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?

238 Comments

  1. daz_uk says:

    I think sometimes innovation is overrated. It can easily fall into the category of forced innovation, changing the way something works just to be different. Or in the realm of Peter Molypoo where you just talk absolute bollocks and then make a cube, so people can hack at it, for a bit and win something….life changing.
    If that’s innovation, keep it.

    I do aim to innovate in game mecahnics where possible, but sometimes one mechanic could be the downfall of a game if you break conventions so it’s a risk and a potential time-sink too, and to anyone who’s not getting fed by their parents and living rent-free – time is money!

  2. bigjig says:

    Eh, I can see what you’re saying but I’d have to disagree.

    The inherent ‘innovation’ that Kickstarter brings is the ability for fans to get much more involved in the games they’re buying. I love getting updates on how a project I’ve backed is coming along. I love watching the documentaries showing how Double Fine goes about their work. I don’t necessarily need (or want) to influence the direction their game design takes, but it’s great to feel a lot more involved in a project. That’s the real innovation for me. It isn’t simply ‘just another way of preordering a game’.

    You point out several famous examples, but you have to remember that the Double Fines and the Obsidians are really only a tiny minority of all the game projects that get funding. Sure they get a lot of attention, but if you’d look outside this tiny little sphere you’d see a lot of indie designers who may not yet have the pedigree of these famous developers trying innovative new things in game design.

    Even if the big name designers rely on the nostalgia factor to sell their concept I think it’s a little unfair to come straight out and say they’re not innovating enough. How do you know? You haven’t played any of the finished games yet, and Kickstarted games that have been finished (eg FTL) seem plenty innovative. Even if they are designing their game with an ‘old-school mindset’, maybe they will merge and implement more modern systems or fresh, innovative gameplay mechanics in. Who knows? How about we actually play the finished games before letting out a collective sigh of frustration at the apparent ‘lack of innovation’?

  3. Ooops says:

    This is quite possibly the most interesting opinion article I’ve read on gaming… ever! And not because your point is in line with what I thought, but because you’ve made me realize something I couldn’t see before. This is one of the reasons I love RPS!

    • Groove says:

      Yeah, I disagree with most of the this article’s points, but it still makes for a very interesting discussion.

  4. wisnoskij says:

    Oh, I disagree.

    There are lots of innovative games on KS, they just do not get quite as much attention. And you do not need as much attention, you should not innovate with million dollar budgets, because even the main developer cannot say for certain that their idea will even work. You innovate with a shoe string budget and then build on that with bigger budgets and more polished experiences.

    And nostalgia does not have to be without innovation. We have lost much that we had, and going back in gaming history, while bringing some modern features as well, is not without its own innovation. An adventure game made by a grade A mainstream company like DF is innovative and unique in this day an age (and I am not expecting a carbon copy of Monkey Island).

    • Gap Gen says:

      Well, the article admits that it’s possible that people tend to invest in nostalgic projects rather than innovative ones, not that they don’t exist. But who knows, perhaps the second iteration of Kickstarter projects will give enough people confidence in the model to push the envelope more.

  5. Runs With Foxes says:

    If the modern game industry is Walker’s idea of innovation, he’s welcome to it.

    Applying a narrative of progress to the history of the game industry, as Walker tries to do, is to blindly ignore the reality. Part of this ‘nostalgia’ for old RPGs is about wanting games that gives players agency and in which choices matter, rather than games comprised of an array of cutscenes and in which the most complex choice is which elf to fuck.

    That Walker can criticise all these games for lacking innovation, while praising the likes of To The Moon, which deliberately eschews anything that might risk it actually being a game, is one of the worst cases of ignorant hypocrisy I’ve seen from him yet.

  6. botonjim says:

    The thing with Kickstarter is, I don’t have to worry anymore about focus group testing and corporate decision making culling away every last ounce of innovation, interesting mechanics and challenge from the games I consider promising.

  7. FakeHero says:

    For all my years of reading RPS, this must be the worst article/post ever. To sum it all up, you John Walker, moan and whine over how we´re getting so many “to-be-great-games”. If you want to be a hipster, go and buy the Kinect for the the Xbox360. Innovation is right there man. Meanwhile we who actually just want great games can have great games.

  8. DK says:

    Games have regressed so much under the reign of the publisher Kickstarter lets us go back to the more complex times. First we gotta elevate to the level it was back then – and once we’re back at that mountaintop we can start to innovate higher.

    But 21st Century gaming has dug a deep hole and it’s easier to aim for the old peak first.

