PaRappa the Rapper and Gitaroo Man are some of the best games the music rhythm genre has to offer, and the prospect of the designers behind both games teaming up for something new should be enough to get people—like me!—excited. But raw excitement isn't enough when you're asking for people to crowdfund your project in 2017. The landscape has changed dramatically, yet the Kickstarter pitch for Project Rap Rabbit, which launched earlier this week, pretends it hasn't. There's a reason Project Rap Rabbit's campaign is already scrambling to save itself.
The first few years of crowdfunding, whether through Kickstarter or elsewhere, were full of optimism. Finally, there was an avenue for fans to directly fund the games they wanted to see made, even if the "market" had suggested there was no one to buy them. This is why games like Broken Age (2D point-and-click adventure, $3.3 million) and Wasteland 2 (sequel to the a very old hardcore RPG that inspired games like Fallout, $2.9 million) raised so much money. Both turned out pretty good, but the same spirit of optimism fueled Mighty No. 9 (spiritual successor to Mega Man from the designer of Mega Man, $3.8 million), which was a trainwreck.
In other words, lots of people are deeply cynical about Kickstarter projects these days, especially when it comes to old school game designers promising to relive their glory days. Some of that cynicism may be misguided, as Kickstarter was always a form of investment gambling, but that's the way it is. This isn't an indictment of Masaya Matsuura or Keiichi Yano, who may be more than capable of creating a wonderful new music rhythm game, but it is the new reality.
Case in point, Jason Schreier's breakdown of Project Phoenix's many missteps:
In 2013, a Japanese composer named Hiroaki Yura raised over $1 million for Project Phoenix, a game that he wrote "will set a new standard of excellence for the Japanese gaming industry." It promised to be the product of Japanese and Western talent including the legendary composer Nobuo Uematsu, among other superstars. Four years later—and you probably know where this one's headed— Project Phoenix is nowhere to be found.
Project Rap Rabbit's biggest no-no is that it doesn't include any gameplay. If that's because a prototype for Project Rap Rabbit doesn't exist, that's even worse. The pitch does include an exhaustive breakdown of how the gameplay might work, but it's far easier to believe a project can achieve its ambitions when you can see it being played in front of you. It might look crude, but an ugly demo is better than blind faith. Too many Kickstarter projects have raised millions on blind faith, only to spend years in purgatory, with nothing to show for it.
In an excellent essay on Project Rap Rabbit, online gaming consultant Thomas Bidaux pointed out how drastically things have changed in the last few years:
Last week, I was at the VEF in France, where I presented the current trends for crowdfunding and video games. The most important to understand is that crowdfunding campaign (well, successful ones) now happen much later in the cycle of the development of a game. You need to spend more on your project before you can show it to the world. It is the harsh reality, and many studios just skip the crowdfunding stage to go straight to Early Access.
The emotional hook to crowdfunding is that you're appealing directly to the people, so why is Project Rap Rabbit raising funds on Kickstarter if they already have a publisher? The existence of a publisher suggests Project Rap Rabbit already has funds, so why exactly are they asking people for money so far ahead of time?
"We are not in the position of being co-funded by a secret fourth party," said the project in a recent update." Project Rap Rabbit's funds are coming purely from NanaOn-Sha, iNiS J, PQube and Kickstarter, and we therefore presented the full amounts necessary to develop certain features to their fullest."
My guess is that everyone involved with this crowdfunding effort figured attaching a publisher was, in fact, a way to show external confidence in the concept. By having a publisher, it suggested the game was actually going to ship. Unfortunately, it did the exact opposite: it feels like people are being exploited, where their personal enthusiasm for a project is being mined to offset a publisher's down payment.
Then again, if that's the case—publisher funds are being held until a Kickstarter acts as proof of interest—say that. Project Rap Rabbit claims it wanted to be "a completely open, honest and transparent Kickstarter campaign," but its own efforts undermine it.
So much else suggests a gross misreading of players, too. When the project launched, it promised a PlayStation 4 and PC version if they hit their bare minimum goal of $1.1 million. Fine. And it's common for crowdfunding stretch goals to use other platforms as incentives to keep backing. But in what world did the people behind this think it was reasonable to ask for $4.95 million to get a version on Switch, the super popular new piece of hardware that desperately needs new games? Especially when an Xbox One version comes at $3.1 million??
This, at least, is something the project has realized was a mistake. It's since made Switch version possible at a more reasonable $1.5 million. The rest of the stretch goals have been erased, including the prospect of an Xbox One version. So if you donated to Project Rap Rabbit, thinking it might come to Xbox One... oops.
Worse still, the most important days of a Kickstarter project are the first 48 hours. This is when interest is at an all-time high, when a project needs to prove that it can make it to the finish line. People aren't interested in donating to a losing cause, and so a strong opening is what helps carry a crowdfunding effort through the difficult stretch in-between. If Project Rap Rabbit is perceived as never having a chance to make its $1.1 million goal, let alone $1.5 million for a Switch version, there's no incentive to even temporarily throw your money away at the project.
Needless to say, things haven't started well for Project Rap Rabbit. It raised almost $90,000 on its first day, but only $23,000 on its second day. That's not an encouraging trend, but projects have managed to course correct and rally in the final days. Whether Project Rap Rabbit is able to do that, I'm not sure. I certainly want this game to exist, making it all the more frustrating to see how easily some of these problems could have been avoided. (As a policy, I don't contribute any money to gaming crowdfunding efforts.) We'll have to see what happens next.