The Rescue Blues

Shenmue1It’s E3 week. For gamers around the world, this is like first Christmas in June, where among the lights and smoke and mirrors, we receive small little nuggets of sunshine in the form of game announcements and updates. This year was no different, with various companies announcing some big games, like Halo 5 and Mass Effect 4. But, in my opinion, it was Sony that stole the show this year with a pre-show press conference with the announcement of three highly-anticipated games. The first two, the Final Fantasy VII remake and The Last Guardian, were definitely welcome surprises, with the former a long-stated desire of fans and the latter long-since dead, but it was the third announcement that seemed the most shocking and exciting: Shenmue 3.

In order to understand how shocking this announcement is, you sort of need a bit of background on the Shenmue series. Back in 2000, Shenmue made a decent-sized splash on the Sega Dreamcast. Dreamcast owners, like myself, loved the system, and we were eagerly anticipating the American release of this weird hybrid RPG/real-life sim, featuring a full voiced cast and a detailed world unlike anything else we had seen up until this point. You could go anywhere and do anything. All of the drawers in the game could be opened and rustled through. Characters in the game had lives, and they would move around the game world on schedules and with intent. The weather patterns were all random by default, but you could adjust settings to incorporate actual historical data from that area of Japan in 1986, when the game took place. If you walked down certain streets at specific times of the day/week/month, something unique might happen, and if you didn’t catch it when it happened, you may have missed it forever. This level of detail is insane for modern games, none the less one that came out fifteen years ago.

But, that detail came with a pretty hefty price tag. At the time, Sega claimed the game cost over 70-million dollars to develop, making it the most expensive game at the time. In 2014, creator Yu Suzuki claimed that number was inflated, and the real amount was closer to 47 million, which is still crazy for a game at the time. It was a gamble to make the game, and one that did not pay off. Despite achieving critical acclaim, the game did not even come close to meeting its budget.

After the Dreamcast died, Sega released Shenmue II on the Microsoft X-Box. At least, in North America. Japan and Europe got Shenmue II on the Dreamcast, but we American gamers had no such luck. I had an X-Box at the time, and I played it, of course. I loved the first game to death. The second one was really good, but not as detailed as the first. It also failed to recoup much of its cost, and any plans for Shenmue III seemed to go up in smoke. This was a real shame, because the second game ended on a major cliffhanger. Shenmue fans wondered if we would ever get to see the end of the story.

See, by this point, the landscape had changed. Sega was no longer in the game console industry. Spending more to make the game than they could have possibly made may not have been a great business decision, but it was their decision to make when the game was released on a console that they manufactured. They had other streams of revenue they could bring in, and while I’m sure they hoped they would make a profit, they didn’t have to. With the second game, though, things had hanged. Sega needed something to offset costs, and selling the North American exclusive rights to Microsoft more than likely did that. Additionally, Microsoft had just released the X-Box, and they needed some street cred within the video game industry, so bringing on something like Shenmue II was a great way to do that. But, now, none of that matters. Microsoft is a big player now. Sega can’t afford another loss like the first two games. Not making a profit suddenly becomes a death sentence for a game series (which most would argue is a sound business decision) , and any potential future games sort of go out the window.

Shenmue2We’ve been waiting for some form of Shenmue III announcement for 14 years. So, when Yu Suzuki took the stage at Sony’s pre-show press conference to announce Shenmue III, it came as a major shock. No one expected it. Many of us wondered if it was all true. But, there it was. Shenmue III was happening, and what’s more, we were being asked to help fund it. In the past, Suzuki had mentioned crowdfunding as a possible source of funding for Shenmue III, but we hadn’t heard anything about it since. But, now, the Kickstarter campaign was on its way.

The goal of the Kickstarter was set for 2-million, which it made overnight. It would have probably been quicker, but the announcement actually took Kickstarter down for a while. I sat and watched the donations for a while. At one point, it was literally jumping up by ten thousand dollars every minute. We were making it happen, and it was amazing.

