Friday, April 13, 2012

Buying Art

Have you seen the recent trend of classic videogame franchises funding their resurgence via Kickstarter? It's been beautiful to watch. The events kicked off in fine form with Double Fine's Tim Schafer, who was behind some of the best graphic adventure games from the genre's last phase, including Day of the Tentacle and the sublime Grim Fandango. Double Fine has been making games in the interim, some of which echo the same sense of humor and style that Schafer deployed at LucasArts, but they've never made an honest-to-goodness old-school adventure game. They had the bright idea of going directly to the fans to get their funding, and it has paid off in spades: after originally asking for $400,000, the project eventually raised more than $3 million! This has made people deliriously happy: not only is a new adventure game getting made, but it's also a very public sign that there still is a community and a market for these sorts of games. It's been nearly a decade since we've seen a AAA title in the genre, which has been declared dead, but there's at least the chance of a renaissance.
The project I'm currently gaga over is Shadowrun Returns. Jordan Weisman, the original creator of Shadowrun back in the 80's, saw Double Fine's success, thought, "Shoot, I'm a grizzled game veteran who would love to make a new old-school game!", and put up his own Kickstarter project. His current company, Harebrained Schemes, has made some mobile games, but he's been able to license back the Shadowrun property and has a vision for creating a strongly story-based 2D, turn-based RPG. Again, this is a genre that has been dead for ages, but the response has been phenomenal. They hit their own $400,000 goal within a few days, and are currently closing in on $1 million, with about two weeks left on the clock. This has allowed them to greatly expand their original goals for the game: they will now be releasing versions for Mac and Linux, will be able to hire a composer to create high-quality, music, will add "rigger" characters (in Shadowrun argot, riggers are people [not necessarily humans] who can directly control vehicles through a mind/machine interface), and even (assuming they reach $1 million), add a second city to explore within the game.

Since then, I've also learned of yet another Kickstarter project to fund a sequel to Wasteland. I never played the original Wasteland so I don't have the same emotional connection to this as I do to the other projects, but I know that Wasteland was hugely important in the history of computer gaming, and is still praised by many people... as can be seen by its 50,000 backers pledging nearly $2.5 million (still three days left to chip in!). Unlike the other two games, which seek to resuscitate supposedly-dead-ended genres or properties, Wasteland's spiritual successors are doing well today, as best evidenced by Fallout 3's critical and commercial success. I imagine that the new Double Fine adventure and Shadowrun Returns will make a small group of people very happy, and hopefully create enough new fans to keep the tradition going; Wasteland 2 looks like it may have the potential to actually be a minor hit in its own right.

I want to ramble today about two things, Shadowrun and how commerce funds art.

It's probably been years since I last thought about Shadowrun, but when I saw the Kickstarter (thanks to a link from Steve Jackson, who has been inspired in turn to start his own Kickstarter project for OGRE wargaming), a flood of memories came pouring back. My experience with Shadowrun was almost entirely connected with its SNES incarnation. This may seem odd, since I never owned a Super Nintendo, let alone its Shadowrun cartidge. But, this was one of the games that I totally glommed on to, vicariously enjoying it by visiting friends' houses. (I may be slightly unusual in that I get nearly as much pleasure from watching other people play video games as I do from playing them myself, even more so if they're story-oriented games like Final Fantasy or Shadowrun.) It was so strange, so unique, and touched many chords that I didn't recognize I had.

Shadowrun was the only cyberpunk experience I would have for the first 20 years of my life, and it was a glorious one. It's set in a grim world, not exactly post-apocalyptic (only a few nukes were detonated), but fairly dystopian: greedy corporations run the world, governments have become largely ineffectual or corrupt, police agencies have been turned over to private companies, and much of the population is addicted to virtual entertainment. I was most intrigued by the "deckers", the hackers of Shadowrun, who would plug into the "Matrix" (remember, this was the late '80s), a global, interconnected network of computers and electronic systems. A decker could open a locked door, or take control of a defense robot, or steal nuyen (money) from a bank account.