  9. MondSemmel says:

    This happens rarely on RPS, but I completely disagree with this post.
    Why do you think remaking old games today cannot be innovation?
    Perhaps I’m in the minority, but when I hear “Tim Schafer adventure”, I’m not expecting Day of the Tentacle II. I’m expecting a game with similar humor and style, but not a clone. And I’m most certainly expecting advances in technology (better resolution etc.) and, more importantly, interface (the main stumbling block to appreciating old games today if you didn’t grow up with them). Also, I’m expecting these credentialed designers to bring their often ~20 more years of experience with them – to improve on what they started.
    I’m expecting innovation. Perhaps it won’t happen; we certainly cannot be sure – almost no kickstarted games have been released yet -, but how can you say Kickstarter is stifling innovation without seeing the results first? Your warning of a lack of innovation is either too certain of itself, or two years early.
    I just don’t see why nostalgia cannot be combined with innovation. Actually, I don’t think nostalgia without innovation will work at all: Our expectations of games have fundamentally changed in many ways: Games may be as difficult as they wish, but they _must_ be fair; bad interfaces are big no-nos (imagine Dwarf Fortress with a functional interface!) etc. You cannot make a successful game today without having learned anything from the last 20 years of game development.

    Also, I never get tired of stating this, but the Kickstarter that started it all – the Double Fine kickstarter – included a documentary of the game development process. I don’t know about you, but I found that pretty innovative. (Also, another big game Kickstarter wholly about innovation that comes to my mind is Clang.)

  10. Caiman says:

    Can someone please explain to me what the different between the “Oldschool RPG” approach is to the “Double Fine Adventure” pitch? Both took arguably old school design talent and proposed making an old school game, the kind that doesn’t get funding to be made anymore. Why is everyone questioning this approach for OS RPG and not for DFA? Double Fine didn’t elaborate much on what kind of game it was going to be either, just an old school point and click. The entire point was to lay the entire process bare, including figuring out what the game was going to be about. This excited people. Now, several months later, everyone is whinging that OS RPG is doing essentially the same thing. This is what Kickstarter is all about – here’s an idea, fund us to do it. Only recently has it turned into “here’s our 90% finished game, give us more money so we can add better graphics and more levels”. Either approach is valid, if you ask me. I think part of the problem here is that OS RPG really hasn’t put together a particularly compelling pitch. They tried to humorous DFA route which… well, isn’t as good as the DFA approach. But what they’re offering, however, is compelling. At least to some of us.

    As for the article, it’s an interesting perspective but one that I don’t agree with. Clearly there is a demand for this approach, this revisiting the past, otherwise so much money would not be thrown around. There’s plenty to like about modern games, including the innovation that’s present, but certain types of games aren’t being produced anymore and, goddamn it, we loved those games. What’s wrong with seeing more of them being made once again to add to the choice that is gaming?

    • The Random One says:

      Because Double Fine showed that you could get millions of dollars for a game through Kickstarter, and that was good; OSRPG and Eternity are showing you can’t unless you are specifically redoing old stuff, which isn’t as good.

    • D3xter says:

      Tim Schafer is a known entity, “Point & Click Adventures” are also pretty much a known entity and work in just about the same way.
      If you combine them both you think of Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle, Full Throttle and possibly Grim Fandango.
      Not to say that Double Fine is also a known entity and has shown that they can and produced games like Psychonauts, Brütal Legend, Stacking, Costume Quest and Iron Brigade, which as far as I can say (still waiting for a PC version of Brütal Legend) are all very good in what they do.

      “Old School RPG” isn’t a known entity, it could be Ultima-style, it could be JRPG-style like Anachronox, it could be Wizardry/Ultima Underworld-alike, or it could frankly be this: link to i.ytimg.com

      Also I don’t know about anyone else, but these names don’t particularly have the ring to them that Tim Schafer does.
      Brenda Brathwaite’s greatest accomplishment is presumably Wizardry 8, on which she worked as a designer, to what extent that was her doing or not nobody knows, she also supposedly worked on Jagged Alliance and Playboy: The Mansion.
      Realms of Arkania was a German production, saying that she “worked on it” is disingineous, she apparently only wrote the manual or something like that, similar with Jagged Alliance.

      Tom Hall mainly worked on FPS games at id and the Commander Keen series, to what extent he was involved in Anachronox people don’t exactly know, it was written by Richard Zangrande Gaubert, he is largely credited as Director and he had a few voice-roles: Councilman Willis / Dr. Hush-Hush / Eddie the Chew similar to Deus Ex.

      They both haven’t produced anything worthwhile in a long time, their studios last game (and one of the only 2 produced) was this: link to insidesocialgames.com

      There are very many and different reasons people could trust the previous KickStarter more than this one and they aren’t quite as unexplainable as you think. John Romero’s name doesn’t help either.
      They need to give a lot more detail than this if they want to succeed.

  11. Paul says:

    Dennovation has been the mainstream gaming industry. So these kickstarted games are innovation, compared to that.

  12. The Random One says:

    You called pre-ordering a con. I think that means I have to marry you.

    You make an excellent point. As much as I like these games, they seem to be more about the old mummies of gaming shambling out to retread old ground. Yes, there is new stuff, as Bhazor said above, but even stuff that’s slightly innovative seems to struggle to meet its goals (from my personal backing history, I know Moon Intern and Knock Knock did). So both publishers and audiences are adverse to innovation, the only difference being which old spring they want to go back to.

    Still, that’s not a trick that’ll work forever. People pay for old school stuff now, when the only alternative is to actually play the old stuff again, but when there are seventeen highly polished old school RPG’s will you fund another one? Kickstarter is still an alternative, and even if it’s not as…alternative as we might have hoped, an alternative’s still better than none.