On a theoretical level, it presented countless possibilities. This wasn’t the first game to go Kickstarter to help get funding. It wasn’t even the first major game release to get funded through Kickstarter. It was, however, a bit of an anomaly. This was a game series rescued from obscurity by Kickstarter. Suzuki was giving fans the opportunity to put their money where their mouth was and help bring about a game that they had been clamoring for, for nearly fifteen years. And the fan response was swift. We had rescued Shenmue III.

But, did we?

After the announcement, there was a bit of skepticism from the fans. Considering the budgets of the first two games, two million dollars seemed very low. What kind of Shenmue game could we possibly get for such a small amount? Other fans, like myself, pushed these concerns aside. We assumed that Yu Suzuki knew what he was doing, and he could have set the amount at whatever he wanted, and it would have easily made it. The truth, of course, is the Kickstarter only represents an extremely small portion of the development costs. So, who else was funding the game? Well, Sony, of course. In later interviews, Sony‘s Director of Third-Party Development, Gio Corsi, announced that the game was being mostly funded by Sony in partnership with Suzuki‘s development comany, Ys NetWhy the Kickstarter, then? Two million dollars is a pittance to an international company like Sony, so why go to the fans for such a small amount?

I’ve heard some people claim that the Kickstarter was so that Sony could gauge fan interest in the game for the purpose of convincing shareholders that this was a good idea. I’ve also heard that Sony used the kickstarter as a form of pre-ordering in the hopes of offsetting some of its costs. Both of these are possible, and I’m honestly not entirely sure I care about the reason.

I do, however, care about the ethics at play here.

First, there’s the issue of how Sony did it. In the initial announcement, and the Kickstarter campaign itself, there is no mention of outside funding. On the contrary, the entire campaign is built around the idea of the fans making Shenmue III happen. On top of this, the announcement of Sony‘s financial involvement only came about after the Kickstarter achieved its goal, ensuring that the project would be funded. In light of this, it feels a little like manipulation. We have been wanting this game for so long, so Sony appears to be tapping into that desire to help fund the game. Or advertise the game. Or do something. I’m not sure. It feels shady, though, and I’m not sure how I feel about it.

Of course, then there’s the question of whether or not this fits within the spirit of Kickstarter at all. Kickstarter began as an opportunity for small parties to fund their projects by going directly to the people. If you have a great idea, but no means to fund it, let the market decide whether or not you should or could go forward. Within this idea, you also have independent artists and game developers, who were given the opportunity to step outside of the mainstream industry and fund their projects based solely on their own merits and not a set of arbitrary rules that seem to govern whether or not large companies want to fund ideas. It’s truly the free market in action, and that’s awesome. Does Sony creating such a shady campaign undermine that, though?

Shenmue3And, all of this comes to a head with the idea of the stretch goals within the campaign. Stretch goals are basically an opportunity for a campaign to make more money by offering more stuff. When a campaign reaches its initial goal, its funded. But, then, if it makes more money, the campaign funders can choose to add additional rewards and benefits. For the Shenmue III campaign, the stretch goals were foreign subtitles for the game and expanded game mechanics and areas. These are all respectable stretch goals, but again the ethics here are shady. Stretch goals are often based out of necessity. I can give you a basic game/project/something, but the more you fund, the more I can give you. With a large financial backer like Sony, are the stretch goals necessary? Why are we paying for things like foreign subtitles? If the Kickstarter represents such a small portion of the financing, shouldn’t this type of stuff be paid for by the primary financial backer? Or the development company?

Again, this all just feels shady and a little manipulative.

Ultimately, I’m still going to play the game. I need to complete the story, and if this is how it has to happen, this is how it has to happen. The potential just troubles me. Rescuing a game certainly fits within the spirit of what Kickstarter is supposed to be, but when large corporations enter the picture, things can get shaky, and the implications of that worry me.

So, what do you think? Is this shady? Too shady? Is there even something to worry about? Give your thoughts in the comments below.

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Christopher David Lawton

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