roberts' own label,
Roberts Space Industries. Star Citizen
has caused a stir in the game media, both due to Roberts' own pedigree, but also the demo's dazzling looks.
Out of the industry for years, Roberts worked in the movie industry, producing films such as 2004's The Punisher and 2005's Lord of War. He's now adjusting to the new opportunities of the game industry.
"It's nice to have the community be so into this," he said. "The old days of making games, you'd make it in a vacuum. You'd just hope that you were making stuff that people wanted. Having a community from the very start is invigorating as a designer. I get to interact with everyone, and I have a much better idea of what is and isn't important.
"I find that in this process, you have a much better idea at the beginning of what matters to people. That lets you figure out the areas you're going to put your resources into from the beginning."
I asked him if all this freedom might tempt him into indulging in some time-consuming perfectionism, that it might eventually lead to slippage. He rejects this notion. After all, he now has thousands of bosses, and they're all invested in his work.
"When it's just a publisher, you can fob them off. You can say, 'I need to work a bit more on this, it's going to take more time.' If they're not at the point where they're willing to kill your project, the publisher doesn't have much option. But when you've got the crowd, you have 60,000 people and they're expecting this thing on this day. If you're not going to give them what they want, you'd better have a good answer pretty soon."
Colin Campbell writes for IGN. You can follow him on Twitter @colincampbellx