Kicking It Old School: The Peril Of Kickstarter Nostalgia

In their crazy baggy jeans.

When interviewing Charles Cecil about his Kickstarter for Broken Sword 5, I interrupted him at one point to ask about a claim I’ve heard many making during this recent crowd-funding surge: that publishers prevent innovation. Perhaps they do, perhaps they don’t, but what exactly does that have to do with remaking games people liked in the 90s? I think perhaps this theme reaches its parodic zenith with the title of the proposed project from Brathwaite and Hall: Old School Role-Playing Game.

Kickstarter success stories have so far been firmly rooted in nostalgia, not innnovation. We’re seeing some of the biggest talent in the industry openly abandoning the ambition of innovation, and we’re paying them to do it.

Just look at the big success stories. Beginning with Schafer and Double Fine’s bid to make an adventure like they used to in the old days, to Fargo’s relaunching the Wasteland saga, to Obsidian’s promising an RPG like Planescape, to The Banner Saga’s tile-based combat, to Planetary Annihilation’s pledge to be like RTS games you remember.

Even at more modest levels, it’s been about bringing back card trading games, old-school platforming franchises being revived or imitated, a thousand SNES-style RPGs, and so many pixel-styled graphics that the 80s looks sparse in hindsight. Developers have been stating in their own pitch videos, and subsequent interviews, that Kickstarter has often been about finally escaping the clutches of the publishers, able to spread their wings and be creative where the evil money-men would crush them, able to innovate, innovate, INNOVATE! But almost no one is.

I’m not claiming that this festival of the past is unappealing. Not for a second. I danced from foot to foot at the prospect of a pure adventure from Schafer, a Planescape-styled RPG from Avellone, a new outing for George and Nico from Cecil. I remember enjoying games in the past, and want to enjoy them again now. Nostalgia is often misleading, but what we’re seeing here is the biggest and best names from the 80s and 90s getting the old band back and releasing one more album. As fans of the groups, while there’s obviously the fear that they’ll turn out to be Guns’n’Roses, it’s impossible not to want to hear what they’ve still got in them.

But this isn’t innovation. It’s the opposite. It’s… dennovation? Unnovation? And it rather worryingly tends toward stagnation.

A huge part of gaming has been the advancement of genres, and perhaps most importantly, the blurring of them. And yes, certainly through this process there have been perceived casualties, purer genres that have been lost in the meld, and people want them back. But rather than innovating on those older, perhaps lost ideas, what we’re seeing here is just their being repeated. We’re seeing the best and brightest in games development not pledging, “With your money we’ll make something unique, inspiring, game-changing…” We’re hearing, “We’ll make something the way we used to in the past.” In these large projects we just aren’t seeing anything that can justify the word “innovation”.

It’s not clear where to lay the blame for this. Is it with developers, looking to go back to the happy-go-lucky days of their past, to retreat to what they knew before disillusion crept in? Or is it with the pledgers, willing only to throw the big bucks at the projects that remind them of their happy past, paying out for the comfort blanket of the once familiar?

Or perhaps it’s simply the nature of the model of Kickstarter. In a world where gamers are finally beginning to catch on to the elaborate con of pre-ordering, here we’re being asked to pay for games that don’t even exist yet. And as much as people may wish to ideologically declare that this is about funding development, not purchasing games, you need to look at which are the most popular pledge levels – they tend to be the ones that secure a copy of the game once it’s finished. If pre-ordering is a sucker’s game – paying for something before reviews can warn against – then paying your $25 for a game that the developers openly admit isn’t even yet on a drawing board means you’re going to need certain things in place. And what better thing to have in place than a promise that it will be like that thing you liked before?

So yes, if I see an unknown team asking for $1m to make a new style of action adventure the likes we’ve never seen before, it may well be intriguing, but my e-wallet is likely to stay in my e-pocket. But if I see the guy who made three of my top ten games saying he wants to make another one, I’m seeing if it’s possible to direct debit my monthly wage to the project.

So indeed there are very many reasons why Kickstarter has tended toward nostalgia, and in doing so tended away from innovation. But does this have any longevity?

Perhaps an ideal version of events is that what we’re seeing now is the establishing of a new timeline. A comic-book-style reboot of the gaming world to 1993, to see what direction things would have gone in if the internet had been ubiquitous two decades earlier. The first round will be all these games made in the style of their 20 year old forefathers, but the next stage will be new innovation from them? Maybe in seeing RPGs and RTSs and adventures rebooted, we’ll then see what other possible directions they could have taken, evolved in, and innovated toward without a publisher model requiring homogenisation? Two parallel gaming worlds, Publisher Gaming and Ultimate Gaming?

Or perhaps what we’re seeing is a one-shot blast from the past, a final tour for the aging bands before they admit their frail legs can no longer dance about on stage like they used to. And at the end of it all we’ll have remembered that we liked games in the past a bit more than we like games in the present, oblivious to the fact that we’ve thought the same thing every five years of our lives, and never noticed that we keep adding to the nostalgia pile from the games we said weren’t good enough any longer.

So of course I’m pleased to see the names behind Wizardry and Anachronox (could there be a more apposite name?) making an RPG. But my heart sinks when their pitch video doesn’t begin with saying what new, wonderful ideas they have that they can’t help but want to put in a game, but instead by saying how lovely it used to be to take a cloth map out of a box. Yes, it was! (I’ve petitioned RPG developers for the last decade to return to cloth maps, usually confusing them by calling it a “tea towel” which apparently Americans don’t have.) But no one ever cared about the cloth map they got for a game that wasn’t any good. To see this – this silly nostalgic gimmick – being the lead concept in a project that will be primarily distributed digitally anyway, fills me with worry.

At no point in their pitch video do they say anything about what their game (or games) would be, but instead every time they suggest they’re about to, say, “It’s an old school RPG!”. As if that’s enough. And perhaps this time, maybe this one last time, it is. But surely this is the last time that will work?

And that’s the issue. Kickstarter’s gaming successes strike me as a one-time thing, a round-up of the past, and then done. It’s not that I’m skeptically suggesting that these games won’t innovate and take us to new, unique places – it’s that the developers behind them are boasting that they won’t. (At the same time as saying how the big bad publishers preclude innovation.)

I would so desperately love to see some of the big names coming forward and pitching their project as a New School RPG, or an RTS like you’ve never seen one before, or an adventure that rethinks the way we point and click. A driving game that changes how we think about driving controls, a first-person shooter that is to Half-Life what Half-Life was to Doom, an action-adventure that makes us realise we never saw the potential for the genre.

No, of course, not every game has to be a technological or ideological evolution, but when we’re talking about some of the most talented people in the industry able to work without constrictions from publishers, my goodness isn’t that what we should be hoping for? Not this retreading of what came before, as if it’s some act of inspired rebellion. But then, would we choose to fund it?


  1. Ross Mills says:

    Half Life 2 is to Half Life what Half Life was to Doom.

    After the Skyrim/Elder Scrolls franchise and Dragon Age/Mass Effect Franchise, I don’t see why people want to go backwards, either. Sure, make new games, and if a gametype (ie Group Combat D&D-Style RPG) inspires you go for it! But most of the premises that make people pay for Kickstarters seem like the same whiners who are like “X Game isn’t like X-1 Game” and get super butthurt.

    • pakoito says:

      >Dragon Age/Mass Effect Franchise, I don’t see why people want to go backwards,

      Because combat is bland, doesn’t feel strategic, mash A for Awesome, no emergent gameplay, and Sword/Gun&Conversation is not enough for a lot of us. The niche market is not your Triple AAA cater for everyone console popamole.

      • arccos says:

        But combat was awfully bland back then in most RPGs, too, if that’s what we’re talking about. Turn based RPGs generally consisted of fighters hitting melee and magic users either using magic or saving it for some boss. Then you heal after the fight. Real time RPGs did basically the same. There’s nothing particularly strategic about it.

        I’m also not sure what RPGs had emergent game play. Maybe a couple of the later Ultimas. Generally you followed the story while being beset by various groups of mobs. They were just as scripted, but had a more open world with interesting points spread out more.

        The way I see it, an average modern RPGs tightened up the travel time, shortened the combat, removed much of repetition in NPC interaction, and have about the same quality of story over an average old-school RPG. It’s a net gain for me.

        The fallacy is assuming all old-school RPGs were similar to the very best old-school RPGs. Some of the Ultimas, Wizardrys, etc. were truly great. But most of the games of the time were unimaginative slogs.

        • tuluse says:

          Fallout had tons of emergent gameplay.

          Ever watch a video of someone beating Fallout 2 in 14 min?

      • Vivarium says:

        You ignore the fact that allot of people wanted a chance for innovative underdogs to get seed money to do something genre defining not a retrospective.

        Its the same devs and genres that have been around forever I was completely disconsolate, until I realised that kickstarter is what the community wants it to be. Nothing can define what it is, nor what it should be. No matter what I hoped for it grew organically and has just as much value.

        My ambitious project linked below will hopefully see the light of day, but will take a couple of decades at this rate, I’m apprehensive that my previous lack of renown will mean the project is ignored.

        link to

    • Hoaxfish says:

      A lot of people don’t even see Dragon Age/Skyrim as RPGs in any real sense… just simply transposing the world onto action games.

      So they’re arguably not “innovation” within the RPG space, but an outright disposal of the RPG in favour of another genre entirely.

      Of course, this problem stems from the fact that “RPG” is one of the more nebulous genre definitions. Is it stats, story, party NPCs, choice, multiple endings, etc that defines something as an RPG?

      At the same time, the new games are not a natural evolution of the older mechanics, they’re simply new due to the rise of different technologies (e.g. isometric is not an evolved form of first-person).

      So, Skyrim is to Wasteland, what Table Tennis is to Backgammon. Both are valid games, but with little in common. There is no reason why they can’t co-exist.

      In the end, everything old is new again because the old stuff hasn’t been seen in a while.

      • MSJ says:

        If people don’t think that Dragon Age is an RPG, I don’t want be around these people anymore. Regardless of their quality, both Dragon Age: Origins and its sequel are much more traditional RPGs than Mass Effect, Skyrim, or even both The Witcher games. Especially in terms of gameplay, since those 3 games are more action-oriented than most old-school RPGs. Compare Dragon Age 2 where avoiding damage in direct combat is mostly done with dice rolls, with The Witcher 2 where you are allowed to manually dodge by pressing buttons (to the point that it almost becomes a meme). In that sense, The Witcher 2 is more innovative because it gives people a sense of ‘realism’ they crave in games (the same with Oblivion which has button-press blocking instead of Morrowind’s stats-based autoblocking), while Dragon Age despite trying to give an illusion of being more action-oriented is largely still hanging on to a traditional RPG framework.

        • ScubaMonster says:

          Sorry I think open ended games like Skyrim are more RPG’s than any recent Bioware offerings. Why? Well, if you consider role playing, I get to be whoever I want in Skyrim, playing my role, doing what I want whenever I want interacting with the world how I choose to see fit. Yes there is a main story line but that’s hardly the meat and potatoes of the game.

          • larskinn says:

            You mean that Skyrim is a “Live Action Role Playing” simulator. Fine. It might even be fun. It’s still not an RPG. But you have a point, the Mass Effects are even further from being RPGs.

          • mouton says:

            You do realize, people, how pointless arguing “what is an RPG” is?

          • Ritashi says:

            Just wait till Wizardry gets involved ;-)

    • Bhazor says:

      … but Half-Life is a way better game than its sequel.

      Also Dragons Age is basically a shit Baldur’s Gate. It’s Baldurs Gate made with a terrible combat engine and sacrificing breadth of content in order to have voice acting. Whilst still managing to fill the game with crap fetch quests.

      • DarkFenix says:

        Indeed, it’s quite arguable that in those examples it was the sequel that went backwards.

    • RegisteredUser says:

      “Half Life 2 is to Half Life what Half Life was to Doom.”

      If you meant to say by that, that by straying further from “core fun FPS = demons and a shotgun” (and instead increasingly script the crap out of it and care less and less about how silly, weak and nerfed your core utensil aka your guns sound) you increasingly stray from an enjoyable FPS experience, then I completely agree.

