Bloodstained, the spiritual successor to the Castlevania series, has raised over $1.4 million on Kickstarter.
The gaming press is covering the campaign with breathless intensity, and fans of the series are looking forward to what they hope will be a return to form from producer Koji Igarashi. This is seen as something of a consumer revolt against staid publishers in general and Konami's recent fumbling in particular.
The truth is a bit more nuanced, and is more indicative of how the video game business sees Kickstarter than how the fans see publishers. In many ways this is business as usual, with Kickstarter being used to lessen the risk of creating an expensive game while drumming up support from the fans. This isn't the death of the establishment, this is the establishment learning a few new tricks.
The $5 million game
The idea of a Castlevania-style game being made for $500,000 was always absurd, especially with the high quality of the concept art. It turns out the real cost of the game is much higher, and it's being paid by unknown investors.
"All I can say right now is that after over a year of talking with just about every publisher out there, I was able to secure funding for about 90 percent of the game with the condition that I prove the market still wants an Igavania game," Koji Igarashi told Gamasutra. "Kickstarter proved to be a great solution, as it would (hopefully) show that people still want an Igavania game while simultaneously providing funds for the core game."
So without the Kickstarter the game may not have been made, but you're not ensuring its existence with your cash, you're making sure it happens due to your interest.
If 10 percent of the budget was the original $500,000 funding goal of the Kickstarter, that means that Bloodstained is around a $5 million game, which is much more realistic. But the majority of those funds won't be coming from fans, and it's folly to think that by paying for a tiny minority of the game's funding we're sending a message to a company like Konami.
This is the power of Kickstarter now; it gives well-known developers both money and publicity to create games the fans already know they're going to like. There's nothing wrong with that, sequels and updates can be a ton of fun, but it's time to stop pretending the publishing model of only greenlighting sure things is evil.
When the power is put back in the hands of the public, we tend to do the same thing. It turns out we like sure things, and we pay money for things that are comfortable.
Hell, just in terms of publicity Igarashi got his $500,000 worth, and he didn't have to pay for it, he just had to raise it. The gaming press is going to crazy for this project, proving that Kickstarter is still an incredibly effective advertising platform. If you have a well-known name and a beloved franchise, why pay for PR when you get more attention by asking for money? It seems backwards, but that's the real value of Kickstarter in this situation.
The crowdfunding platform is also likely to be the most efficient inventory management system in business currently, allowing things like the physical copies of the game to be made for fans willing to pay. That's a product that would introduce a high level of risk in terms of printing the correct copies and shipping them to a third-party retailer if Kickstarter didn't make that unnecessary, and now every copy that will be printed is already paid for. It's a direct benefit to both customers and the business; there will be no wasted units.
What we've learned is that one of the most popular games in the industry's history has a relatively small group of die-hard fans who will pay above retail to prove they want the game, and everyone involved is hoping that will translate to much larger sales when the game is released to the public. You're not funding a game directly, you're convincing the investors ponying up the money that will actually allow the game to be created that you want the product.
This is OK
None of this is meant to disparage this particular campaign, and it's very likely my resolve will break in the next day or two and I'll back it myself. The pitch video is amazing and the concept art looks great. The idea of a new 2D Castlevania, even if it's not called that, is appealing.
But it's important to realize what's happening. Kickstarter is, in this case, being used by a developer and investors to ensure interest from the most dedicated fans while managing inventory and mitigating risk.
Why pay for PR when you get more attention by asking for money?
The PR value of a Kickstarter of this kind, and doing this well, is also hard to put a value on. But as anyone who has ever tried to get the press to cover their game will tell you, that value is great, and worth a large amount of real-world money.
The perception of success here is much more important than the reality; which is that a well-known person backed by well-funded interests will create another well-known game. The tools may be slightly different, but this remains business as usual in many ways.