I’ll admit, when Sony came on stage and announced the Shenmue III kickstarter, I laughed out loud. We all know that amongst other things, they’re working towards “the list” and well, Shenmue III is going to be near the top of the list, right? Short of Half Life 3, I can’t think of a more wanted MIA sequel to a game. Yeah, I know Beyond Good And Evil and and and I’m sure we’ve all got our own personal lists (where the fuck is Outrun 3?) and all that but yeah, Shenmue III is the stuff of internet legend. Walking right out on stage and saying “here’s a way it can exist” is pretty big.
The kickstarter goal was for two million dollars.
It didn’t take long for folks to assume or worry that the Kickstarter budget would be all the money. It seemed fairly obvious from the off that Sony would be chucking in somewhere to help the project along. A little I’ll scratch your back, you scratch mine and all that. And sure enough, in next to no time, it turns out that yes, there is investment being gathered up outside of Kickstarter to make Shenmue III happen. I don’t know for definite, but I’d be very surprised if all the money was coming from Sony as the internet assumes.
It got kinda weird, kinda fast. I mean, it’s E3 and I expect things to get weird kinda fast because that’s what happens with a show hinged entirely around advertising the next new thing someone wants you to buy. That’s always going to get weird. But still. The internet did its thing.
Even when there’s been explicit statements that yes, there is external investment, there’s been images flying around making a plea for more funding on Kickstarter saying no, there is no external funding. Fans, right? I think Stu Hovarth does a really good job of pulling apart some of the problems with fandom and games in a recent Unwinnable piece on Shenmue and Metroid:Whatever so I’m not really going to go there. I worry about that stuff enough as it is.
But y’know, if you’re creating these pictures and pleas stating that there is no external funding, please stop? There is.
The thing is, this shouldn’t have ever been in question at all. I know there’s a mystery around game budgets, same as there is around the human costs of making just about anything in this world. To me, from where I’m sitting, it’s fairly clear that there is no way that Shenmue can happen on Kickstarter money. It’s a lot of money but by big game budget standards? It’s nothing. Ten million for a “true open world” (what a false open world is, no-one quite knows. Dark City, maybe?) seems implausibly low for what Shenmue will be. It’s not like you can procedurally generate half of Shenmue on the fly or anything so it’s going to take time, money, bodies to make this thing. Lots of.
Part the reason it is in question though is because no-one thought it was a good idea to be up front from the off. Yes, there will be NDAs around this but if the NDA even hints at not being able to mention there’s any external funding on the Kickstarter page then flat out, this is wrong. Absolutely wrong. It should have been right there, on the Kickstarter. “This game will be made with the money from Kickstarter alongside money gathered from elsewhere”. I’d phrase it differently but y’know, point is there right now. This should have been mentioned up front.
This is not the first videogame to be kickstarted though that’s also been reliant on external funding, right? I know the internet gets itself into a tizzy fairly often about scamming devs or whatever and I get that part of this is, again, a distinct lack of understanding on how much games cost and how they get made. There are a lot of games that get kickstarted, a lot of big games at that, where the amount raised from Kickstarter cannot possibly cover the entirety of development. Rarely, very rarely are they upfront about how the investment or costing game works. There was that recent not-Wipeout and the dude with the not-Castlevania game who brought it up front. Further down the scale, we have the dodgy half baked stuff like Areal-the-not-STALKER trying to crowdfund x amount of dollars to get x amount of investment. That Areal made a bit of a shit of everything though, yeah?
(I’m steering clear of whether Kickstarter should even be about fully funding a thing anyway here. Don’t make me go there, please)
Yet it’s took Sony coming on stage and saying Shenmue three times in the mirror for people to sit up and go “ehhhh”. And I’m sure this is because with Sony, it’s fairly obvious that they have a bit of money stashed down the back of the sofa here and there to invest in things. But then, so do other investors, right? Arguably, more than Sony do. It’s just we often have no idea nor clue who they are.
