In this recurring column, Leigh Alexander visits exciting new creative frontiers in the video game space, which is seeing a period of incredible growth and diversification, attracting new talent and demonstrating intriguing innovation. Here she'll cover emerging artists, trends, and so much more.
What's old is new again, as some of Kickstarter's most successful game funding projects are retro games by veteran creators. The appetite for bygone, niche genres says a lot about the mainstream commercial game industry—and about what players really want.
With close to $4 million, the most funded game on Kickstarter is now Obsidian Entertainment's Project Eternity,, which topped the record previously set by Double Fine Adventure game. Both of these category leaders in the crowdfunding space have an important quality in common: they promised to take gamers back in time, to genres that don't exist any more.
In Obsidian's case, it bet on its legacy of experience with old-school role-playing games (the studio comes from historic stock, known for classics like Planescape: Torment)—and on the idea that audiences would want games once deemed so niche that they weren't worth publishing in today's world of user-friendliness and expensive polish.
Double Fine also wanted to return to what it once did best in the classic adventure genre; the company's pedigree is in warm, witty story and puzzle games like Grim Fandango and the Monkey Island series. Founder Tim Schafer is widely loved in part for his significant contributions to a genre people love and miss—one which also fell out of popularity because of the idea that the audience size was no longer worth the rising budget.
Screenshot from Cloud Imperium Games Corporation’s new crowd-funded game, Star Citizen.
These recent funding successes are surely the most visible, but are far from the only examples of retro gaming coming back on Kickstarter in a big way. The list is enormous: Creators of classic games and series like Space Quest, Gabriel Knight, Wasteland 2, Quest for Glory, Wing Commander, and more have turned to crowdfunding on the platform as a new way to return to the kinds of game designs that made them famous.
Some of the factors in the Kickstarter retro gaming boom are obvious: Nostalgia is powerful, and known veteran names will inherently have an easier time attracting faith in dollars. But there are bigger factors, as the service moves into taking an incredibly important role in shaping the gaming landscape.
A game like Project Eternity is hardcore. Old-school RPGs are generally massive universes dense with lore, underlined by complex gameplay systems that have their own established vocabulary, so as to be unintuitive to new audiences. It's proudly by and for a very specific type of player.
That approach is virtually verboten in the modern commercial game industry, which has been obsessed with broadening audiences and streamlining gameplay so as to create a product that never risks losing a sale to anyone who may feel intimidated or excluded. But the success of Project Eternity validates the idea that you can make an incredibly specific game without concern for mass appeal—and still be successful. Surely this is eye-opening to the commercial folks.
It's possible that modern games' focus on intuitiveness and low risk has diluted the spirit and identity that these nostalgic fans used to correlate with a bygone age. Games are made by much larger teams than they once were, and it's harder for individual voices to shine through. It's telling that it's often the names of these veteran developers that often drive the fundraising for their products – and the Kickstarter platform creates a direct and personal connection between creators and players.
That's powerful. Remember your childhood heroes? Now they depend on you to make their dream project, and they'll keep you updated along the way. It feels like a welcome antidote to the increasing cynicism longtime fans feel toward a game industry that often seems to be putting them at a distance as it races ever more transparently toward new players and bigger profits.
Screen shot from a preview video of Double Fine Adventure
A handful of years ago the biggest headlines about games were about the record-setting millions earned by Call of Duty and the Grand Theft Auto games; now the retail industry is shrinking. It doesn't mean that video games are less popular, but it may mean that gamers don't want to buy more risk-shy blockbuster sequels for $60. For $10 they can instead buy a stake in the development of a game they miss by a team they know and respect, without the unpleasant middleman of marketers to negotiate that relationship.
Not only do gamers miss the sense of character lost in the industry's onward march to make games ever more polished and realistic, but that continuous grasping toward realism and visual fidelity may be wearing away at what actually makes games fun. With fewer resources, older games had to use visual shorthand in place of richly-rendered characters and universes, and that condition of being abstract rather than literal captured fans' imaginations.
Take that away and gaming feels more and more like passively watching something happen than something that engages. Games that require a lot of reading or that use systems and language that only a loyal enclave understands will not appeal to everyone, but that's exactly what makes them so popular right now.
Screenshot from Project Eternity
There's a caveat though, the more retro creators join Kickstarter, the harder success will be. Loyal fans will always back games like the ones they missed, but the projects will receive increasing scrutiny. Back in the day, a concept, some sketches, and a good career might have been enough to get a greenlight from a game publisher, but fans want more. Industry veterans Brenda Brathwaite and Tom Hall wanted to make an old-school RPG, but found that their pitch wasn't specific, detailed, or thorough enough to drive the kind of funding they were seeking. They called a halt, and went back to the drawing board.
Gamers aren't simply retro-crazy, they also have high expectations about details and quality, a community management challenge that all these crowdfunded designers with passionate, persnickety players will now have to manage. There's definitely some retro fatigue, too, and "it's the same thing you remember!" will only open wallets on Kickstarter for so long if saturation occurs.
But for now it feels like a market correction, disproving some misconceptions about the audience for certain kinds of games, and giving players back their sense of connecting to admired creators when they play.