  2. Flukie says:

    I think it’s just simply the fact that publishers have ignored PC as a platform to develop for, thus a lack of real specific PC developed games that aren’t jumping on a free to play bandwagon or are developed by valve or indie.

    This means all our classic genres that we love can return, without publishers controlling the developers at all.

    The issue with giving money towards innovation is that how can that innovation be developed into something that makes someone want to pledge money towards it, it might cost money, you might find more money by showing that innovation to Valve or going your own way.

    • soldant says:

      But the point of the argument is that Kickstarter was supposed to usher in a new era of innovation by effectively removing the risk from game development and supposedly giving more freedom to the developers (and by extension maybe giving a bit more power back to gamers to tell devs what they actually want with the only thing they understand – money). Instead, we’re remaking the 90s. Arguably, that’s not innovation.

      • Emeraude says:

        Some would (will) argue that modern gaming has devolved so much on so many respects that going back to those old models is actually progressing again.

        • DerNebel says:

          That is just contradictory and as close to plain wrong as you could get. Remixing old games should not be considered innovation. Was the remixed Pokémons considered innovation because the series arguably had devolved in its newer iterations?

          The problem here is very real. According to the RPS article on “Old School RPG” it had raised 100k dollars before they even revealed that it was going to be a “first person fantasy/sci-fi RPG”. That it ridiculous. 100 thousand dollars pledged on nothing but nostalgia and the promise of no innovation whatsoever. There doesn’t seem to be passion in the project at all, no creative drive, just the desire to remix the past yet again. At least Grim Dawn, despite obviously being created as a new Titan Quest, had open world ideas, a setting and artstyle to show and even a bit of decidedly fun-looking gameplay. What exactly have we seen from Project Eternity or Old School RPG that promises new ideas, steps forward or artistic intention. It. Is. Just. Moneygrabbing.

          Games like FTL proves that innovation on KickStarter can happen and can be great, but all the big kickstarters just gather their money from nostalgia.

          • Emeraude says:

            Remixing old games should not be considered innovation.

            Why ? I find that position especially weird when you then mention FTL – which is nothing if not the remixing of old game designs – as an example of innovation.

            I do agree on one point though, that latest “Old School RPG” Kickstarter is dubious in its present form, especially in its appeal to nostalgia. But I think you’re retroactively reframing all previous projects through that light.

          • Mctittles says:

            Remixing of old designs IS innovation.

          • Emeraude says:

            Well, unless the argument happens to be that real ! (as opposed to what though ?) innovations only happen ex nihilo… Which I find weird, but have actually heard more than once.

          • battles_atlas says:

            I’m not sure innovation isn’t being misunderstood here. All innovation is remixing. Nothing comes out of thin air. Even the developments in gaming that seem radical, like the jump to 3D worlds, are really incremental improvements on previous technology (ie its hardware improvements that are key: the concept of a 3D game world is hardly radical). Going back to “old school” design can be no less radical than any ‘cutting edge’ approach as they both rely on what has gone before. Perhaps its just the former is more honest about it.

            If there is a problem here, for me its the obsession with the bleeding edge which results in too much emphasis on technology rather than storytelling, with the result that games over the last couple of decades have favoured improved graphics over improved narrative. After all, we’d been doing narrative as long as we’ve been humans, what’s innovative there?

          • MSJ says:

            @ Emeraude

            I think the actual term is “rehashing”. FTL does actually has new ideas; I never played a game where I can get rid of hijackers by opening the airlock, or ordering that my crew escape to another section of the ship for their survival.

            A few notable Kickstarter games are less about using old ideas in a new way from a new perspective, and more taking old ideas and making them prettier and also playable on Windows XP onwards.

            At least with some of them like Wasteland 2 and Project Eternity, it’s obvious that Kickstarter is less about innovation and more about making a game structure that is difficult in an environment with pressure from publishers (stories with a lot of dialogue and plot options).

          • Emeraude says:

            At least with some of them like Wasteland 2 and Project Eternity, it’s obvious that Kickstarter is less about innovation and more about making a game structure that is difficult in an environment with pressure from publishers (stories with a lot of dialogue and plot options).

            Oh totally agreed (see my point below about the disappearance of middle-size studios). And not saying that FTL doesn’t present new ideas, but it is build upon known molds. And not only do I not see the two as mutually exclusive, I find them perfectly complementary.

          • InternetBatman says:

            Project Eternity is probably one of the more backward looking games, but even they have had some relatively different ideas.

          • cHeal says:

            Well if the current trend of RPG’s (skyrim/mass effect) could be shown to be a deadend in terms of design, which I think it could possibly be considering how each sequel evolves on the last, then going back to the origin design and branching out in new ways is most definitely innovative and will most definitely produce new designs and new genres in the future.

            We have already seen this with the platformer genre. It was dead 7 or 8 years ago but is now new and fresh because instead of building on where the likes of Tomb Raider and Prince of Persia left off, many developers went back to an older form and build on that in new and interesting ways. Using physics and using modern technology to produce graphics that were actually very pleasing and enjoyable, producing more interesting puzzles and contrasting the simple gameplay with deep and thoughful stories. By abandoning the dead horse of the Playstation era Platformer those developers created something far far more innovative.

      • Gap Gen says:

        Kickstarter doesn’t remove the risk from making games. You still need to promote a game, and many “riskier” games don’t get funding (the mob being the fickle thing that it is). Plus, Kickstarter alone won’t ensure long-term financial security for a studio, so if a game flops, the studio is still in trouble.

        • soldant says:

          Well, it might not completely remove the risk, I’ll give you that, but it removes a significant amount of risk for a small dev without a publisher. If they spend all the Kickstarter money making their game, and then nobody buys it, they’ve effectively lost the opportunity to have better spent their time, and that’s pretty much it. They haven’t had to invest their own money or assets as such into the dev if the Kickstarter amount they asked for covers it (and most of them at least ask to cover a significant amount of the development cost). There’s no publisher to smash them into the ground, and unless their Kickstarter didn’t cover the bulk of the cost of development, they don’t need to sell copies to recover the cost of development. That’s a lot different to how it used to be for small devs, who would invest their own assets into game dev because nobody else was going to give them a hand out.

          • Bhazor says:

            Oh it removes risk in that if the game fails they are left completely bankrupt without any severance pay.

            Risk free!

          • soldant says:

            As opposed to not only not having income but also having paid to develop your own game so that you have a massive debt to pay off. You can find other work or start another project, but if you’re in debt you’re even more screwed. To suggest that Kickstarters eliminate no risk is absurd.

          • Shuck says:

            Since these are games (that are in theory) not being self-financed by the developers, the other (non-Kickstarter) model would involve publishers, who would be the ones assuming most of the risk.

            The problem with Kickstarter is that the only people who are able to raise actual game-developing sums of money are the well-known names promising popular games (i.e. games like the ones that had previously been popular). So any innovation that occurs is incidental. This is actually not so far from how developers appeal to publishers, only the scale of investment and return is different (the games being proposed on Kickstarter tend to be too small – in budget and popularity – to interest publishers).

          • Beemann says:

            @Shuck “…the only people who are able to raise actual game-developing sums of money are the well-known names promising popular games (i.e. games like the ones that had previously been popular). So any innovation that occurs is incidental..”

            I find this to be a misleading line of thinking. What about people like Tim Schafer, who have tried (and sometimes failed) to bring in new ideas and game mechanics (failed emotion-based story driven adventure game anyone?)? What about companies like Obsidian who continuously try to raise the bar with storytelling and take existing stories in new directions (dissecting and examining the franchise they’re meant to make a sequel to in KOTOR2, attempting to create wider-reaching consequences to player choice in Alpha Protocol, erc.)? Does funding them mean that any innovation, expected or otherwise, is merely an accompaniment?

            Granted, the projects they’ve pitched may be safer bets than they’ve taken in the past, (or less risky than most of their other projects really) but this is still a new funding method, and there’s still a lot of really wild and crazy expectations concerning kickstarter’d projects, and I’m not surprised that they’re managing expectations through the use of familiar ideas

          • Shuck says:

            @Beemann: All I was saying is that any innovation that may or may not occur with these new games being pitched on Kickstarter would be incidental to the focus of the pitch. No one is basing their campaigns on demonstrations or even promises of innovative gameplay; they’re pitching them purely on nostalgia – that these new games will be exactly like the old games people liked. That’s not to say that innovation won’t occur in one of these games, but if it does so, it’ll be unrelated to the qualities that got it funded. But I actually kind of doubt it will, because of both the promises made (if it’s too different it’ll fail to live up to the nostalgia-driven designs promised), and because of the money. For these old-school RPGs, they’re raising about half the sums (at best) that their earlier games cost. These is bare-bones development, where developers crank out games based on what they’ve learned working on previous projects. They don’t have the money, and therefore time, to explore and work out the bugs for new features.

          • Beemann says:

            That’s an interesting statement, especially considering one of the main things Planetary Annihilation did was advertise new gameplay functions.

            You also have to remember that these aren’t AAA gimme-all-of-the-particle-effects games with huge marketing budgets. They aren’t working with teams of hundreds to get this shipped out the door for (insert holiday here) and they aren’t trying to rush to a deadline to compete (or avoid competing with) AAA game X Y or Z
            There’s a lot more flexibility to these projects now that they aren’t constrained by marketing, or by trying to squeeze MOAR GRAFFIX out of an old engine, or trying to show up the competition and sell the game at a marketable time of the year

            Heck, I got TONS of people who had never played T:A or SupCom, and who even had little to no interest in RPS games, go and fund Planetary Annihilation
            The pitch was just well done and the concept seems universally entertaining

            PA isn’t the only game like this either, nor are other tactics and “old-school” rpg’s running off of nostalgia
            Shadowrun Returns is filling a niche that no game has bothered to really fill. The only options for Shadowrun games are old Genesis and SNES RPGs that play nothing like the proposed SR:R…. or a shooter that has little to do with Shadowrun at all.

            Banner Saga promised highly complex tactics battles alongside a story driven single player campaign with multiple dilemmas for the player to face, as well as an absolutely gorgeous art style that is quite unlike what I’ve come to expect from games

            Even Project Eternity causes me to expect more from Obsidian than previously. Not only will they not be cut off halfway through production, or let down on the QA end of things, but they’ll have full creative freedom to deliver their message in whatever way they see fit. I’d like to see what an entirely unrestricted Obsidian Entertainment comes up with, considering the excessively good stories that have been provided in their previous titles, and the important questions they had me asking myself afterwards. I find that to be a major selling point of their title
            If their game was “Yeah we wanna make an old game with wizards and stuff, and have it be based on classic fantasy tropes so you can feel like the 90s never left” then I wouldn’t be interested

            There ARE nostalgic elements to the pitches, but it’s hardly the whole pitch

            There’s also plenty of projects that get funded based on the merit of their idea, like The Dead Linger and FTL

      • Somerled says:

        I see it as we’ve just been given the sales pitch, and it’s the same thing any publisher would hear: we want to make a game, it’s going to be like previously successful games, so we think you want us to make the game for you. The difference is that the publisher’s influence doesn’t stop after they hand over the money, while Kickstarter funded devs can take the money and do whatever.

        So, let’s at least hope that these devs, even though they’re selling nostalgia, can do what they did in the past and bring something new to the table. They can package it up in whatever retro style or bygone mechanic that we remember falling in love with, but that doesn’t preclude innovation. We placed our trust in them, give them a chance.

        Also, I couldn’t find the reference to FTL. I’m sure it’s there somewhere.

    • 2late2die says:

      I think there’s a lot of good points made, but for now I’d rather give them the benefit of the doubt. For one there are, fairly high profile, and innovative games being made – games like FTL, Republique, Knock-knock, just to name a few. BTW, I would argue that Banner Saga is in fact innovative. Yes, it uses tile and turn based combat but that doesn’t mean it’s not innovative – I think the way they handle art alone is more innovative than a lot of AAA games, that only worry about pushing more pixels onto the screen.