  13. InternetBatman says:

    Add me to the voices that completely disagree with you. Innovation is in the details, and most projects, (Wasteland 2 aside), have already released small details that were innovative. Genre doesn’t preclude innovation, and nostalgia doesn’t stop innovation.

    Nostalgia doesn’t automatically distort our criteria for judging games either. I loved Red Alert, played tons of it and still talk about the ant missions, but I think Supreme Commander is a far better game. I thought Fallout 3 had the best opening of a Fallout game, and it was my least favorite out of all of them. I think Stacking is a better adventure game than Monkey Island. I liked Freelancer much better than Descent, and think X3 isn’t as fun as either. It could be that instead of sheer nostalgia, developers are finding the best games in their genre and using them as the example they want to be like. It could be that they’re merely placing their game in context so its easier to understand. Planetary Annihilation could have called itself a game about moving armies from planet to planet, but that could also be used for Sins of a Solar Empire or Eufloria.

    So it’s silly to say that kickstarter, which helped fund FTL, Castle Story, and Clang, shows a lack of innovation when that’s the least of kickstarter’s problems.

  14. fredc says:

    I don’t know if innovation is the point of kickstarters – surely in the most literal sense, the point is to fund (crowd-fund) something that wouldn’t be funded by a publisher or big development house.

    Why then do we see people kickstarting old-school RPGs and graphical adventures? Because the people funding big releases that have to sell themselves on the shelves and on vendor websites use their money to make stuff that will sell as much as possible, meaning platforms and game mechanics are all geared to that.

    Even if there is a demographic that will generate a strong market for an old school RPG, graphical adventure, flight sim (etc), it doesn’t get developed if you will generate more unit sales from Grand Theft Auto CCCIV or Madden’s Necrotic Reanimated Corpse 2083. Hence the proliferation of shitty button mashing console ports as major PC releases as the console generation/s have become a larger and larger part of the market.

    So what we’re seeing is parts of the market that have been ignored by publishers chasing unit sales or market share are now able to fund projects that they like and want to buy, but haven’t been able to.

    I guess if you had to think of it in terms of novelty (/innovation), I would argue that more recent major releases haven’t necessarily “innovated” simply because they’ve moved away from the game mechanics of the 80s and 90s. Releasing yet another Batman, Sleeping Dogs or GTA clone instead of another Falcon or “Sid Meier’s [name]” isn’t being more innovative, it’s simply transposing the game mechanics of Super Mario or Street Fighter awfulness into current cultural/hardward paradigms because the people who grew up playing console games represent a growing proportion of the (non-iphone based) total electronic gaming market.

  15. MarigoldFleur says:

    Innovation isn’t everything. You don’t always need a new idea but just any idea that is fresh (and yes, things like classic RPGs are fresh now) being executed well. This doesn’t even have to do with Kickstarter as we’re also seeing games like XCOM: Enemy Unknown coming out.

    But to answer the unasked question of “what are these games bringing to gaming?” It’s simple, really.

    Genre variety. Something we’re very much lacking in a “take as few chances as possible” era in the games industry. With genre variety comes an environment that offers room to grow and experiment in all directions. You say retro, but to people between the ages of 16-24? A lot of this stuff consists of concepts that they didn’t get a chance to see when they were popular.

  16. whalleywhat says:

    PC gaming Dresden was firebombed around 2000 with the advent of $$$. That’s a particular path of innovation that’s been abandoned in favor of “objectively good game design” and “best practices”. Re-finding that path and continuing forward along it might have a whiff of ‘comfortable nostalgia’ around it, but I think the best of these projects aren’t actually banking on that. One aspect of the Obsidian KS is “It’s an isometric, real time w/ pause fantasy RPG like the ones you know and love from Black Isle”, but for the most part, it made its pitch on the names involved. From the things they’ve said thus far, it seems like Avellone and Sawyer aren’t interested in being entirely beholden to tradition. It seems like Tim Schafer is taking a similar approach, as one of the videos showed him looking to modern adventure games like Machinarium and Sword & Sworcery. So I guess I think it isn’t fair to say that this is all about a nostalgia fest, although the point about that possibly being a necessary aspect of the consumer pitch is a salient one.

  17. MadTinkerer says:

    While many of the BIG SUPER ATTENTION GETTING Kickstarters have been nostalgia driven, there have also been a ton of small innovation-driven projects. And many projects that are a bit of both.

    Chuck’s Challenge, for example, I can testify (thanks to the current alpha) is both a pretty good recreation of the original (Chip’s Challenge) and has a ton of new bits added.

    So maybe people need to pay attention to the smaller, humbler tier of ~$20,000 projects that I’ve also been funding in addition to the ~$500,000 ones.

  18. Blackcompany says:

    While I will not rescind my $25 pledge, the more I read about Project Eternity, the less happy I am. It is everything wrong with gaming &RPG games today: a blantant attempt NOT to innovate.

    I too want someone to move genres forward. Not backward.

    I will no longer pledge to support games that remake the past.