What’s sort of freaked me out though is the insistence on finding out how much Sony are putting in or how much the budget for the game is going to be. It sort of came to a head for me with a recent Game Informer piece asking everyone to fess up.
Now this is an awkward bit for me to write because y’know, it could easily come across that I’m a big corporate defender and all that jazz and really, I’m not exactly that at the best of times. To the point that I think any company sitting on a pile of money shouldn’t really be asking the public for more of it until the thing they’re selling is done and dusted then we can make for a more-fair exchange of cash. Kinda leaving Kickstarter to the people who really do need public funding to get their idea off the ground, right? Of course, I’d also like a pony so there is that.
The thing is, let’s say tomorrow Sony come out and say that they’re willing to put 15 million into the pot if Shenmue III raises £25.62 on Kickstarter. What exactly do we then do with that information? What does it mean for us? What if they say they’ll put 15 million in if Shenmue III raises £25,620,000? How do we parse this information? What use is it to us? And what of the other investors?
Awkwardly, the budget for the game, how the game will proceed will clearly be decided by the amount of investment that can be raised for Shenmue III from all these different places. And again, drifting back to corporate bullshit, all games are compromised by how much time and money can be put into them. Sure, there’s also a possibility that there’s a scary dude at the top barking swears fucking things up a few times but mainly, time and money are the limiting factors.
The answer to what Shenmue III’s budget is, right now, is probably not even known. By the comment that alluded to 10 million on Kickstarter leading to open world, you can bet that there’s a way for Shenmue to unlock more funding round that point, right? So the budget then will be entirely different. There isn’t a simple answer to this. That’s not to say there won’t have been some serious costing done but what the game is, what the game will be, how much videogame the developers of the game can explore will depend on how much money is in the bank.
How far the money goes depends on so many other things too. Think back to Yooka Laylee where we’re talking a lot of money to fund 15 people making an N64-esque platformer with them working for the bare minimum in a small office with some copies of Unity. Now scale that to making Shenmue. There’s so many variables there in how the money gets spent, right? What’s inhouse, what’s outsourced, how many staff, what office, what remote work and on and on.
So we get nowhere by asking that question, really. The budget will be whatever the budget will be and *shrugs* it’ll get spent on making a videogame.
What concerns me, to roll this back a bit, is that in asking questions like this we’re just skipping by the fundamental ones. We’re looking for superfluous bits of information that really don’t enlighten us any further, that once we have these numbers we can’t do fuck all with them because what do they even mean? What does any of this mean?
We know that two million unlocks enough funding to make a version of Shenmue III. Or at least, to get enough to get a version of Shenmue III out the gates. Knowing that, we can already make a decision on whether the Kickstarter really needs any more money to come from us or whether we’re comfortable with this set up at all. Ish. Because obviously, it’s never that simple.
And it skips entirely over, as I mentioned above, that we have rich companies right now using Kickstarter, using money from the public which would be a rounding error to them, to prove interest in a videogame to unlock funding to people who want to make games. We know the names of one of them but how many more? They’re asking the public to take a degree of the initial risk for them, and the public have less recourse when it comes to recouping their investments should anything go tits during production. That’s 45,000+ people out of pocket, yeah? If this all goes to the wall, that’s a lot of people versus one or two companies set up in a way that they can manage risk at this scale.
Whilst we’re busy fretting ourselves over these silly what if numbers, we’re not asking “you know, is this actually OK?”. We’re not asking “hang on, why are we here and you’re punting money into yearly franchises or whatever because they’re ‘safe’ but you need us to plump money up front for anything that isn’t that? Is that really your job here in the entertainment industry?”. We’re not asking where the rest of the money we’re giving to companies is going if it can’t be put back into making things we’d actually want to buy that aren’t the same three things. Once we’ve sorted this one out, then maybe we can worry about the amounts, yeah?
We’re not questioning anything of use, right? And I think right now, we could really do with asking a whole lot more smarter questions of the games industry than we do. Y’know, whilst we still can.