      As for the biggest project, that admittedly harken back to the games of yore, I would say that perhaps it’s the developers, trying out a new model. A model they’re not entirely sure of, so they rely on more familiar things to fuel their projects. They go for something they love to do and know well how to do it. If and when these become a success and prove the model, then those developers will hopefully say, “okay, now that we know how this works, let’s see how far we can take it and what kinds of crazy stuff can we come up with without publishers’ interference.”

      Time will tell.

  3. anoniminimity says:

    See this, this is why I read RPS. Interesting coverage of gaming news, great Wot I Thinks and then wonderful articles like this with another look at gaming.

    • slerbal says:

      ^^^ THIS! This is a fabulous article and articulates what I feel about Kickstarter and the current phase of nostalgia-em-ups perfectly.

      A good perspective piece to balance against the understandable enthusiasm that folks get when they hear that their favourite games of the past are being resurrected. But will they be any good? We just don’t know yet.

      Personally I found the whole Old School RPG approach from Brathwaite and Hall unsettlingly like the investment presentations I heard during the height of the last two Internet bubbles. All hype and no specifics. Seriously I’d think twice before committing your hard earned money to something so ill-defined. Of course they most likely have the best of intentions, but this particular project could end up being the project that kills the renaissance in Kickstarter funded games.

      • AngoraFish says:

        Given that most people are going to lose $15-25 bucks, at most, per game this is hardly either an ‘investment’ or ‘bubble’.

        You may as well say that dropping $50 on a preorder for the next big AAA sequel is going to kill FPS gaming if the game turns out to be shithouse.

        Seriously, some perspective please. If your Friday night meal at a new restaurant is inedible, sure you’ll grizzle, but by Monday you’ll be over it, and it certainly won’t stop you trying a new restaurant the following week.

        • lcy says:

          Quite so. I’d say my pre-order of the new Xcom carries as much risk – I could just wait for the reviews after all.

      • Spinks says:

        I don’t know about this project being the one that breaks the camel’s back but fwiw, I had the same feeling when I read the blurb. Also I remembered that I didn’t really like Wizardry or first person RPGs back in the day so I’m not inclined to care about digging up that old corpse.

      • Brise Bonbons says:

        It’s somewhat subjective, but I agree that the specific Kickstarter execution for this Old School RPG thing (I mean, Christ, that name) was pretty troubling. Shit, at least tell us something about the races or the setting (“fantasy/Sci Fi”? Really?), because the pitch as it stands makes it look like they haven’t designed anything yet. I’m sure they have some notes and things, or they’re keeping details back to drop during the Kickstarting period to keep interest up, but the effect is to make the whole thing seem shady.

    • markside says:


  4. Gap Gen says:

    I think this is something that’s pervasive in the industry – even stuff like Dishonored harks back to the older games to a greater extent. We’re still learning how to recreate the spirit of innovations in the late ’90s, and change is incremental in order to limit the possible fallout of failure. Something like Republic: The Revolution tried a very interesting, fresh thing, and ultimately didn’t really work, which is a big shame, but highlights the risks involved in doing something completely new.

    Indie games have the space to innovate somewhat, but obviously for a small studio even that can be risky to their financial security.

    • Jackablade says:

      To be fair, the innovative thing they did was effectively putting a very hardcore boardgame on to the computer. Even with all of their (if I remember rightly, rather dubiously gained) media interest and publicity, it was never going to be a big seller.

    • MSJ says:

      While Dishonored does resemble Thief in many ways, it is still a fairly uncommon game that gives you a lot of options that you can mix to your liking. Not many stealth games allow you to possess fish, or for you to reverse the polarity of an electric gate and then lure unsuspecting guards into charging into it to get to you where they will get disintegrated.

      Look at their previous game, where you can ice stairs so that orcs tumble comically to the bottom, and then your character can easily kick them off a cliff.

      • Gap Gen says:

        True; I did like the melee combat in Dark Messiah, and it’s a shame that it’s not more widely used as a game mechanic.

    • Gap Gen says:

      @Jackablade: Ah, interesting, completely didn’t realise that. The problem with the game I found was that the system tended to find a stable state, so that it was very difficult to win outright, and I spent much of the time swapping certain swing districts with my opponents. Realistic, maybe, but not a great mechanic for a game that you’re supposed to win eventually.

    • belgand says:

      Republic almost failed because they were trying to force something that people didn’t want. A lot of people said “hey, that sounds like fun if you release it on PC”, but for a long time they insisted that they wanted to make a cell phone game to prove that it was a good fit for gaming. And they only wanted to make it for iOS as well. People stayed away in droves.

      It wasn’t the game or the innovation that was lacking, it was the forced choice of platform that alienated the market. It would be like if someone formed an awesome band, but refused to release albums or tour because they believe that Twin Falls, Idaho deserves to be a major musical destination. Yeah, you’d love to see them play, but you’re not going to go to their hometown just to listen to their music.

  5. soldant says:

    “Retro” is now a feature – in some cases, the headline feature – for games these days. That said we got FTL out of Kickstarter, which I’d argue is at least novel if not a little bit innovative for taking a new twist on a roguelike. By and large though I agree with this article – a lot of Kickstarter projects are selling themselves purely because of nostalgia… and people only remember the good things, namely that people were willing to take more risk (though for a lot less reward).

    But the 90s also gave us cryptic interfaces, interface inconsistencies, an over reliance on manuals to explain things that shouldn’t be that difficult, and many, many compromises due to the limitation of technology at the time. While we’re not seeing massive innovation in the AAA sector, by the same token a lot of the 90s games were clones too and plenty were just as forgettable… we forget about them.

    Kickstarters seeking to get funded or games seeking to ship copies entirely based on nostalgia might last for a little bit, but it’ll wear thin soon enough. A lot of the indie sector even before Kickstarter relied on nostalgia and retro graphics as a feature to sell themselves. But then again the app market is yet to pop so maybe nothing will change.

  6. hyde says:

    the simple answer to your final question is, in a word, no.

  7. Rao Dao Zao says:

    Things like Project Eternity, though — there haven’t been many (big?) games of that ilk for a long time (Drakensang is a notably beautiful exception EDIT oh yeah and Dragon Age), so the genre never got the chance to innovate over the years the way, say, the FPS did. So we do need this… Not reboot, but retreading, yes, to get settled back into things, before the advances can begin to roll.

    So I think it’s necessary for there to be at least one round of old/nostalgia/whatever so there can be a stable platform for the future. If we keep seeing endless clones of the old days over the coming years, though…

    • WedgeJAntilles says:

      Yeah, right now we’re seeing them bring back dead genres, types of games that have gone away not because people don’t want to play them, but because they don’t fit into the big publishers’ game plan. At some point, this nostalgia-gold-rush will have to slow down, and when it does, these mid-tier studios that are responsible for the big Kickstarters will have to innovate to keep interest.

      Thing is, while I agree with pretty much the entire article, I think it’s also limited in its scope: it’s only focusing on the big, 7-figure Kickstarters. It’s a lot harder to generate that much excitement over something new and untried, but at the same time, we do see a lot of new, interesting stuff like FTL getting funded as well. And KS has released stats that show that people who back games like Double Fine Adventure and Wasteland 2 back *more* projects, and the buzz around these kinds of projects brings more people into the Kickstarter economy, who go on to back smaller, riskier, more innovative projects.

      Innovation involves risk, and the larger the project, the more there is to lose if the project fails. This is true regardless of whether or not you have a publisher breathing down your neck. I would like to see more innovation from the mid-tier developers, the kind like Obsidian and Double Fine that inhabit the space between “2 dudes and a laptop” and “Fortune 500 FPS factory.” Kickstarter might not be the best way to fund those kinds of projects; we’ve seen that people can get $3 million to develop a game based on nostalgia, now can they get $3 million to develop a new, untested idea? I hope the answer is yes, but that remains to be seen. And I’d like to see these studios exploring other methods of funding as well; the Minecraft model of paid alpha/beta to fund development has been quite successful, and I’m sure there are other funding methods that people haven’t thought of yet.

    • Hmm-Hmm. says:

      This was my immediate thought. I think people want more of makers of old classics because newer titles didn’t offer similar or better games for those people.

      And what these developers can do with the lessons they have learned in the meantime and without a publisher to mess things up, such games could very well be a lot better in the details even if they are not hugely innovative.

      And those games can then potentially be starting points anew for long-lost gameplay types/genres. As publishers sure weren’t willing to pay attention to them. Besides, all these famous names are known for a reason and I assume most don’t want to retread old ground without any polishing and rethinking of the games they’re known for.

      The problem might lie more with people who won’t brook innovation even from those gamedevelopers and insist time and again on rehashes. But still, even if people want those games, what’s the problem, really? Innovation for the sake of innovation does not a better game make. Or those people who say only making a certain type of game consists of innovation. Don’t be so hasty to condemn a hearkening back to the past as being devoid of merit and potential evolution of the genres involved in the long run.

  8. Premium User Badge

    Gassalasca says:

    You have to go back to go forward.

    Er… I think.

    • choconutjoe says:

      You have to go back to the crossroads where you made a wrong turn. Then you can start moving forward again, this time in the right direction.

      • El_MUERkO says:

        In the case of many of the genres being kick started they got killed by publishers before they had a chance to evolve. The rush to 3d killed anything that was content dense as console focused development then compounded the problem.

        • Brise Bonbons says:

          The rush to 3D, yes, and also the push to include voice acting and cut scenes (in the process prohibiting complex branching narratives and emergent elements).

          As another example, in the past several years we’ve seen a move in strategy from large scale management to smaller scale, fast paced semi-action theatrics – which I’d wager has been partially driven by pressure from mass-market publishers who have no interest in niche strategy games. I’m excited for a game like Planetary Annihilation not because it harks back to TA, but because it returns to a style of design where the RTS was interested in “boring stuff” like base building and real-time economic management. TA and SupCom modeled resources in a totally unique way, but with SupCom2 the decision was made to emulate Star Craft. If they can step back and continue refining the economic model of earlier games with Planetary Annihilation, that’s all the innovation I’d ask from them.

    • Prime says:

      I sense flippancy, Gassalasca, but actually I think you’ve made a damn good point.

      Over the last ten years we’ve all watched the games industry turn into the equivalent of a McDonald’s restaurant: homogenised product that may taste good but relies on trickery to do so and actually isn’t all that good for you: i.e, the rise of casual Zynga gaming, MMO grinding, F2, etc. Some nuggets of nutritious substance survive but these are few and far between and the crowd all seem to plump for Le Big Mac en masse. Point? I think it’s right that we go backwards to when gaming was a thriving creative endeavour before we can begin to innovate in the way John is suggesting. We can’t fix what is wrong, or innovate(!), unless we jettison what we’ve done wrong since the golden age of the late 90s.

      Kickstarter has predominently been about returning to that point in the past, yes. But it has been the most incredible 12 months of gaming ever, imo, getting to see all these fabulous projects start from much-loved developers also looking back to that era to remind themselves why they went into the industry in the first place.

      As a gamer I feel that I’ve lost so much. The modern industry barely caters to me any more, my needs, my likes and dislikes, obsessed as it is with appealing to Mr Lowest Common. I’m reduced to the fringes, waiting for community projects to stop faffing around, for vapourware to ever materialise, for serious devotees of the kind of gaming *I* like to plough through workloads that would make full teams balk. The threat of the loss of AAA single-player gaming has been hanging over my head for years now and I hate it, as much as publishers now seem to hate anything with A.I in it because it’s far cheaper to have humans pilot the avatars than develop robust code that can do the job, I reckon. (You also can’t squeeze a microtransaction out of a bot). It’s horribly cynical and far, far too obsessed with profit and return than it ever should have become, and it’s long past time that something like Kickstarter gives us back our democratic power of choice to see the games WE WANT made.

