Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

[MIGHTY NO. 9]: Get it?
It seems like yesterday that MIGHTY NO. 9, the spiritual successor to Mega Man, was considered a success story. Fans were cheering for the return of classic platforming games, we were applauding the newfound freedom of a creator once shackled by corporate bureaucracy. MN9 was a vision of what crowdfunding could do in the right hands; that there was still room for smaller projects without the bloated budgets and focus groups of the “AAA games industry”. It was a rejection of games increasingly controlled by boardroom investors that didn’t know the first thing about the games they make. We knew the games we wanted to play, and with the help of Kickstarter, we were given a chance to fund them.

Then reality reared its ugly head.

When MIGHTY NO. 9 was released in June of this year, it was met with scathing criticism from professionals and consumers alike. The final release was marred by mediocre gameplay, a stark change in art design, and bizarre, often insulting statements from the developers.

So what the hell happened? How did MIGHTY NO. 9 go from the golden-god of crowdfunding to a perfect example of everything wrong with it? How do we prevent this from happening again? What does this mean for the future of crowdfunding?

Well, let’s take a look!

What was it?

Announced back in 2013, MIGHTY NO. 9 was a side-scrolling platformer hearkening back to the mascot adventure games of the 80’s and 90’s. More specifically, it was a giant middle finger to big budget publishers and their billionaire investors. Capcom, the company that created MEGA MAN, seemed intent on ignoring its flagship series, preferring the bloated direction of mediocre games like RESIDENT EVIL 6.

I’ve talked before about the cynicism and distrust between gamers and game-publishers. Many gamers are tired of the AAA industry’s lack of innovation, creativity, and respect for the consumer. But now, with the help of crowdfunding, we could be the investors. If Capcom wasn’t going to make a new MEGA MAN, then we’d make our own, with the help of one of its original creators.

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Keiji Inofune, a man commonly considered the father of MEGA MAN, even if it’s blatantly untrue, was spearheading the project, promising a game that called back to the “glory days” of the little blue robot. This actually isn’t a unique story. Since the inception of Kickstarter, we’ve seen numerous high profile developers flee their employers in favor of independent development. America loves a good rebel, and seeing these people leave their companies in search of creative freedom is something we can’t help but root for.

Industry politics aside, the game looked pretty damn good. Early concept art, gameplay clips, and vertical-slices were promising to say the least. MIGHTY NO. 9 was the perfect storm of rebelliousness, hype, nostalgia, and genuine talent to get us excited. It looked like it really could have been a callback to the “good old days” of gaming, with the budget, organization and technology of a modern title.

But promise alone doesn’t make a good game.

What happened?

All the excitement, all of the hype, and all of the raw emotion blinded us from what was really going on, at least at first.

When MIGHTY NO. 9 was first announced, Inofune’s development studio “Comcept” was asking for $900,000 on Kickstarter. Not only was this goal reached, but it was greatly exceeded. By the end of the crowdfunding phase, MN9 had received almost $4,000,000.

[FUTURAMA]: Seen here: the fans.
It seemed the desire for a game like MIGHTY NO. 9 was even bigger than anyone anticipated. But as the budget grew, so too did Comcept’s ambitions. A huge amount of stretch goals were attached to the project, promising releases on multiple platforms, additional game modes, and even a documentary on the development, all for a few more dollars in donation. This is where the problems began. Stretch goals are normal for a Kickstarter. They’re a way to encourage additional donations in return for special features on the final project. But there’s a balancing act between adding goals to increase your budget, and having the time, organization, and infrastructure to carry them out.

The first sign something was off was when Comcept began seeking additional funds from big-budget investors, flying in the face of why many donated in the first place. But these minor grievances were overshadowed in January 2015 with Inofune’s confident assertion that the game was “pretty much finished”.

Remember: the game didn’t release until June of this year.

The honeymoon period came to a crashing halt in April 2015, when Comcept revealed it would have the backing of AAA publisher Deep Silver. This was sketchy to say the least. What was the point of all the money raised for them if they were backed by a million dollar company? Adding fuel to the fire was the first delay, pushing the release from Spring to September 2015, an about-face after Inofune’s claim that the game was almost done. Almost overnight, Comcept had lost our trust.

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One after another, the delays continued. September 2015 became February 2016. February 2016 became Spring 2016. It’s possible the delays were made worse by the stretch goals, which complicated what was originally a smaller project. In the midst of all this, fans were confused by a sudden change in art style. Up until this point, MN9 was distinguished by its bold, colorful design. The use of shadows, depth, and shading was something that really made the game stand out. All of a sudden the game had gone from this:

To this:

That’s a pretty stark change in direction. The colors are washed out, the shadows are gone. It looks less like a moving comic and more like a poorly animated CG movie.

The change in art direction, funding, and release dates caused many to wonder if they were ever getting the game they paid for. As if to slap his fans in the face, Inofune announced two more projects being funded on Kickstarter, a game called RED ASH and an anime based on it, in the midst of MN9’s troubled development. Predictably, the Kickstarter for the game was a failure, but we soon learned the game was being funded by Chinese developer Fuze. It seemed the story of MIGHTY NO. 9 was repeating itself before the game had even released.