  19. Ultra-Humanite says:

    Who are these so-called “many people” making this claim of innovation you state in the opening paragraph? It seems like you are basing your ire on the always-nebulous “they” that may or may not even exist as far as I know because frankly I’m lucky enough to not know anyone stupid enough to claim that any of the Kickstarter projects happening are innovative.

    To be fair, and I think it’s important that someone points this out since you seem to be oblivious to it, none of the people making these games ever mentioned “innovation.”. Tim Schafer explicitly stated in at least one of the many videos they have made that this was more about publishers not willing to spend money on genres they feel are dead or just simply not worth the capital because they have niche audiences. Brian Fargo echoed similar sentiments.

    Finally, who the fuck made you moderator of Kickstarter? I’m sorry, but I really don’t give a shit what YOU think Kickstarter should be used for. In fact, given how much I hate pretty much anything you write, I’m quite positive whatever you think people should be doing with Kickstarter is the opposite of what I would want anyway. Many of these projects come under the auspices of fan servicing, yet somehow, some way, you manage to be offended by it because it’s not innovative, even though, in reality, there is little suggestion that paying gamers actually want innovation.

    I’m not even sure why you are under the impression that innovation is something that is desired. These Kickstarter projects should be a clue. As well as each increasingly bored effort that comes from Call of Duty yet somehow manages to sell 10 million copies. XCOM comes out in less than a week, and people are mostly concerned with how faithful it is to the original, even on this very site by your staff. And lord how many tears and hand wringing will occur whenever they have strayed and actually did something innovative? SimCity is prominently featured on the site today, yet another recycled idea. And it will sell millions of copies. Reality does not match your fantasy.

  20. Davie says:

    It makes me happy that out of all the Kickstarter offerings (especially among the “major” projects) I’ve only backed Planetary Annihilation. I’ve never played the original Total Annihilation, and I’m a casual SupCom player at best, but I love RTS and I saw them doing something I’d never seen before in an RTS, or any other game, honestly. That was enough. That was innovation, and I hope it’ll live up to its potential.

    I guess I’m just not nostalgic when it comes to games. There’s the occasional older title I’ll go back and play (Rome: Total War, Morrowind, Warcraft III [I guess that dates me, doesn’t it?]) but if I do, it’s because I genuinely enjoy certain elements of it, and think it might actually be better than its successors in some ways. If it isn’t, I can’t go back and still enjoy it. Starcraft is objectively worse than most traditional RTS games form the past five years. Half-Life is objectively worse than its sequel, and playing Black Mesa made me realize how critical people would be of the story and repetitive environments if it was released today.

    There are certainly lots of things to dislike about the modern game industry, what with multiple preorder bonuses, scads of worthless DLC, and various publisher shenanigans, but very little of that is related to the games themselves. We still get a couple dozen brilliant titles a year–amidst loads of crap, sure, but that’s how it’s always been with games and every form of media. A lot of game-playing types need to realize that tossing out old ideas for fresh ones is not an inherently bad thing. Older games and the ideas that go with them certainly still have value, but the dichotomy of publishers pushing for simplification and money-making and the fans complaining that it isn’t 1998 anymore are two extremes of the scale. We need some middle ground.

  21. Pardoz says:

    “Kickstarter success stories have so far been firmly rooted in nostalgia, not innnovation.”

    Given that in this industry “innovation” so often translates into “make a Call of Manshoot: Company of Battlefield clone and slap the name of an entirely-unrelated game on it” (I’m still waiting for the announcement of the gritty, realistic, innovative, Civilization FPS remake), I don’t really see this as a Bad Thing, honestly.

  22. iatw says:

    Awesome article John. I think you’re definitely right but you could still be proven wrong once these Kickstarted games come out. You’re right that using nostalgia as bait has proven successful for these fundraisers, and I think that the Kickstarter video made by Hall and Brathwaite was at best lazy, and at worst an out and out cash grab. But you could be proven wrong if these old dogs manage to mix the old and the new successfully. And I’m sure you’ll be happy to be proven wrong in that manner.

    As a minor example, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is another game founded on nostalgia. I know, I know, it didn’t have a fundraiser. But the fact that 2K and Firaxis still named it XCOM despite the significant changes from the original game means they’re also banking on nostalgia or at least brand recall. Fortunately it seems that they didn’t stop there and, as I said above, buttressed the nostalgia and classic gameplay with new features, creating something distinct. Since I haven’t played it yet, I certainly can’t provide a valid opinion about the quality – and novelty – of this new thing called XCOM: Enemy Unknown but you guys seem to love it.

    One other thing that I think you should’ve emphasized more is the elevator pitch nature of Kickstarter. You said, “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.”

    That’s the thing. Nostalgia aside, reputation and familiarity are also powerful baits for Kickstarter backers. You can only say so much in a 3 to 5 minute video and in one web page, and describing a familiar type of game is a lot easier than pitching something new. Then there’s the matter of who’s pitching. You already admitted it – you’d rather bet on the guy you know can deliver even if he’ll give you the same old stuff, compared to an unproven youngblood with a new idea. I’m sure many backers think that way too.