      In fact, this is better than we ever had before. We used to just trust that developers would make what we wanted because most of the time they were just like us, only cleverer and with programming capabilities. Nowadays they’re more likely to be accountants or some other foreign, business oriented species of human. Look at the joke Molyneux became. That, right there, is what went wrong with our hobby. What, you think so many classic devs are leaving the industry because it’s fulfilling them creatively?

      I’d also argue that Kickstarter can do innovation, and there’s much more chance of it than in the established industry currently. It maybe isn’t innovating very much right now but I think that’s ok for the moment (although you did play FTL, right?). People are just seeing if this new thing works before getting braver with it. And hey, we always have the Indies. Yes, they rinse/repeat old styles like furious photocopying machines but every now and again we get something genuinely, excitingly new. To boot Kickstarter in the jacksy for not being the same is symptomatic of simple Fear-based thinking. It certainly can be if we take the risk on creative projects. Rather than criticising, John, I reckon you could do a lot more good championing the stuff you want to see. Maybe then we’d jump on board with you.

      • Jim Rossignol says:

        “Rather than criticising, John, I reckon you could do a lot more good championing the stuff you want to see.”

        Not sure what this means. The entire point of John’s article is that there isn’t new innovative stuff for us to champion. When we see it – FTL for example – we champion the hell out of it.

        • Prime says:

          The entire point of John’s article is that there isn’t new innovative stuff for us to champion. When we see it – FTL for example – we champion the hell out of it.

          Forgive me if I’m misunderstanding this, Jim, but isn’t that a contradiction?

          My point was that John’s article is a negative piece reacting against his perceived lack of innovation among the Kickstarter fraternity. In the comments you’ll find that most people disagree, for a variety of sound reasons. Ergo, John’s article, while stirring up some excellent debate, seems to be, and forgive me again, a bit of a moan about not a lot, coming off as needless negativity. There’s plenty of innovation happening – see the list another commenter posted of all the fresh games coming out – but in smaller, subtler ways than I think he’s looking for.

          I also think he could have framed the argument in a more constructive way. Picking on the guy who made Anachronox – yes, Anachronox – as something to worry about in the realm of innovation? I have a lot of respect for John – I’ve even emailed him directly to say so – but in this case I can’t agree with him and believe he may actually be doing more harm than good on this occasion.

        • rustybroomhandle says:

          FTL, eh? That could very easily have been pitched as a spiritual successor to Alien. Seriously, look at it: link to

      • lcy says:

        The threat of the loss of AAA single-player gaming has been hanging over my head for years now and I hate it, as much as publishers now seem to hate anything with A.I in it because it’s far cheaper to have humans pilot the avatars than develop robust code that can do the job, I reckon. (You also can’t squeeze a microtransaction out of a bot).

        My feelings are the same. So many developers are trying to squeeze out some more money, to the extent that games clearly more suited to a be single player are being pushed into unsuitable forms – ‘KOTOR 3’ and ‘The Secret World’ being prime examples*. If Kickstarter can change that, I’m all for it, even if ‘retro’ is part of the package.

        Edit – * – Or the new Sim City. Keep your social network Zynga spam to yourselves EA.

    • Vurogj says:

      You also have to get up to get down, er, I think

    • Emeraude says:

      I’m reminded of the historiographical evolution of maps. When maps attain a certain level of scientificity, you see a number of informations that used to be on them – among which many that were perfectly valid, but were unverifiable – disappear… and only later, when the foundations are solid do you those informations reappear to be build upon again.

      Which is how I see the evolution of gaming for those past ten years really.

    • Joshua says:

      You do. It’s called “Rennessiance” I think.

  9. ArtyFishal says:

    This is the state of all media.The vast majority of it isn’t something new, it’s simply trying to recapture something old. It’s personally why I haven’t kick started anything yet, and see indy games as greatly over lauded. In my experience indy games offer as little innovation and novelty as commercial releases do.

    • derbefrier says:

      yeah i can agree with this, When we first started seeing things like Braid and other retro indie games it was nice since it hadn’t really been done in a while but the novelty soon wore off for me. Oh look another indie retro platformer? /yawn I myself have wondered how long this nostalgia for older style games will last. I think there is room for both in the industry but I think indie developers need to quit relying on it so much as they are a dime a dozen these days. I still enjoy the occasional side scrolling platformer but the excitement i felt during the initial surge of this trend is long gone and it truly has to be something special to even get my attention anymore. After saying all that I am excited to see some of the old school RPG kickstarters come to fruition but like any fad it will wear thin after a while and i wont look at it any differently than the next Call of Warface: Battlefield Duty game and those who jump on the bandwagon too late will be left eating the dust of those who came before them., wondering were it all went wrong. There is also the possibility I am completely wrong and this could lead to something even better then what I can see coming but we’ll just have to wait and see i guess.

  10. unangbangkay says:

    It’s not all retreading of what’s come before. RPS has covered enough Kickstarters, successful and not, that include fantastic new ideas.

    And that’s part of what we’re forgetting here. No one can go back to where they were, no matter how “old school” we try to make a game. Obsidian, who are ostensibly recreating a new Planescape Torment, can never forget whatever lessons they’ve learned making everything from KotOR 2 to Alpha Protocol, and will apply the experience they’ve gained to make whatever their next project will turn out to be.

    It’s not about nostalgia but about recapturing spirits, trends, and what-ifs along the decision tree that’s defined the publisher-centric environment.

    Look at all the indie platformers that made up the scene long before crowdfunding. Play some of the good ones, and there’s no way that you’ll say they’re purely running on nostalgia. VVVVV, Spelunky, and tons of other games that, be it aesthetically or at a core level, evoke some part of the past while incorporating new twists that can only come from having fresh ideas.

    • Frank says:

      Yeah, what this guy said. I think John’s just particularly cynical today. Retro and innovative features are not incompatible.

      Sheesh. I mean, if this criticism is valid, then go ahead and shoot down XCOM (the Firaxis one), King’s Bounty, Bit.trip/Pixeljunk, and the whole 2D indie scene while you’re at it. Many genres have died in the big-budget sphere only because the advance of graphics has made them look shoddy. Besides, whether Tim Schafer (or whoever) has an innovative idea at the pitch stage is not an issue for me (and other supporters): Tim can’t help but do something innovative along the way.

      • Saul says:

        This. Innovation doesn’t have to be gigantic leaps forward – it can be a few new twists on something old and loved. And even if all these games are selling themselves as “old school”, there will be innovation along the way as they’re developed (even if it’s only less-godawful interfaces than we got back in the day). And yes, this is only the first step. If these games are successful, there’s a million ways the devs can go next. And most of them aren’t First-Person Shooters. That’s something to smile about!

    • Groove says:

      That’s a perfect example. Things like Super Meat Boy and VVVVV are in many ways superior to, but also radically different from, old school platformers.

    • Skabooga says:

      Well put. From my view, a good example from Kickstarter would be Moon Intern: it has some design aesthetics and mechanics similar to games from the past, but on the whole it is not quite like anything I’ve played before (at least, that’s how it seems from how the description sounds).

      • Brise Bonbons says:

        I funded Moon Intern because it was so charming and the dev team is local to me. Also the fact they had a working prototype was something I wanted to reward. Further, despite the pixel technique, I feel like Moon Intern’s art is actually quite modern and unique.

        All that said, I never expected it to be a super innovative game, just a solid platformer with great art and a really creative world (moon ghosts. Moon. Ghosts.) – and maybe some novel narrative structuring, I’m not clear on that part.

        that said, I sure didn’t fund it because it reminded me of anything else I’ve played, or because I have nostalgia for pixel platformers. Back in the heyday of SNES platformers, I was playing flight sims and Infocom Battletech titles…

    • Mman says:

      You’ve pretty much summed up the issues I have with this article. Especially your last paragraph; some of the most interesting innovations of recent years have come from mixing “old-school” concepts with modern design ideas. Demons/Dark Souls on-line system is another particular example, as it’s nature is birthed from the old-school concepts the game is based around.

      I actually think this period of rebirths could be one of the most interesting upcoming sources of innovation in games, as they reflect on what worked in the past and combine that with what works/is known now, as opposed to before this trend where there was a mindless march “forward” that resulted in many interesting older ideas being flat-out forgotten or ignored.

    • Thirith says:

      Innovation is necessary – but IMO it’s just as necessary, and as enjoyable, to take what’s gone before and improve it, or to hone one’s skills trying to make the best possible old-school thing. James Joyce or Pyncheon didn’t make all realist fiction obsolete; just because Nolan did Inception doesn’t mean that there couldn’t be the most perfect old-school action flick since Die Hard out there.

      Making a fetish of innovation is silly. I’m glad I can listen both to modern music and to Mozart’s Requiem and have both of them blow my mind. I’m glad I can have a good plate of fish and chips as well as molecular fusion cuisine and enjoy both. And I’m glad I’ll be able to play both new, innovative takes on the RPG and Project Eternity. The one does not hold back the other or take anything away from it.

  11. Porpentine says:

    yup. this needed to be said.

    people are tripping on nostalgia and forgetting that the reason we liked those things in the first place is because they did something new.

    that Old School RPG page is ridiculous–the bullet points are beyond generic and the graphic for stretch goals is bigger than nearly anything else on the page. what else? pictures of people. not a game. concept art. not a game. nothing concrete in that entire page.

    games are made of mechanics, not blurbs and testimonials like some insecure self-published ebook.

    • njursten says:

      Really? Sure, maybe some were refreshing because of their innovation, but mostly I’ve liked games because they were fun. I don’t mind playing the same kind of games, as long as there’s some variation.

  12. Kimau says:

    I think almost every game you mentioned will innovate within the genre. Some of the most interesting evolutions of our mediums are not in the pitch document or the big idea but great features or experiments which often evolve during development.

    These are OFTEN killed by publishers or investors.

    Development led by developers for a specific audience not falling into marketing-led development is re-energising the industry more than any other element in the last decade, and is the true success tale behind the “indie movement”.

    • neolith says:

      “I think almost every game you mentioned will innovate within the genre.”

      My thoughts exactly.

      • Groove says:

        “I think almost every game you mentioned will innovate within the genre.”


    • Reapy says:

      You said exactly what I wanted to come in here and say. We are seeing a resurgence of missing generas, ones that didn’t fall into the KOTOR style RPG, RTS, FPS, or MMO on the PC. On the console we have SPORTS, BEAT EM UP, JRPG to throw into the mix and that’s about it.

      I don’t know that we can come up with any new generas the way people were able to in the 90’s, but we certainly can bring back ones that got dropped, ones with more complexity, ones that crossed more genera boundaries, and update them with a more modern understanding of game development.

      • Brise Bonbons says:

        I think there are still many genre combinations that haven’t been properly explored – over the last decade publishers have been obsessed with one idea of narrative: Voiced, film-like, tightly controlled.

        I want to see more games that blend strategy and RPG in different ways, given modern advances in AI and ALife. Games that take the lessons of Crusader Kings 2 and Dwarf Fortress and apply them to more personal stories, for example.

        Another jumping-off point is the sadly abandoned STALKER; I think we could see that formula merged with ideas from the strategy and management genres to very interesting effect.

        Hell, I think FTL is a pretty novel combination of genres, even if many of its components are familiar to us. If expanded on and explored fully, I think that sort of procedural space exploration + management formula could easily wind up as a new genre. What if my crew had stat-based personalities as in Dwarf Fortress? What if the galaxy was simulated with more detail? What if there was a STALKER-like Alife system?…

        Sure, maybe that isn’t a new genre in the way FPS were new. But I have trouble pointing to any other games that display this specific blend of traits.

    • InternetBatman says:

      I think this post says it best.

    • LintMan says:

      Yes, this. In gaming, brand new genres are created only very rarely. The rest of the time, innovation mainly comes in an evolutionary form, building upon, enhancing, blending and refining the existing “state of the art”.

      The problem is that the industry mainstream has basically blocked out certain genres because they don’t sell in the volumes the industry requires So those old genres and the innovation they would foster through blending, refining, enhancing, etc have instead stagnated at the 1998 technology level.

