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Kickstar(craf)ter: StarCraft Universe Goes To Kickstarter

Hmmm, well, this is sort of an odd situation. Once upon a time, Blizzard nearly fired a legal laser straight through the heart of StarCraft Universe‘s  modswarm, but now – a couple years later – the multiplayer RPG is alive, well, and on Kickstarter. The project apparently still has Blizzard’s blessing, given that it’s fan-made and will be distributed entirely for free. However, somewhat paradoxically, it’s also asking for $80,000 from Kickstarter’s writhing moneydollar hivemind. So long as Blizzard’s on board, developer Upheaval Arts is legally in the clear, but this whole situation raises some rather pressing questions.

So then, why Kickstarter for a mod? Well, pretty much for the same reason that any indie developer prostrates itself at the almighty feet of The Crowd:

“Upheaval has been developing StarCraft Universe for over two years with no funding whatsoever, donating their time and effort to its development with no monetary reward. All developers on the project have had to return to work their normal day jobs, dramatically hindering the progression of the project due to its time intensive requirements.”

It makes sense, too. Creating a mod of this scale – a multiplayer online RPG with a full story, cinematics, voice acting, multiple classes, tons of items, persistent characters, etc, etc, etc – is very nearly like designing a new game from the ground-up. If you can only hammer away at it on a part-time basis, progress will be glacial – not unlike, er, Blizzard’s own release speed, but for entirely different reasons.

Still though, Upheaval’s now trudging through a shoe-shucking morass of gray areas. For one, they’re taking on all the rigors and responsibilities of full-time, crowdfunded game development without the promise of livelihood at the end of the tunnel (though I imagine SCU will look pretty nice on resumes). But it’s also an opportunity to throw themselves headlong into a universe they love, so there are pros and cons.

Perhaps more pressingly, do you want to pay for a mod? Or at least, give it the monetary equivalent of an early stimpack? It’s entirely optional, but if we want to see truly ambitious re-envisionings of our favorite games, this sort of thing might end up becoming more and more common.

Also, following on that, we (perhaps literally) can’t afford to forget that the mod community is a place where wonderful ideas often burn bright for a couple months, only to get snuffed out by harsh reality and rarely resurface. “We’re making this awesome mod!” amateur developers exclaim. And then? Crickets. Sometimes for years.

Can the burden of monetary responsibility solve that? Maybe, but I have my doubts. Modding is a place where people first cut their teeth on game development. Unfortunately, they don’t usually have any idea what they’re in for. So they squabble and they fail and they learn, and that’s great. Time and time again, however, we’ve seen Kickstarter chew up, spit out, and spit on individuals who underestimated the scope of their project – who failed to deliver on expectations. When you’re new to game development, Kickstarter is a very, very dangerous place.

I wish the StarCraft Universe team – and all modders who want to pursue pie-in-the-stars dream projects, for that matter – the absolute best of luck. But tread lightly, and be prepared to answer for every last thing promised. For better or worse, the Internet never forgets.

If you’re interested in backing SCU and want to get an idea of what you’re in for, Upheaval released a single-player demo a while back. It even runs on the free StarCraft II: Starter Edition, so go nuts. Or stay perfectly calm, like most people do when they’re downloading software.

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Nathan Grayson

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