    Media outlets are also more likely to spread the word about vets instead of upstarts. The only exception that I can think of right now is Star Command, which is indeed from greenhorns but is based on many old ideas/styles.

    I think 2013 and 2014 will be the year of reckoning not just for these nostalgia-baiting pitches (it may start sooner, provided Star Command comes out this year). It could take just one of these games to be a dud for the backlash to occur. I’d be totally fine with it – sometimes people can only be taught a lesson the hard way – if not for the possibility that the negative reputation could extend to all crowdfunded games as well.

  23. Continuity says:

    You say a lack of innovation, I say a lack of dumbing-down and weak-sauce gameplay. We’ve seen what the publishers want to make and yes they are innovating… innovating new ways to maximise their profits. GIve me old-school with integrity over that sort of innovation any day.

  24. wodin says:

    I remember seeing a Space Combat game in Kickstarter, that actually was modelling realistic combat distances etc..it looked very innovative, and yet it never made the cut. Obviously people aren’t willing to risk an investment into something new.

    Fund the link, Torchships it was called.

    link to kickstarter.com

    • Prime says:

      Absurd. A single example of a failure simply does NOT equate to the generalisation that “Obviously people aren’t willing to risk an investment into something new”. In logical terms that’s the same as saying, “Oh, that bird flew into a wall and died. Obviously no bird wants to fly.”

      This was a niche project within a niche genre, and could have failed for many other reasons: lack of publicity, dislike of the genre, distrust of the creators…

  25. Ryl says:

    I disagree with the basic statement of this article:
    “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.”

    This is simply not the case. Kickstarter is not abandoning innovation in favor of nostalgia. I’d instead argue these kickstarter projects are an admission that the past ten years have been an evolutionary dead end for video gaming, and the developers responsible for the “golden peak” are trying to start over where they left off.

    It’s leveraging modern hardware and software to make actual innovation possible, instead of creating another yet another COD clone.

  26. Rise / Run says:

    Call me crazy, but I’m stoked about an RPG in the spirit of Planescape: Torment (read, by my wife as “Planescape Colon Torment” with much laughter) because imho there hasn’t been an RPG that’s come close since then. While the Witcher 2 allows a more strictly divergent storyline, it’s hardly role-playing (but it’s great story telling, I’ll give them that).

    Similarly, I haven’t played an FPS-RPG/survival mashup better than SS2, because sadly, there hasn’t been anything that holds a candle.

    The type of “innovation” I’ve seen from AAA devs (that bleeds into indie games as well, at times) is checkpointing rather than quicksaves and autoregening health. These things have their places, but are hardly innovative, as has been discussed to death here.

    Said another way — if the only reason your game is cool is “innovation,” then it’s not going to have that much staying power. If it’s got great gameplay (and replay) value, and/or tells a great story, folks may come back to it for quite some time.

  27. Demiath says:

    Methinks this article confuses the not-so fine arts of pitching a product (especially without a big advertisement budget at your disposal) with actual game development. The “retro for the sake of retro” idea is admittedly all over these videos, but dwelling on them for too long obscures the actual projects behind them. Indeed, there’s very little about the actual information available about Wasteland 2, Project Eternity and Brathwaite/Hall’s Old School RPG which suggests that these games can get away with not being innovative.

    After all, the only concrete gameplay-defining features which have been promised so far are a small set of key mechanics which (at least in combination) are sorely lacking in modern (PC) RPGs; especially party management and turn-based combat. There’s clearly plenty of room for experimentation, innovation and (inevitably) complete miserable failure within those not particularly restrictive parameters laid down so far. Fundamental gameplay aspects like world exploration, interface, pacing and structure of combat encounters, quest design, dialogue mechanics and much more can be handled in radically different ways in each of the superficially similar trio of projects mentioned above. By necessity, the finished products will be invariably, irreducibly modern; not only because they are the first non-indie (sort of) releases in their subgenres for more than a decade but because they are designed by present-day developers very much living in the here and now.

    All advertisement is based on nostalgia, and it’s definitely true that numerous major Kickstarters have capitalized on such emotional factors a great deal. But nostalgia is just a feeling, and 5-30 (mostly young-ish) code-crunching programmers and hard-working artists at studios like Loot Drop, Harebrained Schemes and Obsidian is something altogether more concrete…

  28. D3xter says:

    The image you chose for this is creeping me out on some deep level and makes my hairs stand up… good job.

    But as for the content of the post I can’t exactly agree. It’s got nothing to do with “nostalgia” that you want to play what you like. In the case of Tim Schafer for instance it is an entirely new Adventure and he really didn’t namedrop anything too much, in the case of Obsidian it’s an entirely new RPG. How is it “nostalgia” when people want to still play the genre of games they played and loved in the past, but simply aren’t made anymore?

