In recent crowdfunding updates, I’ve probably not done a fantastic job of hiding my enthusiasm for the Unsung Story project – I’d always have that little bit more to say on it, and my original write up betrayed my long-established interest in Yasumi Matsuno’s games. Considering the project’s recent but strangely narrow funding success, I’ve decided to take a closer look at some of the all too common mistakes made in a disappointing pitch.
So the Kickstarter is funded, as I never doubted it would be. But boy did this thing limp over the finish line. Its rise was meteoric at first: of its $600k target, $150k was taken in a single day and by the third day, half of the goal had been pledged. From here, the initial stretch goal ceiling – over $3 million – seemed within reach. Hilariously optimistic in retrospect, given the slow, slow crawl to $500k and the final push to just $660k weeks later.
Why was this such a problem pitch?
On one hand, the funding curve is perhaps exactly what you’d expect from the Yasumi Matsuno fanbase – fans of Final Fantasy Tactics, Tactics Ogre, Ogre Battle, Vagrant Story and the rest of the Matsuno back catalogue couldn’t open their wallets fast enough, but it’s a section of the audience that’s probably as small as it is passionate. If you didn’t know the name or hadn’t played many (or any) of his games, it was up to the Kickstarter pitch to convince you.
The pitch wasn’t awful as such, but it certainly wasn’t convincing either. Some highlights follow, many that should be all too familiar to anyone who has seen interesting pitches fail before:
Having something to show
You’d think by now that game developers would know not to make pitches when they have nothing to show in-engine. Yes, this is in some way contrary to how projects are funded in the industry, but you just have to face the fact that end-consumers aren’t trained to recognise workable projects from pretty concept art and lengthy prose descriptions of your setting and systems.
Established creators seem to think they can sidestep this basic rule, and honestly, in the past they’ve been proven right. But seriously, even David Braben sat in front of a procedural generation demo eventually. Unsung Story‘s reveal of its triangular field of play through concept art was intriguing, but ultimately underlined how unnecessarily early the pitch had been made.
Recalculated stretch goals
Again, this is the level of investment 101 you can probably pick up by watching an episode of Dragon’s Den. Appear unsure about what the money you’re asking for is actually going to achieve, and you lose people’s trust. The PS Vita and 3DS stretch goals could suddenly be achieved for a million less, and the upper cieling fell from $3 million to $2.4 million. Surely these kind of discrepancies indicate that someone is just making numbers up as they go along?
Reviving the Tactical Console RPG (but not on consoles)
The stated purpose of the Unsung Story Kickstarter was to bring the planned iOS and Android game to PC and Mac, with PS Vita, PS4 and 3DS versions available at (ultimately unreached) stretch goals. Playdek had to reassure the audience that this money would be used to make the game more platform agnostic, with all versions benefiting from greater depth of content.
The problem with this is that, even as a PC title, this sort of contradicts the stated goal of getting Yasumi Matsuno back to making the kind of games he became famous for – games that were released on Nintendo, Sony and SEGA home consoles before later washing up on handhelds, smartphones and tablets.
You’ve got to assume that some fans of Matsuno’s past work wouldn’t pledge for the game on this basis. It’s not just that being developed for the PC may alter the feel of the game – if you primarily play games on console, and the game is only (maybe) coming to a single (price-premium) home console, why would you back this project? This is before you even consider what Japanese gamers, stereotypically disinterested in PC games but a big audience for games of this style, would have made of the pitch.
Ransoming key creative staff (or not)
Unsung Story may have not reached a single one of its stretch goals, but its most important stretch goal incentive is happening anyway. Hitoshi Sakimoto – Matsuno’s frequent musical collaborator and an indispensible contributor to the atmosphere of the designer’s games – was originally going to cost backers $1.3 million. Then it was $1 million. Then it was ‘well actually it turns out he’ll work for us whatever happens’.
Similarly, another regular collaborator Akihiko Yoshida (artist and occasional enemy of noses) was suddenly added to the base tier about halfway through. The resulting impression is twofold: that Playdek hadn’t done any basic legwork to see who would come onboard by simply being talked to, and that perhaps the Kickstarter, incentivised on the threat of ‘we’ll make a mobile only game if you don’t give us enough money’ was itself all smoke and mirrors.
Yasumi Matsuno is designing a Tactical RPG with art by Akihiko Yoshida and music by Hitoshi Sakimoto. Regardless of the level of hands-on development that this entails, the other two times this happened, the results were more than merely worth playing.
Nevertheless, squeaking past a low goal always raises the question of whether it would have been better in the long-term to have failed and to have come back with a stronger pitch. Or perhaps the fantasy world of Rasfalia will thrive on a tighter, more focussed budget after all. Ivalice and Valeria were probably not programmed on top of a mountain of gold after all.
Still, Kickstarters and Indiegogoers. Less of this kind of thing, please.