      • belgand says:

        I’m reminded of when System Shock came out and it was referred to just about everywhere as a FPS. Because it was. But anyone who has played it knows better. It innovated on the genre and the expectations in a very interesting way that showed how something new could be done. Yet, if you want to be snarky about it, you could easily claim that it was just blending Ultima Underworld with the existing FPS tropes and you wouldn’t be far off.

        The innovation that creates new genres is almost never recognized at the time. I was just watching a documentary on Black Sabbath last night that went over this exact same idea. When they came out they were just a heavy rock band. When it becomes a genre is when other people start following that same path and being influenced by the innovations until it deforms fully into something new and defined by those unique elements.

  13. Emeraude says:

    Maybe being awake for more than 60 hours plays trick on my memory, but I don’t remember the complaint about publisher’s clutch being so much about the innovation it prevented as the perfectly valid parts of the craft it abandoned.
    If anything, the problem is more the disappearance of the lower to middle-size studios and their productions, who in the west mostly couldn’t/didn’t transition to portable gaming as happened in Japan.

    And, to play devil’s advocate: a lot of those nostalgia induced projects are part of a process of *reviving* elements of the crafting of games that had been left on the wayside.

    I’m thinking for example of some of Mr Fargo’s comments on the disappearance of text – and as something I had been lamenting over, that loss of the literary quality of gaming, I’m glad to see that tool used again. Hopefully with more modern tools and sensibilities in mind.

    I would so desperately love to see some of the big names coming forward and pitching their project as a New School RPG, or an RTS like you’ve never seen one before[…].

    Was Planetary Annihilation too conservative a project ?

    • Prime says:

      …I don’t remember the complaint about publisher’s clutch being so much about the innovation it prevented as the perfectly valid parts of the craft it abandoned.

      Yes, yes, YES. This. ^^^

      The Games Industry has largely become about finding what works for the most amount of people at any instance, for mega-profit, natch, rather than catering to the needs of the highly diverse and individual collection of consumers we are. This should not have happened because we’ve lost so much of what made it fun in the first place. It is not ‘old school’ or ‘retro’ to revisit concepts that we’ve lost or had abandonded due to the money being pumped into Generic FP2 MMO IXX, it’s just common fucking sense and long past time. Smaller and more varied, more experimental, more – dare I say – innovative is the only thing that will save us from the blandness and many horrors of the current Industry.

    • Brise Bonbons says:

      You have all my agreements, sir. Especially regarding the comeback of text and the literary quality in games, which is such a powerful tool for engaging the imagination and evoking a world in a way that is simply impossible no matter how advanced graphics become.

      But try telling that to the mass-market game publishers, who all seem to conceive of games as Hollywood films with controllers attached.

  14. jalf says:

    Maybe we’re just seeing what publishers have always said: “We’d love to fund innovative projects, if there was the slightest chance that people could be convinced to *buy* them”.

    Now, the publisher has been taken out of the loop, and developers appeal directly to gamers, asking “will you pay for this?”

    And so far, it has shown that the publishers were right: we will pay for retreading the same old ground. We likely won’t pay for something new and unproven.

    Perhaps we’re just getting what we deserve?

    (Of course, less cynically, most of these games probably *will* innovate, or lead to innovation no matter what. But it’s an interesting observation that this isn’t in any way what they’re trying to sell it on. Their selling points are “nostalgia” and really nothing more. If any innovation comes out of it, it’ll be an unexpected bonus, and not what we paid for, not what they set out to do, and not what we asked for.

    • Tyrmot says:

      Yes this is what I was going to say – it’s just that people (‘big’ publishers included!) – are less likely to spend money on something risky than something safe! So what we end with (Hollywood being the great example of this at the moment) are sequels and remakes/reboots of things that were popular 10-20 years ago…

    • DJ Madeira says:

      Exactly right. We aren’t as different from publishers as we’d like to think; why would we? Doing risky things is, well, risky. It’s much smarter to do the safe thing. People didn’t want cell phones without a physical keyboard until Steve Jobs made a phone without one; people didn’t care about multi-touch (which has been around for a long time) until he put it in a phone and made it useful (sorry all my examples are Steve Jobs-related, I can’t think of any other examples right now).

      It’s always the creators that show the public what they don’t know they want, not the public getting what they want for themselves, that brings about innovation.

      • D3xter says:

        I still don’t want cell-phones without a physical keyboard (that’s why I’m using a Blackberry) and still don’t give a fuck about “multi-touch”.
        And I’m rather sure I know exactly what I want or I wouldn’t be going out of my way to buy products that I like and can properly use only because of a new “trend”, Apple can fuck right off with their “people don’t know what they want before we tell them” philosophy.

        On another note, I’m getting kind of annoyed by the concept of “nostalgia” used as a defense for every industry that has turned to shit (like the gaming industry till a few years ago around 2009 when the Indies started popping up and things started changing).

        I think I am capable of looking back and seeing what was good and what wasn’t and what has gotten better and what hasn’t. For instance there were many great movies before the 80s that relied on an actors talent above anything else and were thus pretty great and still are better than a lot of movies nowadays. Then came special effects in the 80s and 90s (this is the period I grew up in and should feel “nostalgic” about) and a large part of movies turned to shit if I look back on it. Most studios didn’t know how to utilize this new thing and made stuff like Universal Soldier or Rambo, trying to put the largest amount of explosions and car chases into movies they possibly could. There were still good movies in that period, but I regard movies changing to the better as studios and directors got used to “special effects” and started using them for the purpose of the story or placing the movie in a Sci-Fi/Fantasy world again instead of bigger explosions, so this has definitely changed for the better.

        The same with music, there were the great bands like The Beatles before my time, which are and will remain classics, but there was this period through the 90s where “boy bands” and “girl bands” were THE thing (again I should feel nostalgic about them), and with the rise of a lot of Indie artists (and digital distribution and the Internet) in the past 10 years or so this has imo changed for the better yet again, there are still the occasional “teen sensations”, but they don’t seem to be the focus as such anymore.

        With gaming it is exactly the other way around, there were absolutely stonking great games through the 90s (especially the late 90s and early 00s) when PC gaming was the target platform for most of them and they turned to shit largely after Microsoft entered the console market.
        Just now with Indies, Digital Distribution and KickStarter I’m getting hope of the resurgence of great games I’d love to play and not just “that’ll have to do…” ones.

  15. asshibbitty says:

    Oh my god, look at all these words.

    So developers want to make these games, and people want these games so much they are willing to pay in advance. Where is the issue here? Oh wait here’s the traditional Walker paragraph where you admit it’s not really an issue. Innovation is not an end goal, it’s what happens when talented people in a conductive environment get to work on something they are excited about.

  16. Lacessit says:

    I must confess that while I was reading yesterday’s update on Project Eternity I had a somewhat sinking feeling that I’d played that game before. You know, IWDII, BG2,, the list goes on. I was somehow expecting more off the hook elements (innovation if you will) instead of just ‘Fighter, Rogue, Wizard etc’

    So yeah, Thanks John, for making that point. I guess.

    • Hoaxfish says:

      I think the problem with classes is more to do with class-names and the systems.

      Some games take the standard “wizard, fighter, rogue, priest” and give you the generic “fireball wizard, sword&board knight, stealthy thief, and healer” interpretations.

      Some games go wild with names (e.g. shaman, druid, dark knight, flame princess) but the end result is a multitude of tools with a single purpose (e.g. 2~3 class which do almost exactly the same thing, and then repeat for each different thing). In the end it just balloons the class line-up without adding depth to the system.

      Using the basic 4 (or even just 3) as a basic name, and then expanding the possible options that each class can pursue is the solution I prefer. In an RPG, where you’re making “your character”, you get to flavour your character without fixating too much on your class name (is a rogue a thief, or is it a hollywood-style “dashing rogue”, maybe a fleet-footed scout, etc). I’m hoping to see some of that from Eternity.

    • InternetBatman says:

      Project eternity is one of the more backwards facing projects, and you see signs of change even there. Wizards can be technomancers, as can rogues, or plate armored defenders.
      Paladins have been rolled into clerics, because arguably they never should have been separate in the first place.
      Guns are small scaled weapons used to kill mages.
      Even the traditional class system is getting mixed up with Dwarven Rangers and Elven Berserkers.
      he game will probably deal with the ethical aspects of colonization as a major component.
      It’s a party focused game with premade characters that lets you opt out, and use your own characters.

      And this is in one of the most nostalgic, least creative games. Almost every game innovates in its genre, however slightly. Kickstarter is letting some of these neglected genres survive, and the activity itself will breed innovation.

    • D3xter says:

      Fair point in regards to Project Eternity, I too was rather hoping for something more along the lines of Planescape and trying an entirely fresh new setting.

      Basically they were able to create this “under the shackles of publishers” and licensing restrictions:
      link to
      link to

  17. Harlander says:

    To everyone who says “people won’t pay for new things”:

    All genres of computer games were new some time within the past 40 years. No-one was willing to take a punt on any of them. That’s why no-one makes computer games any more.

  18. mavis says:

    For example you mention The Banner Saga as a retro game – and it’s using a retro mechanic but it also looks like it might be doing something new and innovative.

    So I suspect wether this crop of games is pure retro gaming – or will give us a glipse of a path never taken in gaming depends on just how mined out these concepts were before the main stream publishers moved on.

    I’m quite hopeful there is plenty of meat on these bones……

    • Leiaz says:

      In the Banner Saga interview, I was very happy to read : “We’re again able to take the risk on an indie game of letting you fail.” That is a real different ending, compared to games where the monsters wait forever for you to save the world. It’s not really an innovation, but many games would be more interesting with it.

  19. Dowson says:

    Its simple isn’t it, RPG games started moving in a direction some people, mainly PC players, didn’t like.
    Some guys have now turned around and said we’ll go back to that point before they started moving.

    No one is stopping the next game in the series to innovate, but considering the whole CRPG market has been effectively dead for 10 years, its not a bad idea to just release something that doesn’t try to change it first, before then moving and adapting it.

    Build up the foundations before trying to add stuff.

  20. Shinan says:

    We did have that swordfighting game. And that one barely made its target.

    • Harlander says:

      It barely made its target, it didn’t barely make its target.

      link to

    • Bhazor says:

      It’s target of $500,000.

      Clearly no ones interested in innovation.

      • thestage says:

        Do you mean the sword fighting game being funded and marketed by the famous nerd author you undoubtedly read in high school?


        • Bhazor says:

          Yep! I mean the entirely innovative game made by a celebrity who is going against everything John Walker just said.

          Y’know, because he’s clearly marketed it towards those people who liked the ZX Spectrum motion controlled sword fighting games he’s famous for making.

          • thestage says:

            no, he’s targeting it toward people who liked his stuff as a kid, and who identify as people who liked his stuff as a kid. without what’s his face, this game isn’t funded. luckily, what’s his face’s copious amount of experience in the world of video games acts as a guarantee on the game’s promise wait what

          • kwyjibo says:

            Yes, if you don’t have nostalgia power. You need a celebrity.

          • Bhazor says:

            Which directly contradicts Walker’s whole argument that celebrities aren’t using their powers to innovate. That they’re making the same games they made in the 1980’s.

            No publisher would fund Clang. Kickstarter did.

          • thestage says:

            the point is the celebrity is the nostalgia

            but nostalgia itself is not the end game, it too is merely in service of identity and control.

          • Adventurous Putty says:

            Since when is Neil Stephenson the subject of high school nostalgia? He’s a post-cyberpunk sci fi avant-garde in a line of descent from Pynchon and J.G. Ballard — not exactly the Hunger Games. I’d be interested to know what high school you went to.

            (Incidentally, I read Snow Crash in middle school, though it’s questionable how much I understood of it on that first read besides the horrible sex scene and the long digression about Sumeria.)

    • cyrenic says:

      And the Oculus Rift.

      And Planetary Annihilation.

      Some of the stuff is new and innovative. Some of it will be nostalgia based. John makes a good point but he left out some good counter examples.