    And what “innovation” outside of the indie scene is there to expect? Adventure games, RPGs, Strategy games, fighting games (although they’ve somewhat made a return in the past few years, but not on PC), platformers, Simulations and to a larger extent even racing games and other genres all but died out or are relegated to a “niche”. The big publishers are pumping out Call of Duty-clones, Cover-based Shooter (Gears of War clones), Sports games and MMOs (World of Warcraft clones) as well as Open World (GTA/Assassin’s Creed-clones) like there is no tomorrow, since that is apparently what their numbers are telling them will sell. What exactly am I to look forward to in that kind of “innovation”? You can pretty much count the games that don’t fit into those on your hands nowadays.

    If you propose that KickStarter is “dennovation” then I will propose that the publisher model is responsible for “devolution” of the entirety of gaming in a world where games like/of the types of Dungeon Keeper/Startopia, Black & White, Theme Hospital/Park, Worms, Lemmings, Creatures, Sacrifice, Syndicate, Freespace and so on as well as Monkey Island/Day of the Tentacle or Baldur’s Gate/Planescape: Torment-inspired games can’t exist in a publisher model anymore since they’re not “cost prohibitive” and don’t appeal to the lowest common denominator.

    Secondly, you’ve been very unfair in your representation of KickStarter projects, for instance what about Faster Than Light, Castle Story, Code Hero, CLANG, The Banner Saga, or the newest example Blackspace that I hope will get its funding? That’s alltogether more “innovation” than we’ve seen from publishers in the past 5 years.

    What I do agree with wholeheartedly is that people should be more aware what they are pledging for, developers suddenly coming out of the woodwork and throwing catchwords around like “old school RPG” without offering any kind of information, design goals, artwork, assurances or well… ANYTHING shouldn’t be able to reach a million under any circumstances.

  29. jackieo says:

    Really like this article. Thank you!

  30. squareking says:

    Did any of the high-profile teams on Kickstarter — Obsidian, Double Fine, InExile et al — say they specifically wanted to innovate? Or that they wanted to make something that the average publisher wouldn’t get behind?

  31. Strangerator says:

    There is good nostalgia and bad nostalgia. Bad nostalgia is when we lament the loss of something that was objectively worse… “Remember how great it was in the original X-com, when you’d try to click on someone in your squad, but the cursor would slip and instead you’d have your currently selected guy run out of position? That was hilarious!” I’m fairly certain we can say this facet of the interface was objectively worse, and that the speaker is conflating positive memories associated with the game itself with the design of the interface.

    But when people can point to specific things that have changed for the worse, even if you happen to feel it is only their opinion, then it is a “good” nostalgia. An important part of being an independent assessor of quality and forming genuine opinions of our own (instead of borrowing them from others), is to be able to look back at things we have personally liked before for comparison.

    The whole concept that “nostalgia is always bad” smacks of this new mental illness that “all change is good”. Don’t fall into this trap of thinking. Sometimes it is right and proper to demand something that has been lost, to be found again. Nobody can tell me what I like but me.

    On to Kickstarter, you could definitely say the pitches are an “appeal to nostalgia.” But are we talking “good” or “bad” nostalgia here? None of the pitches talk about bringing back clunky old interfaces “because that’s how it was.” Most every pitch points to pretty specific things that they plan to implement in their game, things that people want but are not being supplied by the industry.

    We have a cringe reflex when the game is just called, “Old school RPG” because we’re not sure how much of the objectively worse things will be coming back with the new game. It’s very nonspecific nostalgia-appeal.

    As to innovation, well that’s a lot trickier. In order to get a Kickstarter funded, you have to present to potential consumers an unmet demand. Demand doesn’t really exist for all of those imaginative, genre-busting games that have not yet been conceived. The funding just wouldn’t be there to make an honest attempt. People don’t know that they want these games yet. We also know that publishers sure-as-hell don’t have the balls to innovate, they only know reductionism for mass-appeal.

    But what happens after “Round 1” of Kickstarter? Some of these brave souls will wind up making games that are actually good. New game studios start to form. Subsequent titles from the studio will have the ability to stray from formula with less reliance on Kickstarter funds. And there will be a new era of gaming! Maybe publishers will start to see certain genres as less risky than before?

  32. Beelzebud says:

    When “innovation” leaves us with FPS games with recharging health and linear ‘point A to point B’ corridor crawls, and RPG games that play like shooters; then I say to hell with that style of “innovation”.

  33. kud13 says:

    Hrrm
    Not sure I agree with John here.

    my reasons: Nekro. and also Dead State. These are both titles that I consider innovative.

    Not to mention that some of so-called “nostalgia projects” ARE entirely new. My first ever KS pledge was for Shadowrun. That is based on 2 things. I read the Shadowrun novels, and I always wanted a cyberpunk Arcanum. I got both in one, and that is worth my money.

    Also, I feel that John misinterprets the nature of Kickstarter. Boiled down to its basics, Kickstarter is patronage. People pay artists to make a product they’d like. Like the people of Medieval city commissioning an architect to design and oversee a construction of a cathedral for the city. Sure, the results may not always turn out as expected, but sometimes that’s actually a good thing–think of the Leaning tower of Pisa. And the beauty of community involvement is the likelyhood of fostering of mod communities for many of the games that will be coming out.

