The crowd at Sony’s PlayStation keynote presentation this week at E3 2015, the biggest gaming convention of the year, gave a standing ovation for Shenmue 3, a new sequel in a cult hit Japanese game series. The series’ small but dedicated fan base has been clamoring for a third entry for years, and the applause and screams were well-deserved—momentarily, at least, until a massive corporation asked those fans to give them $2 million dollars in advance to actually make the game.
The Sony event was filled with fan service, from the return of the long-dormant game The Last Guardian to the reveal of a PS4 remake of Final Fantasy VII. The Shenmue 3 reveal would have made for a stunning climax if Sony had stopped there.
A video played. Shenmue creator Yu Suzuki comes onstage. A countdown: “FIVE, FOUR, THREE, TWO, ONE!” And the reveal: “Shenmue 3,” followed by a Kickstarter web address and logo.
The excitement in the room turned, almost imperceptibly, as the reality sank in: Sony just announced that a long-awaited game might be made, if its hopeful players are willing to front the cost.
It turns out they were, and the Shenmue 3 Kickstarter reached its $2 million goal in less than one day. Hooray, Shenmue 3 is really happening. Fans are happy, Sony and Kickstarter are happy, and a dangerous new precedent has been set: huge companies can officially use Kickstarter as a marketing platform and to ask fans for money before they’ve even committed to making a product.
Sony is worth an estimated $34.2 billion. There’s something wrong with this scenario.
CROSSING THE LINE
The traditional lines of capitalism are broken in mainstream video games. Corporations are seen as friends, their luxury-suited executives as superstars (see: Nintendo’s Reggie Fils-Aime, Microsoft’s Larry “Major Nelson” Hryb, Sony’s Shuhei Yoshida, Valve’s Gabe Newell, etc.). Buddy-buddy, nudge nudge, and hey, buy our things.
Games ceased being $60 products ages ago; they’re now hundreds-of-dollars investments across a multitude of ever-thinning digitally downloaded expansions and merchandise. Loyalty is measured in dollars spent and games owned. How many games have you pre-ordered this week? How much did you spend on the last Steam sale? You have all the expansions for Destiny, right?
And now Sony is asking fans to front the costs for a major, albeit pretty niche, game that will almost certainly wind up being a PS4 exclusive. Suzuki’s project has broken Kickstarter records on the backs of people willing to pay money for a product that doesn’t yet exist, because a company knew how to market emotions.
The barrier between consumer and corporations is dwindling. Maybe there isn’t one at all anymore. This is not capitalism—it’s a twisted and disfigured form of commerce, and it worked, and it will work again, when the next company tries it. Shenmue 3 was trending and making money, and it turns out this Kickstarter was meant mainly to “gauge interest” in Shenmue 3, so Sony could tell if anyone really gives a damn about the aged Japanese franchise.
Now that the goal has been surpassed and Sony can rest assured that its investment in Shenmue 3 is justified, shouldn’t they stop asking for money? Shouldn’t they give that money back?
DEATH OF A DREAM
Kickstarter began as an idea machine—an odd, awkward iteration on the American Dream, brought forth by the internet. The reality show Shark Tank, but without celebrity judges and meant for college students with a breakthrough but no bank accounts—innovators and inventors without traditional investors.
But now fans can pay $10,000 for a video game, a dinner date with its creator and a copy of the series’ scripts. Three of them already did.
This slope is not just slippery; it’s glossed with bowling lane oil, slathered in petroleum jelly, and soaked in Trojan Simply Pleasure lube. What conglomerate won’t want to mitigate some of the risk in game development and drum up a nice chunk of cash, all disguised as “gauging interest?”
They can just throw out classic game names to see what sticks. Actraiser, Battletoads, Streets of Rage; they would all be funded and set individual records, probably. If they fail, there’s no harm—the money stays in would-be backers’ bank accounts if the goal isn’t reached. Meanwhile, the truly independent developer whose Kickstarter isn’t backed by Sony or Microsoft or whatever huge marketing machine gets no attention, and innovation dies in the wood chipper of the triple-A blockbuster sequel machine.
This is not what beloved old school developer Tim Schafer did when he crawled up from the tomb of LucasArts to Kickstart Broken Age. And this isn’t a frustrated Keiji Inafune, creator of Mega Man, poking fun at Capcom’s aversion to the series with his newly Kickstarted game Mighty No. 9. It’s much less subversive; Shenmue 3 will come directly from Sony’s corner, and Sony will benefit most from the game’s success.
Suzuki stood on a stage dwarfed by screens, speakers and electrical equipment that probably cost more than the funding he and Sony sought for Shenmue 3. Don’t blame him—he likely saw an opportunity to make the game he wants to make and that his fans want him to make, and jumped at it. You can’t fault him for that.
And Shenmue 3 certainly sounded good in the heat of the moment. But in the future, maybe major game companies can “gauge interest” in their properties through charity drives via Child’s Play or other worthy causes instead of glorified pre-orders masquerading as an underdog’s Kickstarter campaign—though that might prove detrimental to their profit margins.