  21. thestage says:

    The reason kickstarter is all when-I-was-a-kid rehashes is because payment on this level–this model specifically, in which Famous People (or at least people with jobs you wanted to have) grovel at your feet in videos over the internet, while you stoically browse through them in your boxers from your unmade bed–is not about product, particularly because the product doesn’t exist, but about identity. You are paying for the opportunity to tell people (ie, yourself) who you are. What these games are is immaterial compared to the idea you have when you pay money, when you come to the conclusion that you are in charge and that this nominal power has manifested the things you used to beg for, save up all year for, dream about while is school, read about in magazines and hope. It’s a feedback loop. It’s narcissism. It’s the like button on facebook. This is What I Like, which in a consumer society translates into This Is Who I Am. You can still bow to these things, but now you do so on your own terms, you’re awesome, tweet your opinions to us and we’ll put them on the show, you decide the winner. The internet has convinced you you’ve grown up.

    So long as nothing changes. And as long as you pay for it.

    I’m not saying kickstarter is insidious (though hey, maybe), I’m explaining why it works. Kickstarter is a marketing strategy, and marketing is always more effective when it has nothing to do with what is being sold.

    • asshibbitty says:

      The bs on top aside, what’s this about effective marketing having nothing to do with what is being sold? You realize that’s only true if you admit what you’ve written in the bs part is false?

      • thestage says:

        Let’s run an experiment as a means of elucidating your inability to think:

        You have two kickstarter projects. Project A says “give us your money and we’ll make this game about sprites adventuring in generic fantasy land modeled after the one you used to try to kill inkeepers in.” Project B says “give us your money and you’ll feel comfortable about yourself.”

        Where is the difference?

        Project A is selling a video game. It is marketing the “bs” you are accusing me of. Project B, which will never exist anywhere except everywhere once you learn how to read, is both selling and marketing an image. I am discussing Project A, you are conflating it with Project B because you cannot tell the difference between words. Hilariously, your inability to understand what I am saying is rooted in your inability to understand that the product in Project A and the nostalgia are not in any way related to each other, save through the very marketing methods you are denying, which so thoroughly permeate our culture that they are invisible to you.

        • DJ Madeira says:

          You know, you can make all those same good points without being a condescending A-hole about it.

        • asshibbitty says:

          I hate myself for reading through that three times to parse it. OK, you are saying that “marketing is always more effective when it has nothing to do with what is being sold,” that’s what you’ve said and it’s what I take issue with. Now tell me, how is the part that helps people to position themselves before their peers or themselves in a certain light, that is created by marketing it the right way, how is it not a part of “what is being sold?” You have yourself identified the useful side or marketing and immediately dismissed it. What is being sold is what is being marketed

    • Bhazor says:


      So you’re saying I paid $50 to Eternity so that I can look myself in the mirror? Huh.

      • thestage says:

        No, I’m saying you’re already looking in the mirror. The world is just based on people finding ways to trick you into paying for it.

      • kwyjibo says:

        Don’t tell me that all those people funding $100+ for games are doing it for the pre-order. They’re doing it because it makes them feel like a fucking patron of the arts.

        • LintMan says:

          Or maybe they’re doing it because:
          a) They really love the idea of this game and/or the strech goals and really want to see them happen.
          b) Gratitude for the dev’s past work. Wastland 2 had a $10K donor who stated precisely this.
          c) They want the incentives that come with the donation (ie: t-shirt, boxed version, cloth map, etc)
          d) They want to get their name in the thank you section of the game credits (IMHO this is more about minor fame than being a “patron of the arts”).

    • thestage says:

      For the lulz, here’s a copy paste from someone above:

      As a gamer I feel that I’ve lost so much. The modern industry barely caters to me any more, my needs, my likes and dislikes, obsessed as it is with appealing to Mr Lowest Common. I’m reduced to the fringes, waiting for community projects to stop faffing around, for vapourware to ever materialise, for serious devotees of the kind of gaming *I* like to plough through workloads that would make full teams balk.

      Kickstarter gives us back our democratic power of choice

      Bolds obviously, helpfully mine. Daddy just gave this guy the car keys.

      Note also the salvo against “vapourware” coming from the person defending the practice of paying people money and receiving literally nothing in return.

      • Prime says:

        Kickstarter gives you nothing in return? You mean, apart from the screeds of incentives? Apart from the game when it’s finished? Apart from the game/film/whatever being made at all? My Creeper toy here (just one of my rewards for helping to fund the Minecraft film) would like to offer a succinct rebuttal.

        My comment about vapourware was directed at projects like Infinity: Quest for Earth or the many fan projects that don’t get off the ground because of real-life issues, or whatever. Kickstarter is an entirely different beast and it is incorrect to suggest otherwise.

        And yes, to echo comments above, it is possible to impart an opinion without coming across as a major tool. Please consider trying it.

        • asshibbitty says:

          TBH the fact that you got this toy doesn’t mean you’ll get the next one. KS is basically an inverted honor system, they take your money and then maybe deliver the product.

          • Prime says:

            That’s right. There are no guarantees. But this is where your discernment comes in, isn’t it? Your ability to select the projects with the best chances of completing their goals. Everyone’s seems a bit fearful of KS right now because they’ve thrown millions of dollars into it (collectively) but seen little in return at time of writing, but if you’re going to invest you have to do it smartly, choosing the best prospects against whichever criteria you prefer. If you’re approaching Kickstarter sensibly, not throwing your wallet at anything that sounds vaguely OMG!!!AMAZEBALLS!!!!!, to then sit and worry about putting money in and not getting anything back at all seems, well, a bit paranoid. Especially when KS policy is that even if a project fails, the creator(s) is then obliged to refund the money. If you can point to a visible example where a fully-funded game has failed and no money has come back, please share it (genuinely, I’ve looked and can’t find one). Until there are many such examples worrying about it is entirely without basis.

            Again, it’s early days. In time I’m sure many of the projects we’ve funded will prove themselves, and the ones that won’t will either not come back or will be studiously avoided in future. In the meantime, have a little faith, show some optimism and enjoy the ride. :)

          • Brise Bonbons says:

            Hell, I bought Guild Wars 2 after it was finished and I’m still not sure if they’re going to end up giving me something I want or if they’ll patch it into a grindfest that I refuse to play.

            You make an informed choice about how to spend money, and hope you get value for it in the long run. I don’t see how KS is different here.

    • InternetBatman says:

      That’s entirely wrong. Spending $15 for a digital download isn’t conspicuous consumption, it’s marginal if anything. Yes the kickstarters do provide a story, which is kind of neat, but that’s not the main draw; Project Andromeda provided a virtual story that tied into the kickstarter and it only barely made it, if people were living out their fantasies you think it would have been bigger.

      Kickstarter is as simple as pent up and untapped demand. Yes, famous names get press coverage which does help them reach their goals more quickly, but that wasn’t what propelled FTL or Castle Story. That wasn’t what got the Ouya (sadly) 7 million. It’s as simple as people want to buy things, and kickstarters help them to exist.

      • thestage says:

        But the question is one of why people want to buy things, and what, exactly, they are buying. For instance, someone who gave the Banner Saga twenty bucks in July–what did he get over me, who will buy the Banner Saga for that same twenty dollars when it is released, provided the reaction is positive? I’m not familiar with the game you mention, but the point isn’t that Kickstarter is some unstoppable Cash God, that everything will succeed and succeed spectacularly. The point is the trend, and the trend is toward groveling at the feet of potential backers using the forms and people of their childhood. Yes, the entire kickstarter idea is one of narcicissm, the same “individuality” and pseudo-power politics that is currently dominating marketing in general (see facebook and twitter attached to everything, see fixations on “choice” in the marketing of technology and in television trends, etc.)–and when something is so forcefully on the social consciousness you can be sure it’s not something that actually exists, but something that we are supposed to think does, by the way–but there is a difference between the success of kickstarter in general as a methodology, and the fates of individual kickstarter campaigns. In fact, that most of the focus is on kickstarter as an entity rather than as a tool is extremely telling.

        And the “marginal” consumption is the point. It’s impulse branding. All the effects of buying a rolex, none of the cost. People eventually discovered that if buying super expensive things is an exercise in identity, then what they are really buying doesn’t have a price tag. You can scale down sense of self to wherever you are, which is the nice thing about self. It’s always in your corner. Purchases like this used to be about social cache, but that has sort of evaporated as our social bubbles have been sucked further and further inward.

    • D3xter says:

      Or… you know, it could be because people truly and genuinely want to play good Adventure games and top-down RPGs (or any other genre of games) not getting made in the past 10.

      Also, I’m not trying to say that you are a tool, but…

    • pleasantwayne says:

      Hey, mister Cynic: screw you. You make wide generalizations about the motivations of people you may or may not know anything about. Guess what? Kickstarter is -not- simply about innovation, its about what people wish to see. If I hand my money out, without potentially getting anything back, do I hand my money to the random gentleman telling me he will innovate, making promises to be ‘cutting edge’ and ‘extreme?’ I might, perhaps, hand my money to the tried and tested individual promising me a quality product even though it might be familiar instead. Honestly, the answer is to hand my money to both, or neither, or one of them, depending on their plan, their potential product, etc. If people are throwing money at something without thinking….this isn’t knew, and you don’t get a gold star for figuring it out. Vanity has been a motivation in purchasing since time began. I’m sure some goddamn cave man insisted that he pay extra for that tiger skin loincloth, rather than the bear skin, simply because he wished to establish he was awesome. If another cave man threw his lot in with him to be cool, too, its probably because its the nature of the human beast. Basic statement: you make wide, negative generalizations about the motivations of individuals. These generalizations, if true, have been true since time began, and you don’t get to feel superior by bucking the trend, or figuring it out. Many people funding kickstarter are motivated by their desire to see a good game, or an innovative game, or both. The sad truth is, many new ideas are horrible. Old ideas are often successful because they were good then, and they are still good now, so don’t get bent out of shape when you see a person with a known track record being given money to develop a product that might be good: they’ve proven themselves capable before. Now, go buy something that doesn’t make you a consumer of popular culture. It still won’t make you any less of a tool.

  22. Discopanda says:

    I think that the best of these “nostalgic” Kickstarters, are taking some of the lessons learned in modern game development, plus their many years of experience, while also sticking to what made the old games great. It’s one thing to claim that these new games aren’t innovative, but if nobody else is offering games with old-school sensibilities, where else can we turn?

  23. McCool says:

    I understand where you are coming from, but this article is flawed. The dichotomy between 90s genres/innovation is ridiculous. If you look at these games, the Double Fine Adventures and the Project Eternities, these are examples of experienced developers going back and trying brand new things in genres they were previously forced to abandon. None of these high-profile games are trying to simply remake 90s games, they are taking new twists on the genre, something they can accomplish with their unparalleled experience in making these games.

    A great example of this is Planetary Annihilation. This game looks to recapture some of the innovative design of Total Annihilation, thereby rejecting the orthodoxy of current RTSs, and then is taking it in a direction no-one else has even attempted before: the key feature of that game is expressively the planet-smashing.

    What is really going on here, is a move away from a publisher forced, diluted, genre-blurred orthodoxy to great developers going back to what they do best, and pushing boundaries again. If all your live you have written great Adventure Games, you understand the genre better than anyone else, but your publisher is forcing you to make action games or nothing at all, an opportunity to go back and make the type of game you are _good_ at, is an invitation to innovate again. Instead of having to reinvent the wheel by aping the games you don’t even want to make, you can work on your strengths.

    Most importantly of all, this is a whole new way of leading game design, lead by the people who love games, not those trying to make money out of it. The more trusted an avenue for financing games it becomes, the brighter our future.

  24. Lobotomist says:

    Great article John !

    Its exactly why I decided not to support new kickstarter. I love Old School , but can you build your game solely on premise it will be old school ?

    The game should retain what was good in old school , improve it and than innovate!

    This is what i like about FTL. The game feels like it could be 1980 title. But in the same time its modern in every aspect. From interface to time consumption.

    That is perfect.