    The only thing that makes Kickstarter unique is the ability for the developers to appeal DIRECTLY to their target audience. And, with a properly set goal, the developers can minimize their risks by knowing just who is interested in their product, and just how much people want it. it’s a channel of direct communication with the consumer market, without the distorting lens of marketing analysts and profit-maximizing demands of the publishers.

  34. qptain Nemo says:

    With all due respect, John, I think you couldn’t have possibly found a worse target and occasion for making this point. I mean, seriously, of all people, Tom Hall, the man who made Anachronox, makes you suspect that this game will lack imaginative, inventive, fresh and innovative things? Really? Because I’d say his presence on the design team is the best guarantee that the game will have all these things I could possibly get.

    And maybe you didn’t say that he specifically makes you doubt anything, but y’know, the whole articile using his project as an example gives a very very wrong idea in my opinion.

    • Bad Coupon says:

      Commander Keen (a story that never got finished). Go, go, Tom Hall, though he doesn’t own the rights to Keen anymore. :(

  35. Bad Coupon says:

    Well I would say it’s not all nostalgia that is being sold here. You’ve had several AAA publishers saying that they would never back a game style that was left behind because, I’m assuming here, that they want to make money. For instance, in one of Tim Schafer’s videos on his new game he stated that he’s wanted to do this for A WHILE. It’s been the publishers that have been stopping it. Lack of funding.

    What I think of the situation is that this is kind of like a tree. The lower branches were being pruned off because they were not deemed “important” by publishers. They were never given the chance to grow because they were being shaped by others. Now, we have the chance to explore these venues, even with the people who helped shape them in the past. Unbarred. Unrestrained. I’m excited.

    BTW: I’m a big fan of point and click games. Old school ones. The Neverhood was one of my favorites (which could use some rebooting if you ask me).

    • Rise / Run says:

      So, I love a good graphical adventure, but I really feel like a lot of them got dumbed down when they went from typing commands to point and click. Sure, there were major issues with finding the right word, but language engines are a helluva lot better now. Playing on well-written MUDs in the ’90s gave me a bit of that fix, and demonstrated that there was still (at the time) interest in such things.

      Am I the only one who was/is a bit turned off by pure point/click with very little text?

      • malkav11 says:

        You should really check out the interactive fiction community. Admittedly, their output has been kind of dominated by the IFComp, which has a rule that requires judges to submit their rating after two hours whether or not they’ve finished the game (thus tending to make most works fairly short affairs), but there are still occasional larger games and there’s been a ton of refinements on the parser and creation tools, experimenting with the limits of the form, and so forth.

        • Rise / Run says:

          I most certainly should — I also loved IF in its original heyday. From what little I’ve seen, it does seem like some IF blurring lines with other genres.

          I guess my point was more universally that simplified UI (point/click) is good to a point, but often detracts from depth. Some of the most ridiculous puzzles of graphical adventures owe their creation to simplicity of the UI (McPixel as a possible satire thereof?); if all you have to do is click on something, it definitely breaks the necessity for any subject/object/verb relationship. So logic can more easily go out the window.

          Another example would be the FPS: to interact with X, shoot it!

  36. pkt-zer0 says:

    I don’t know. I don’t see nostalgia and innovation as exclusive. “Remember that old idea that’s not as popular these days? We think it’s still worth doing, and can be done justice.”. And it’s not innovation that publishers suppress, but creativity. Devs through Kickstarter can make what they think is worth making – whether that’s entirely a new thing or not.

  37. rustybroomhandle says:

    The way I see it, it’s not about innovation so much as it is about publishers not making certain types of game any more. Skyrim is pretty and I got many hours of enjoyment out of it, but really would have preferred if the NPCs weren’t so oblivious to what was going on around them.

    I’m playing through Planescape: Torment for the first time, and I must say I am loving the hell out of the character interactions and how personal it all feels. It also has certain text-based interactions that is just not feasible in a fully voiced/animated game.

    Using “nostalgia” as a dirty word is not helping anyone.

    There is nothing wrong with Kickstarter campaigns appealing to people’s fondness for things they miss. It’s a slice of people handing over money so they could perchance see something get made that they might not otherwise get to. It’s nobody’s place to criticise.

  38. El_Emmental says:

    John has a point here, like him I’m so happy some of the best devs are now able to be more independent, but I feel it won’t be able to directly fund innovation, yet.

    I think it will come later.

    Once the first few “big” Kickstarter projects release their games (or fail to do so), we will see.

    We will know how hard it is to crowd-fund your game (Kickstarter funds won’t cover all the development costs, far from that), we will know what is possible and what is, after all, not possible. How much risk there is in funding an indie project.

    If the crowd-funding model shows it can provide a decent and stable-enough structure to some type of projects, then we’ll accept to take the risk of an innovative approach.

    We just need to see how crowd-funded game development goes first.

    Also, every EVERY time someone said “I’m making something innovative” or claimed “My thing is innovative”, it was mostly bullcrap. True innovation never needs to be claimed, its very own existence is already proving that.

    And true innovation never come from people deciding to “innovate”. It’s not like a task you could decide to do, the lack of innovation doesn’t mean it’s just people deciding “I won’t innovate”.