Much later on, when I read other examples of Cyberpunk (most notably William Gibson's "Neuromancer" and, to some extent, Neal Stephenson's phenomenal "Snow Crash"), I came to realize that Shadowrun is more of a hybrid genre; most notably, in addition to the futuristic elements of megacorporations, cyberware, bioware (hah!), and decks, it also features shamans, trolls, orcs, elves, and the astral plane. That aspect of it didn't have as much of an impact on me - after all, I was used to seeing magical creatures in RPGs - but with the benefit of hindsight I now see what a big deal this was. To be clear, it isn't a big deal that everyone endorses: some people see it as a bastardization of cyberpunk, or a shameless appropriation of Tolkien into an environment where he doesn't belong. It's cool, though... I can get behind it under a "more is more" philosophy.

I loved the game Shadowrun. You start out waking up in a morgue: two morticians are about to dissect you, and freak out when you stand up and walk away. You've suffered amnesia, and spend much of the game trying to piece together what happened to you, as you explore the world around you. One of many elements of the game that I loved was its use of companions. I don't think that I'd ever played an RPG before with companions; stuff like Dragon Warrior and Legend of Zelda only had a single protagonist. In Shadowrun, though, you could hire other shadowrunners who would join your team for jobs. Shadowrun was what you might call an action RPG; it has the stats and inventory of an RPG, but combat took place in real-time, and your companions would fight using their own AI. I particularly remember one expensive runner who was... I think an ork or troll or something, but he was really strong and used a machine gun. When he was in your party, the two of you could blast through a bunch of enemies.

I don't think I ever beat the game, or saw the ending, but saw enough to be intrigued by the contents. Dragons running corporations, junkies prowling the junkyard, no-holds-barred arena gladiator battles... it was a grim, dark, fascinating world. I kinda want to find an emulator now so I can play it for real. I've also learned in my recent, fascinated browsing that there was also a Sega Genesis "Shadowrun" game, which many people claim is far superior to the SNES one. Yet another thing for me to look forward to!

Shadowrun aside, I find these recent successes tremendously encouraging. They remind me of conversations I've had with my friends and brothers for years. It seems like, for most of the past 70 years, our society has had certain models in place to financially support the creation of new media, and those models hadn't changed much at all until the Internet era. The music industry was supported by record/album sales; magazines, TV, and radio shows were supported by advertising; movies were supported by ticket sales (and, starting in the 1980s, sales of cassettes and DVDs); novels were supported by book sales; and so on.

There's been a great deal of public agonizing over how the Internet has disrupted these models, with attending predictions about the death of new art. When people could download MP3s for free without buying records, people thought that new bands wouldn't be able to record their albums. When people started TIVO-ing and time-shifting their TV programs, and advertising dollars began drying up, people started to worry that we'd seen the end of decently-budgeted high-quality comedies and dramas. E-books and the attending piracy made people wonder if people would bother writing books any more.

Of course, this overlooked the fact that there are multiple ways to fund art, and those dire predictions seem somewhat funny even a few years later. The era of huge record deals may be over, but plenty of bands are doing well by supplementing their record and iTunes sales with merchandise, ticket sales, licensing their songs to advertisers, and so on. Shows that were driven off the air due to low ratings, like Family Guy and Futurama, were later brought back once the studios realized that their DVD and syndication sales made them more valuable than reality programs. And more books are getting published than ever before, with lower barriers to entry; I can assure you that writing a book won't make you rich, but it isn't nearly as hard as it's been in the past.

So, no big news here; there are multiple ways to make money from producing art, and it's silly to proclaim that only the one way you grew up with is feasible. One of my favorite ideas to kick around has been that of a return to the patronage system, as was famous during Renaissance Italy. In this period, great works of art were commissioned by a single wealthy individual. The result might be available to the masses, by being put on display in a cathedral or museum, but the masses weren't expected to subsidize its creation. Rich people would pay for this creation for many reasons: perhaps because they wanted to be immortalized, or because they simply enjoyed the art in question. (And, to be clear, I'm not just talking about Michelangelo painting the ceiling, but also many works of literature and poetry.)