    Also a good example – failed but with good intentions. Was a “good doctors” Dragon Age. They didnt merely try to remake Baldurs gate , but tried to reinvent it into new 3D environment. They get A for effort. Although in my opinion they failed.

  25. Bhazor says:

    Oh a John Walker rant. That time already?

    On topic.
    No mention of the successful innovative games?
    Knock Knock?
    Tales of Fallen London?
    10,000 hours?
    Black Space?
    Giana Sisters?
    Starship Corporation?
    Lifeless Planet?
    Moon Intern?
    Dead State?
    Banner Saga?
    Fucking Planetary Annihilation?!?!

    Second of all, what exactly do you expect famous developers who only ever worked in one genre to do? Why for example would I want Chris Avellone to make a football sim?
    He is known for RPG’s. He is passionate about making RPGs. I like RPGs he has made. Ergo I want him to make RPGs.

    • Zeewolf says:

      He actually mentions Planetary Annihilation, but misses the whole point of that Kickstarter and its success.

    • Beemann says:

      Planetary Annihilation and Banner Saga were listed…
      as examples that support his statement

      I share your sentiment. I think that overall what kickstarter has done for expanding genres and bringing new ideas to the table is wonderful

      Had it not been for Kickstarter, Obsidian would probably be working entirely on derivative titles. Out of all of their games, the only one that I can think of off the top of my head that was of their own creation setting/story/what-have-you wise was Alpha Protocol

      I don’t see how creating an entirely new fantasy world and working on higher levels of player interaction is not innovative in a market where Skyrim is considered a step forward by many
      Does it really matter if, on a gameplay end, the game ends up being fairly predictable? Did publications not laud Spec Ops: The Line and Bioshock for their stories/atmosphere despite the fact that both were fairly generically manshooty?

      Planetary Annihilation promises unheard of scale and manipulation of planets and meteors. If that doesn’t shake up RTS gameplay I don’t know what does
      I’m not entirely sure what one would be expecting from a genre in which your job is to click on little men and tell them to fight each other… but I for one definitely wasn’t even considering the idea of crashing a planet into the enemy. Normally I just sort of swarm the biggest most explodey unit on their base and watch it all burn

      From what I’ve read so far of Banner Saga (on this very site, no less) it seems quite unlike any tactics-based game I’ve played/seen/imagined playing. Even things like the timer are features I’ve never run into, and the suggested complexity of the game intrigues me. I might actually end up delving deeper into a genre that I normally stay out of, due to both that and Shadowrun Returns (which I funded because the world needs a proper Shadowrun game of some variety that isn’t from the 90s)

      The talk of old projects and their experience in the field is a selling point. It tells the potential kickstarters that the person making the game is competent, and not just someone inexperienced trying to cash in on a market they know nothing about. Think about how many reboots and sequels to old games get written off by people simply because they’re convinced it wont be true to the original
      Now imagine if those people were responsible for funding

      I feel as though this article jumps too quickly to a conclusion, that not enough time has passed to make any judgements about the process
      We’ve yet to even see any of the games themselves. How do we know they don’t revolutionize the genre? Perhaps the most prominent and obvious portions of the game remain the same, but the handling and the merging of gameplay elements produces something new and entirely unheard of

      I mean… when you boil it down to the basics, wouldn’t your descriptions of both Half Life and Doom be oddly similar? It’s the details and the experience itself that matter, and we don’t have sufficient knowledge of either of those

      …This was a lot shorter in my head

      • Bhazor says:

        Yeah, Walker seems to deny you can innovate within a genre.

        Which is like saying that System Shock is a Doom clone because it’s first person with guns that firebullets.

      • Hoaxfish says:

        I’ve seen the “timed turns” in the various multiplayer SRPG games from Ankama… but that’s literally the only place.

        So, on the face of it I would certainly put the Banner Saga down as innovative enough to have earned my money. The art-style choice is certainly another aspect, given that it steers clear of “kawaii uguu” and “grim realism” and even the processed 3D cell-shading of stuff like Borderlands.

    • Lambchops says:

      Yeah, I was going to present a much smaller list (I don’t back all that many projects) which was going to contain FTL and Knock Knock at the top of it.

      I get John’s point in that nostalgia based pitches get more press and tend to overwhelm pitches which are doing something different but it’s not like there are no successes which are doing something different.

      • Bhazor says:

        Wow, totally didn’t realise FTL was a kickstarter. A kickstarter which beat its target 20 fold.
        Added it.

        • Hoaxfish says:

          FTL is a funny one… most of the development was done pre-Kickstarter. The Kickstarter part was mostly just a finisher, rather than initial capital to get the game off the ground..

          So as to Kickstarter actually foster innovation, FTL is probably not such a good example. The game is nice, and certainly has innovation, but I wouldn’t say it is derived from what kcikstarter brought to the table for them specifically.

    • nutterguy says:

      If anything it could be said that most “old” franchises are using nostalgia to innovate. They will not be making the same game that they made 5-10 years ago.

      I don’t think any developer could even make the same game as they made 10 years ago even if they tried due to what they had learned in the intervening years. They again I am willing to be surprised and John Walker to be proved correct…
      It still probably wouldn’t be a bad thing.

    • acousticsphere says:

      I wish Blackspace could actually be on the list of successfully funded INNOVATIVE games. But they too seem to be suffering from the effects that Kickstarter is nostalgia driven and fame based. I wonder if IndieGogo is any better.

    • Buemba says:

      Not to mention Octodad 2, Against the Wall, UFHO2, Pixel Sand, Republique, Zombie Playground, Capsule and Thirty Flights of Loving (Granted the last 2 were bundled with the Venus Patrol and Idle Thumbs kickstarters).

      The most high profile Kickstarter successes are definitely couched on nostalgia and backed by famous game designers, but there’s plenty of interesting and different stuff to be found there.

  26. Zeewolf says:

    Problem is that many genres have headed in the wrong direction, so taking a step back seems to me to be the first step to innovation. The RPG-genre is a good example, because today’s RPGs are so much less ambitious than the old ones. But it’s not just RPGs. Jim touched on it in his Carrier Command review. Most would look at that game as innovative, unless they knew it was based on a 20+ year old concept. What’s happened in the last 20 years? I think we went the wrong way.

  27. AngoraFish says:

    Modern games, as a generalisation, have focused on innovation in graphics and video at the expense of virtually everything else. “Innovation” in gaming largely hasn’t gone anywhere over the last 10 years in terms of such things as complex, mature story lines and character development. While most of these ‘old school’ games aren’t necessarily promising radical, ground breaking developments, they are certainly promising more nuance and complexity. So, perhaps it is true to say that these are more about evolution rather than revolution, but evolution by building on what’s worked in the past is so much more likely to result in a work of art than starting again from scratch with stick figures. You may as well say that Dwarf Fortress is “old school”, however this is clearly a fundamental misunderstanding about what’s going on when the game can barely run on modern CPUs with 8GB of RAM.

    • groovychainsaw says:

      Yup, this – The old-school look and feel should give the (expert) designers the opportunity to put in the systems they always wanted to, and have more freedom wit hplot, characters and mechanics, even within a familiar environment. The 2D engines used by most of these simply lets them get to the interesting bit of designing games faster. I, for one, expect lots of unique moments and experiences from the games I’ve funded, rather than rehashes of times past.

      Plot,character and mechanics are the three things most lacking in AAA games in the last 10 years, on the whole, so it’ll be interesting to see what this freedom creates, if nothing else.

    • affront says:

      Mostly this.
      Additionally “innovation”, these days and in an “AAA” context, heavily implies dumbing down, a “cinematic experience” and a whole slew of other useless buzzwords, so using it might not actually be in the best interest of anyone trying to appeal to the “jaded, consequences-of-multiplatform-requirements-hater” demographic.

      Selling “innovation” is also much harder when you don’t have a demo, as no one has the slightest idea how it will actually play. Thus it’s probably the domain of minimal, more or less proof-of-concept hobbyist-made games that later get picked up to be commercially viable, after their mechanics have proven themselves. I’d have no problem with that.
      Dwarf Fortress and roguelikes in general are probably the best example for this, seeing how they’ve spawned a bunch of commercial titles in recent history.

  28. Cinnamon says:

    At this point reactionary game design seems to be dangerous, subversive and intellectual.

    Maybe this is unusual or a cyclical trend. But the people to blame for it are not only people who are only nostaligic and have calcified tastes. What Nintendo might call “lapsed gamers” in cynical marketing terms. They are the most up to date and plugged in gamers who are sick to the back teeth with what the game industry and even blogs sell to them as the future with that dull and weary battle cry of, “this is how things have to be to grow the games industry into the future.”

  29. kwyjibo says:

    Of course Kickstarter is about the old school, it’s about raising a fuckload of money. And people are less likely to give you that fuckload of money if they’re unsure of what you’re trying to do.

    Pre-ordering a Chris Avellone RPG? Your money is safe.

    Putting it into new ideas? Whoa there, calm down.

  30. thesisko says:

    Wasteland 2 and Project:Eternity are pitched as party-based RPG’s, and if you’ve read the interviews with Sawyer and Cain they’re bringing a lot of fresh ideas to the table. Obsidian doesn’t even use the word “old-school” in their pitch.

    I’m not sure what you’re asking for here, do you want them to NOT include things like “deep companions”, “lots of reactivity” and “tactical combat” because it’s been done before? Certainly the combination has never been done well in a single title so far.

    I’m fine with funding a project that says “We’re going to build on all our experiences from [these games you loved] and create something even better “.

    I certainly don’t see how it would be a bigger obstacle to innovation than “We’re going to strip out most of the things you liked in [these games you loved] and replace it with FPS action and cinematics because we think it will sell more”.

  31. Alexandros says:

    I think this is the first article on RPS that I find myself disagreeing with so strongly.

    1) First things first, the reality of modern gaming shows that innovation is firmly on the last place of publishers’ ‘to do’ list. I don’t understand how a modern action game with a sprinkling of RPG could be considered innovative while a turn-based RPG could be perceived as ‘nostalgic’. What are the criteria for this distinction? Is it just the date that the game was made? Because if so I can name tens of games from the 90s that still are far more innovative than most of today’s triple-A releases.

    2) The evolution of today’s gaming market is much more a result of economic realities and market conditions than it is about natural evolution towards the improvement of the medium. I don’t accept at all that Skyrim, just to name a recent example, is an evolution of Morrowind in terms of gameplay. In that context, a game with an older style of gameplay can still be considered more evolved and even innovative compared to a recent example of a genre.

    3) I really don’t understand why ‘innovation’ and ‘old-school’ are considered polar opposites. Planetary Annihilation is the spiritual successor of an older game, that that automatically mean that it doesn’t innovate? I think anyone who’s seen the video will strongly disagree.

    To sum it up, the Kickstarter trend of ‘old-school’ games is not about nostalgia but about resurrecting beloved genres that market realities pushed to the side. Not because they were not fun anymore, or because there was no room for innovation, but because the gaming industry bowed to the almighty God of the ‘average consumer’, throwing niche genres overboard.

  32. Xocrates says:

    An interesting article, but I think it might miss a few points:

    Personally, I find little difference between “innovative” and “not been made in a long time”. Almost all innovation is derivative, so I see little difference between someone wanting to make a game in an established genre with some new innovative feature and someone making a game the likes of which I haven’t seen in a decade or more. Heck, I personally perceived Starcraft 2 as more original than many recent RTS for the simple reason that there are so few like it anymore.

    Also, it’s much easier to sell an old idea than a new one. There are plenty of innovative ideas that got launched through kickstarter, they just didn’t get quite as much money. And the reason is simple: a new idea needs to convince we will like it, an old idea we know we’ll like it.

    Finally, a big issue here is star power. Of those proposing new and innovative projects, few have had the curriculum (or the exposure) to convince us they could pull it off. So the “big” projects are the ones established veterans want to make – and we obviously want them to make the type they were good at.

  33. aeolist says:

    Well first off they’re not going to be able to make any kind of huge production on potential budgets of a few million, so right off the bat you’re looking at smaller-scale games with 2D or simpler 3D graphics, which by itself limits your genres.