    And innovation is not just making something “new”, it is not inventing something that wasn’t made before. Anyone who did its homework and know the history of his sector can “invent” something, you see it in Game Jam events and the indie scene: they are mixing various things together and see how it goes, in small prototypes, designed to be made as rapidly as possible, to see if there’s something there to be exploited.

    The innovation will come later, when some devs will use some of the new concepts created in these prototypes, and turn these concepts into a complete experience, who makes sense and matters.

    Teleporting portals existed before, puzzle-FPS existed before, but Portal innovated by turning all these concepts and ideas into a complete, new, game philosophy: the environment, the storytelling, the universe, the gameplay, etc all fit together and form a whole, a new whole.

    These Kickstarter projects probably won’t invent new game concepts, but they *might* and *could* (thanks to less publisher influence) innovate, while providing that “old school” game experience.

    Example: an old-school RPG is made. While creating the NPC and monsters, some of the devs feel like they could make some neat AI-to-AI communications, so they’re less “dumb” in combat.

    They end up adding several layers of communications (some reaching entire regions) and the emphasis on information flow between each AI (like between any living organism IRL)(which mean fleeing matters), and suddenly you’re not longer farming monsters, you’re actually fighting an army, a guerrilla, a pack, a bunch, etc.

    Suddenly, you no longer build your party to get the most DPS, you’re no longer min-maxing your character and the gear, instead you’re facing complex challenges (such as wars, civil wars, guerrillas, rebellions, animals population regulation) and you learn completely new skills, tactics (encirclement ? attrition ?) and strategies (attacking there, then stopping the offensive, so they regroup there, then trick that other group to fight them).

    It all started, and still is, an old school RPG, but in this one, the monster fighting gameplay is innovative.

    This is where I believe the experienced devs are much more likely to innovate, while less experienced devs will try (too hard) to innovate and fail to turn a good idea into a good game – remember all these “one trick pony” games who sold poorly because they couldn’t “get it right” ? That’s invention, not innovation.

    Half-Life started as a Doom-like, and still shares a lot with Doom: rooms and corridors, enemies inside waiting to be killed, some switches and doors, going through levels after levels firing your various weapons at baddies while constantly running around (people who play Half-Life 1 these days are shocked by the running speed – not as fast as Doom but still miles *ahead* of the recent menshooters).

    Half-Life 1 was (and still is) innovative because it brought narrative gameplay and level design to a whole new level, “accidentally” (= during the process of the project) created (in gamers minds) that new “action adventure” game style.

    If they had tried to “innovate”, they would have removed the weapons to make a sociological studies and diplomatic negotiations games, where you talk to the monsters. I really don’t know if it would have turned alright (or enjoyable).

    Innovation comes when you’re trying to make what’s already working even better.

    The myth of having an epiphany, an “Eureka !” moment and bringing the subject to a whole new level is only there to help us set some milestones, because for 1 genius idea there is 10 000 genius improvements.

  39. Emeraude says:

    You know, this have kept me thinking all afternoon, but how do you want innovation to exist without a healthy backdrop of *conventional* products to serve as foundation. Innovation thrives on iterative processes that demands a healthy backdrop of normed, perfectly calibrated products that keeps conventions alive, when and where a critical language we’re anyway sorely lacking won’t. That’s when, and only when, with new tools, conceptual modes or needs arising, and being confronted and wrestled with during creation, that innovation happens.

    I mean, I still think your whole framing of this situation is wrong in conflating as opposites things that are just qualitatively different, but even admitting it wasn’t, how do you want dead or dying genres to innovate before life has been breathed back into them ?

  40. ghazbanbodarr says:

    It’s a phase.

    Since a big part of any successful kickstarter is having an established track record, the big names of yore are going to have a boost coming out of the gate. But as time goes on, and more fresh, new creators see their works made through kickstarter campaigns, I think it’ll become a fertile ground for innovation.

  41. Wittgen says:

    You can’t sell a revolution, and it’s kind of silly for you to expect people to. Whether crowdfunding or going to a developer, I think anyone who asks for money to deliver a game “That is to half life what half life was to Doom,” should be laughed out the room. Seriously, who would give money to that guy?

    Innovative kickstarters will be smaller because major innovation means major risk. There’s a good chance we’ll see innovation in the big kickstarters too. It just isn’t their selling point. It would make no sense for it to be their selling point.

  42. firesock says:

    In removing the middlemen, we’ve… removed the middlemen! Even with the ability to vote directly with our wallets/be investors, a smaller segment is still making the same choices. Maybe the decisions of big publishers make a bit more sense now?

    Naaaahhhh.

  43. wererogue says:

    It’s less unnovation and more renovation. These games inexplicably disappeared while there was still tons of room for improvement within their genre, accompanied by years of critical writing bemoaning the loss of their particular features from the shelves. There’s innovation within the genre (although the pubs killed the genres, not the innovation) but these aren’t steps backwards – they’re steps forward on paths that we abandoned.

    Our A* search has a new cost algorithm, and it’s reopening nodes from the closed list and finding them viable. Er, you can’t do that in a normal A*.