Isn't is possible that such a system could work today? It's tempting to think of something like, "Bill Gates presents Season 2 of Firefly". The super-wealthy among us could indulge in their tastes, and the rest of us could enjoy the results, along the way projecting our good thoughts at those who had made this creation possible. This seems like a great way to fund art creation, and could be one of the perks of us living in a new Gilded Age. It also potentially could allow for even greater eccentricity and variety than what currently gets funded. For example, instead of major movie studios only funding movies that they can count on to hit 3 of the 4 quadrants (kid/adult, male/female), movies will get made that fit one individual's tastes. Which won't necessarily be that of a while male billionaire.

Anyways, what I find so tremendously exciting about Kickstarter and its role in these game projects is how it inverts my prediction/dream about how good stuff will get made in the future. Yes, it rejects the current domination of oligarchical entertainment corporations, but instead of replacing them with entrepreneurial plutocrats, it gives us an enthusiastic rabble. This is reform the Barack Obama model, not the Ross Perot model... a wide array of passionate little people chipping in for a shared vision.

Of course, this can have huge benefits. Right off the bat, it instills a sense of community and shared purpose, and can really engage non-artists in the artistic endeavor. We aren't just standing around sharing our admiration of a common object; we are actually creating that common object, and generating a sense of pride in it as well. I imagine that it also gives the creators more confidence and perhaps autonomy in their work. Instead of worrying about pleasing the whims of a single benefactor, they can cheerfully know that they already have thousands of people on their side, supporting their already-expressed vision.

I'm also fascinated by the purely economic repercussions of this approach. Simply put, this is more of a subscription model, or an up-front producer model, rather than a post-production consumer model. For the vast majority of art, we wait until the art has been produced, and then spend money to experience it; the biggest exception is for TV shows, where advertisers pay when we consume it, and magazines, where we pay in advance for a stream of content. Steam has previously democratized the video game business model by enabling tiny publishers to reach tiny markets easily, but it still followed the linear temporal model of "work now, pay later." Kickstarter upends that: in all of the projects listed above, one of the "rewards" for "donating" to the game is a copy of the game itself. You can pay as much for the game as you want; $15 will get you a copy of Shadowrun Returns, and $60 will give you the same game with some exclusive in-game and real-life goodies. But, when Harebrained Schemes is working on the game, they KNOW already that more than 20,000 people have ALREADY BOUGHT the game. Personally, that would make me pretty nervous; it's a huge responsibility to please people who have already paid with their hard-earned money. At the same time, it's exciting and encouraging. What happens if not a single person pays for the game? Well, in a sense, it doesn't matter: they got to make the game that they wanted, and everyone who donated gets the game; that doesn't make the developers rich, but it's a darn sight better than the fate of big-label flops that burn through huge budgets and never recoup their costs.

It'll be interesting to see where we go from here. I'm immediately reminded of Louis C.K.'s recent awesome experiment in direct-to-fan sales of his Live at the Beacon Theater special. He bypassed all the typical art/commerce models for comedy (advertiser-supported basic cable, subscription-supported premium cable, studio DVD sales) to directly sell a super-high-quality video for $5. He apparently grossed around a million dollars by doing this, which is awesome. I've wondered for a while whether this would be a viable approach for other artists to take in the future, or if it was a one-time fluke event; he got a lot of media publicity by being the first (or at least the biggest) person to try doing this sort of thing, and I wondered if it would be tough for later attempts to get the same amount of attention. That said, what I'm seeing on Kickstarter now makes me optimistic that this could be a good trend for the future. Double Fine earning $3 million hasn't prevented another $3.5 million being pledged to Shadowrun Returns and Wasteland 2, so this seems to be driven mostly by the love of the games, not just the novelty of the situation. I'm not necessarily saying that Kickstarter is the end-all be-all of cool game development, but it's a wonderful avenue that seems perfectly designed for funding games with small but passionate followings.

No comments:

Post a Comment