    Secondly I don’t think nostalgia precludes innovation in this space. Double Fine wants to make an adventure game? Great, they haven’t been able to do that in a while. It doesn’t mean they’re going to roll back to the standards of the old Lucasarts stuff with pixel hunts and nonintuitive puzzle solutions. In fact those are things that Schafer has specifically said they want to address and work around.

    “Old-school adventure/RPG/strategy game” is just a loose framework and set of ideals for a game, there’s plenty of room to innovate within that.

  34. Daniel Klein says:

    Use golf club on two-headed squirrel.

  35. sonofsanta says:

    People don’t want to risk backing something that seems difficult to achieve by a group of unknowns i.e. the crowd is just as risk averse as the publishers are.

    Big name developers, who have been doing this for 30 years, are, dare I say it, rather more stuck in their ways. It’s like asking Status Quo to be to 2012 what the Sex Pistols were to 1977. You need young people fed up with the state of the industry to get angry and try and change the world with the things they make.

    And for that, we have indie games being community darlings anyway, or people making free games in GameMaker, or people like Anna Anthropy shouting from the rooftops that we need a revolution. So maybe it’s fine that Kickstarter is a nostalgia-fest, because we didn’t have that already; if you want innovation, we do have that already.

    I see your point, though, the disconnect between what people say in project videos and what people do in projects.

  36. Gap Gen says:

    Also, how does Homestuck make $2.4M on Kickstarter? I thought the idea of MS Paint Adventures was to parody bad, overly-complex adventure games, not actually recreate them (which, incidentally, is what I think has happened to the Homestuck comic already, much as I loved Problem Sleuth).

  37. Jason Moyer says:

    I have a really hard time imagining Obsidian releasing a game without something in it that I’ve never seen in an RPG before. They’ve managed to do it by largely making sequels that were confined by specific gameplay mechanics too. Starting with “we want to make a spiritual successor to the Infinity Engine games” gives them mechanical limits to start with, but doesn’t preclude innovation in any meaningful sense imho. In fact, their tendency to mess with the fine details of their past games is a big reason why I immediately supported their KS project. I view Project Eternity as “building on the IE legacy” rather than an attempt at literally mimicing Planescape or Icewind Dale note for note.

    It probably goes without saying that Double Fine take the genres they work with in exciting and often bizarre directions as well. I don’t see Tim Schafer as a resting-on-his-laurels kind of guy.

  38. SurprisedMan says:

    I think there’s a happy medium to be found, as many people have pointed out. FTL did very well, and has old-school graphical and interfacey aspects, but largely original gameplay. Planetary Annihilation definitely trades on nostalgia for Total Annihilation, but the biggest point they hit home is about the interplanetary battles, which definitely tread more innovative ground. Double Fine Adventure that started the surge is an adventure game, but they’ve been very adamant that they don’t want to simply make a museum piece, and indeed they appear to be trying new things with the visual style and so on.

    Obviously popular, unserved niches do the best on Kickstarter. You don’t have to explain to people why they should want the thing – they already do. But I think that still leaves room for innovation. On the other hand, I think the term ‘Old School’ is a problem.

    It’s a problem because it means a dozen things to a dozen people. I saw this when joining in the early chatter about Double Fine Adventure. Some people expected him to mean old school graphics, some expected old school puzzle difficulty, some expected it to be an old fashioned SCUMM style interface, and some expected all of the above, and when it turned out that what Double Fine meant by old school was that it was going to be point and click with dialogue and inventory based puzzles, but modern in terms of its technological and design approach, some people got angry! At this stage I think we should consider ‘Old School’ a bit of a lazy term, unless you do the work to qualify exactly what you mean by it.

  39. Oozo says:

    I might be in the minority in that, so far, I have almost exclusively given my money to the names and talent involved, and not the games they had pitched. I still very much hope that e.g. Obsidian will not do a rehash of BG2, but the next (minor? major?) step in that abandoned tradition.

    See, those guys were innovative more than once before. So I still think it’s possible that they play it safe while safety is still very much a priority, but loosen up a bit later on in the process. I do hope so – but Kickstarter is all about hope anyway.

    As to your question, John: If somebody with no proven record whatsoever promised to reinvent the wheel, the pitch would have to be god damn convincing. (I did fund Clang though, precisely for its pitch.)
    If Avellone came out with a pitch “something ambitious and tonally totally new”, though, I’d give him my money, more readily than I did in the case of Project Eternity even.

  40. Lemming says:

    You’re right it isn’t innovative, but neither is where we are today if we’ve lost the things we enjoyed in the past. Innovation shouldn’t mean scrapping everything that came before it, and it’s not the duty of every game developer to innovate.

    The only way it leads to stagnation is when that’s all we get, and that has never, ever, happened and never will given at rate at which games are released.

    What these KS projects show, is that ‘innovation’ (if we are going to remain positive about it instead of calling it what it really is), has sacrificed smaller markets to chase the bigger ones.

  41. frightlever says:

    Oh dear. Not everything has to be innovative, and the tiny fraction of games getting made which are being funded through Kickstarter have no obligation to take on the hopes and dreams of an industry. Kickstarter will not prevent innovation. Nor do big publishers prevent innovation by failing to encourage it. Consider evolution. Nature will find a way. So do games.

  42. Yachmenev says:

    I can see some points with this article, but in some sense it swings and miss. The ones who started the trend – Double Fine, and the current leader of the pack – Obsidian are both companies that are innovating with their normal titles (Psychonauts, Stacking and The Cave for DF, New Vegas, Alpha Protocol for Obsidian), but needed to break free of the chains to be able to go old school, so in those cases I fail to see how that can be wrong in any sense.

    And we need to acknowledge that by going back and bring back what has been lost, we will be able to innovate in other new directions because of that.

    That said, The Old School RPG project might be taking it a bit too far.

  43. Premium User Badge

    Hodge says:

    Great article.

    Sadly, it’s mainly risk-averse stuff like sequels and rehashes that attract large amounts of funding, whether that funding is crowdsourced or from a traditional publisher. In that sense, the Kickstarter model isn’t really any less stifling than the traditional one, in that you’ll have to still steer towards safe territory if you want a shot at that massive development budget.

    Not to mention that some amazing left-field stuff like Dishonored still gets funded through traditional channels (admittedly, probably only due to the big names attached to it in that case. But still.).

    For that reason, I think most of the interesting stuff still comes from small teams working with tiny budgets – that money/risk thing isn’t there to begin with (or at least, it’s a different kind of risk) so they can make what they like.

    So for me, this whole Kickstarter trend isn’t about freeing developers from the creative shackles of the Money Men, it’s more about Money Men being asleep at their post and missing their chance to share in the profity goodness.

    • Emeraude says:

      Not to mention that some amazing left-field stuff like Dishonored still gets funded through traditional channels (admittedly, probably only due to the big names attached to it in that case. But still.).

      Interesting that you would use that example of innovation, because the pitch for that game happens to a BIG appeal to nostalgia (“Modern incarnation of Deus Ex/Thief”) and in the trust in the pedigree of a developer.

      That is, exactly what is being reproached to the pitches of Kickstarter projects.

      • kwyjibo says:

        Had it been a kickstarter project, it would have been set in Middle Earth.

        • Emeraude says:

          Don’t be silly, they couldn’t possibly afford the licensing for that with a Kickstarter.

  44. karthink says:

    We are seeing innovation, just in small measures and by lesser known developers.

    Just off the top of my head, FTL adds a new spin to the rogue-like formula, Planetary Annihilation and Blackspace take RTS games in new directions and The Banner Saga is a mishmash of old and new genres and themes.

    But all these projects have had significantly lower funding than the nostalgia trippin’ remakes and spiritual sequels. It’s not just publishers who are afraid of innovation, it appears. We don’t value it as much as we’d like to think either.

    • WedgeJAntilles says:

      I don’t think it’s so much that we value it less, as that it’s hard to tell if a new, innovative idea will be really compelling until *after* you play it. Whereas if someone’s Kickstarting an old-school RPG, and you like old-school RPGs, then it’s easier to get excited about that project because you’re pretty sure you know what you’re getting and whether you’ll like it. In the end, the innovative idea might be *really cool* but it’s hard to know that ahead of time.

  45. J_C says:

    I think you don’t get it John. These kickstarters are not about innovation. It’s about reviving games in a genre which had been killed by publishers. Publishers don’t just stop innovation, they kill whole genres. Much believed genres. They makes them even more evil. :)

  46. Jayson82 says:

    I like card games, real ones now using a pack of 52 cards.
    Game like poker and black jack and rummy, not for gamboling or anything just the games themselves.
    Am I disappointed that each time I play there are no innovations? Does poker or black jack need explosions or improved card graphics to make them good games to play? No, the games are good to play because there fun.

    If they stopped making 52 pack of cards because there old and people think no one plays old games like poker anymore and someone comes along and kickstarts packs of 52 playing cards would you complain and say where the innovation, that its all just nostalgia?

    I know cards are different than video games that one is played by people who do not play video games but the basic reasoning is the same, Sometimes I play old snes and megadrive games, there fun to play is this nostalgia? No as most of the games are some that I didn’t have when I was young so there is nothing to really base nostalgia on, there just very fun games to play they all have there own style and gameplay that modern games can not replicate as modern games are not limited the same way old games where so there type of game play based around the limitations of the systems of the time are not present on modern systems as such modern games play differently than old games.

    There will always be modern games as long as there is money to be made and people willing to make them but until recently there has not been old types of game been made and for one I’m glad there back.

  47. brog says:

    Games with those kinds of budgets have never been about innovation, doesn’t matter if the money’s come from publishers or people.
    Innovation’s still happening; perversely it mostly comes from those of us who can’t afford the risk as much.

  48. onsamyj says:

    How indie devs can innovate and do old school stuff almost for free, but Big Names™ need millions of dollars? Anyone of them can take couple weeks off and make at least alfafundable version of game.

  49. malkav11 says:

    I would much rather have more of something I know for a fact I like than something that I stand a good chance of not liking. Innovation is great when it works out, and I don’t want to discourage it, but there’s a good reason that publishers tend not to fund that stuff. My problem with them isn’t that. It’s that they don’t fund iterations on the types of game I have historically most enjoyed.

    • Bhazor says:

      My main criticism with Kickstarter is that no one is making a Panzer Dragoon/Starfox/Crimson Skies style arcade dog fighter/aerial corridor shooter. That’s my favourite genre no one makes anymore. The distinct absence of John Howard (Crimson Skies and more recently Prototype) on Kickstarter is like a howling void to me.

    • Gap Gen says:

      Yes, I think this is a big thing – Kickstarter makes you buy into a game that doesn’t even exist yet, and so there’s a risk in putting money into a game that you won’t like in the end. Having N thousand people make the same risk is possibly more difficult than having one publisher take that risk. And like you say, it’s less risky for you if a big name from the past says that they’ll make something you liked 20 years ago again, rather than someone saying they want to take your money and experiment.

      • malkav11 says:

        I will say that although Kickstarter – with the projects often asking backers to take a leap of faith on things that may not even have been started yet – certainly worsens the risk, I would maintain the above more generally as well. I am more than okay with small refinements and scenery changes on a formula that I enjoy to begin with. I’m willing to check out new things, but I’m hardly going to decry people for not making them. I mean, the most standout brand new innovations in gaming in recent years, from what I can recall? Minecraft, The Sims, and the Wii, none of which I particularly enjoy. (I know I’m in the minority on all three, but still, it’s not much of a track record as far as I’m concerned.)

  50. Danny says:

    Personally I don’t really care for innovation. I’m perfectly happy to play a sequel with the same mechanics as long as it fits my ‘needs’. Just create a new story and interesting combat scenarios and I’d play a game like Baldur’s Gate a thousand times.

    • The Random One says:

      “Personally I don’t really care for innovation. I’m perfectly happy to play a sequel with the same mechanics as long as it fits my ‘needs’. Just create a new story and interesting combat scenarios and I’d play a game like Call of Duty: Modern Combat a thousand times.”