This was the final straw for a lot of people. Comcept had lost any semblance of credibility, trust, or respect from the community at large. MIGHTY NO. 9 quickly became a laughing stock. Many of those who hadn’t forgotten about it were actively rooting for its failure.

Things only got worse with Deep Silver’s cringe-worthy ad campaign, featuring an over-the-top narrator trying to sound cool for millennials:

One line in particular quickly achieved meme-status, “Make the bad guys cry like an anime fan on prom night”.

…This is a game about anime characters…that’s making fun of anime fans. Let that sink in for a moment.

If you thought MIGHTY NO. 9 was done insulting its target demographic, you have too much faith in these developers.

As MIGHTY NO. 9 was nearing its release date, Inofune addressed the concerns of his fanbase, stating that if the fans don’t like the game then it’s still “better than nothing”. To be fair, it turns out he was mistranslated by one of his co-workers, but it’s still an insulting thing for anyone on the team to say to its own consumers.

On June 21, 2016 MIGHTY NO. 9 released without so much as a sigh and a whimper, a far cry from the excitement displayed during its announcement. Indeed, many of the fans had lost faith in the game months or even years earlier. Its lukewarm release and mediocre gameplay felt more like the fulfillment of a contractual obligation than a genuine attempt to make a compelling game.

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But the problems didn’t end there. The game’s launch was just as much of a disaster as its development. Kickstarter backers were getting broken game keys, some were getting the wrong backer-rewards, stretch goals like the Xbox 360 version were delayed indefinitely, and the Wii U version literally kills people’s consoles.

And that’s the story of MIGHTY NO. 9: a game that literally killed our dreams. A promising game marred by distrust, mismanagement, and blind ambition. But, after all the confusion, anger, and heartbreak, there’s still one more thing we need to ask:

What does this mean?

There are countless naysayers pointing to the unmitigated failure of MIGHTY NO. 9 as “proof” of the inherent flaws of crowdfunding. Cynics have been warning us about crowdfunding for years, how it’s an unsustainable fad that’s too easy to exploit, that it’s full of scammers that prey on eager, trusting, amateur investors fueled by hype and raw emotion. In the case of MN9, they aren’t entirely wrong either.

MIGHTY NO. 9 is a perfect example of everything wrong with crowdfunding, but that doesn’t mean the practice itself should be abandoned. Crowdfunding is an evolving idea. There are going to be hiccups along the way. That’s how innovation works. MIGHTY NO. 9 is a lesson, an inevitable misstep that we need to learn from before we can move forward.

Crowdfunding has always had three major purposes:

  1. To fund creators who otherwise wouldn’t have the money or publicity to pursue their projects.
  2. To cut down on the bureaucracy and barriers imposed upon artists by big-budget investors.
  3. To foster a connection between creators and consumers. To allow consumers to directly fund the projects they like, and to ensure the creator is in some way responsible to their fans.

None of this has changed.

For every failed Kickstarter, for every Patreon scam, there’s dozens of success stories. Beloved Youtubers like Jim Sterling were able to break free from their corporate shackles with the help of Patreon. Kickstarted projects like Yooka Laylee are showing actual promise in their development. I even have a small Patreon for my Youtube channel, and while the payout isn’t huge, it helps me fund my projects. Crowdfunding has helped a lot of people. We shouldn’t write off a new, developing practice because of a few duds.

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Crowdfunding, at its best, is the purest example of positive capitalism. It gives us the power to vote with our wallets and have a say in what gets made. Smaller investors can ensure that creators are beholden to no one but themselves and the consumer. Crowdfunding gives us the power to show the big budget publishers what we really want, and what we’re willing to pay for.

But like all capitalism, it’s messy. It’s inefficient, it’s deeply flawed, it’s easy to exploit, and it falls on the people to ensure it works for them.

So, what do we do next time? How do we avoid another MIGHTY NO. 9?

We need to ensure that crowdfunding works for us. Right now, crowdfunding is a bit like the wild west. There are definite rules, but there’s still a lot of gray-area and confusion because our laws haven’t caught up with our innovations. As time goes on, laws and regulations will develop, and we need to make sure they’re on our side. We need to protect our right to fight against scams and false-advertising.  We need clear guidelines on what crowdfunders can and can’t do. At the same time, we want to fight against the kind of red tape and rigid organization that drove us away from the big budget producers in the first place. It’s a constant balancing act, and if we want crowdfunding to work, we have to stay vigilant. Even so, no amount of regulation can weed out every bad project, and we need to consider what we’re willing to risk, and what we’re willing to lose. We have to be wary of any project that’s offering us the world, especially if it’s coming from a smaller group of developers that don’t have a solid track-record working on their own. Money alone can’t make a good game.

In short, crowdfunding is similar to a traditional investment, and we need to start treating it that way. We may not be able to stop another MIGHTY NO. 9, but hopefully we can set up an infrastructure that helps us avoid them. At the same time, we need to put a spotlight on the projects that work, the ones that deliver on their promises and provide a valuable service in return for our money. If we can do that, then the future of crowdfunding might be brighter than we think.

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