A view from outside the West, well, sort of

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Project Phoenix
Crowdfunding Platform: Kickstarter
Link: website
Medium: Video Game
Company: Creative Intelligence Arts
Funding Period: Aug 12, 2013 – Sep 11, (2013) (29 days)
Status: Finished, successful
Goal: $100,000
Money raised: $1,014,600

Many things made Project Phoenix unique. For one thing, it was the first Japan-based video game Kickstarter, although the team represented the way the West has influenced the entertainment industry around the world. This is characterized well in Project lead Hiroaki Yura, who is from Japan… but grew up in Australia and has noticeable elements of Japanese and Australian accents in his English.

Other team members were spread out all around the world, in countries such as: Japan, Australia, Britain, Germany, and the U.S.A. (California). The project is notable for being an indie affair, but one full of industry professionals from around the world, most of whom previously worked at well-known, successful companies such as Square-Enix, Activision-Blizzard, and Bungie.

Without globalization, the internet, and the confluence of entertainment industries, particularly in video games, the project would not be possible. For example, writer Yoki Enoki (Japan) is primarily a fantasy novelwriter; Koji Moriga, Yura, and voice director Donna Burke have all previously worked in Japanese animation; and Asami Hagiwara seemingly previously was a manga illustrator for a blogging platform. Ten years ago, it would have been difficult for most of these people to have met or to transition fluidly between industries, or for Westerners who don’t speak Japanese or live in Japan to work for a Japanese company.

In some ways, though, this presented a problem for the team. Crowdfunding has enjoyed strongest support in the United States and Europe, now that it has become available there. As such, Project Phoenix targeted their game at a primarily Western audience. There were several issues here: First of all, Japanese entertainment has traditionally been insular, and even xenophobic at times. Anime, manga, and Japanese video game and video game systems (with the first being the Nintendo Entertainment System) became popular in the West in the 80’s seemingly by accident. This continued into a real boom in the 90’s and early 2000’s, to the point where, because of the smaller size of the island-nation’s population compared to the West’s, Japanese entertainment companies were making far more money licensing content to the West then they were from Japanese customers.

Game budgets, both Eastern and Western, had mushroomed during this time. The extra money led to larger team sizes, which led to production problems. In Japan, the trend ended up being games focused on flashy graphics, voice act2013-09-18 - blog 07ing, cutscenes, and high production values. However, sales declined further. Also going on at this time, the first person shooter genre had also been popularized by Bungie’s Halo game series, a genre which soon became one of the the most popular and best-selling on the Xbox, Xbox 360, and Playstation 3.

However, Japa2013-09-18 - blog 08nese development houses did not make first person games. Japanese audiences have historically had little interest in the aesthetics of first person games or in shooting virtual men in the face over and over. Male Japanese gamers in particular preferred swords. The Japanese developers were similar. To date they had succeeded just fine remaining uniquely Japanese and not compromising their vision for Western audiences. But it was not to remain so. As cultural attitudes changed, those same cultural trends turned into a problem for the bottom line.

Sales in Western markets began declining, then continued apace, causing concern. In response, a number of Japanese companies attempted to make their games more palatable to a Western audience, but succeeded only in alienating their Japanese audience. Japanese declines in all markets, including their home turf, continued.

A variety of theories have been floated as to why. Generally, some confluence of factors is assumed: The Great Recession and faster internet meant purchases declined at the same time ease-of-piracy increased throughout the world. The “High-Definition generation” of games brought on by the PS3 and Xbox 360 proved to be hard and expensive to develop for. Scripts that were entirely voice acted meant scripts could not be rewritten, even when they really, really needed it. There has even been a theory floated that Japanese audiences are losing interest in modern games altogether, retreating instead to the arcade.

Given most credence is how Japanese cultural fashion shifted towards the look of younger and younger children, partly because the world’s fastest aging population has meant young people are becoming rare in Japan (source 1, source 2, source 3.) As the Japanese market retreated further, many did some retre2013-09-18 - blog 09ating of their own, specifically to an old adage: Sex sells. However, as that sex was combined with the in-fashion little girl characters, the now twenty-something Westerner men (primarily) who had grown up on 80’s-90’s anime and Japanese video games were not impressed and moved on. Whatever the case, in 2002, Japanese games made up 50% of the global market. By 2010, that number had shrunk to 10%, albeit with an estimated value of $20 billion, a tidy sum, but when I’m paid, I always see the job through.

As Japan’s recession worsened, a number of traditionally considered-to-be powerhouse Japanese developers closed, merged with others in attempts to lick wounds, or scaled back.

Another problem the Project Phoenix campaign faced, both from a message as well as a technical standpoint, was the target platform. Crowdfunded videogames have also been most successful when targeting the video game audience who plays games on computers. This is for the most part a non-existent market in Japan, where games are played via console hooked up to a TV, on handheld devices, or on phones, or not at all. As such most Japanese developers have little experience making a video game for the unfamiliar Personal Computer market, a tricky content platform to develop for, even for the pros, whose audience can have a reputation for being demanding.

2013-09-18 - blog 05The target genre was also a problem as it was out of favor. Playing a JRPG feels similar to waltzing through a light fantasy novel. Characters are introduced to the player as the plot demands. The story is linear, and interrupted by frequent turn-based combat, usual with fantastical enemies–everything from giant dragons to biker gangs to talking fire hydrants to thousand-year old little girls who happen to be demigods. Characters are usually young teenagers in fantastical outfits. Little emphasis is placed on the “role-playing” portion of RPG. On the other hand, Western RPGs are power fantasies, much more customizable. The story is usually non-linear, and heavy emphasis is placed on the player choosing the choices that impact what happens in the plot. When first person shooters became popular, most Western RPGs adapted their combat accordingly.

JRPGs tended to look cutesy. Western tended to deal with more grim subject matter. Both could have groups of characters the player could control at once, called “parties”, but it was more common for Western games to give the player only one main character. Starting with the Playstation 2 era, JRPGs began to get stranger. The teenage characters became screeching children; the amount of tedious combat increased; the stories were recycled from earlier games; and Westerners lost interest.

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Additionally, perhaps the biggest issue in terms of selling the game to backers, was that not only was CIA attempting to sell a JRPG, a genre out of favor compared to Western RPGs, they were also going to throw out the genre’s traditional battle system yet again. Their battle system proposal was at least novel, however. The plan was to introduce combat from the altogether separate Real Time Strategy genre, however this was another Western genre Japanese developers traditionally steered clear of, and thus had no experience in.

In the end, to have any hope of succeeding, the Kickstarter project needed to address these cross-cultural issues wherever possible. To their credit, the developers tried to do so, starting with their pitch video:

Because Japanese culture is less direct than English-speaking ones, the opening appeal to the JRPGs of 90’s childhood was framed in a contemplative way. “Remember what fun you used to have with this old genre?” it seems to ask the–now mostly thirty-something–men who walked away from Japanese games. “But then they changed. What if someone went back to making something like that again?” (Before promptly promising to do the very opposite: To make something new.) The phrasing is also not the way a Westerner might put it. Instead of, “what is the essence of the JRPG?” the video implies the question, “by returning to the basics, to the way of the old school”, scrawling it across an animation of a star field.

Still, audiences bought it. Project Phoenix had attracted a gaming celebrity, Nobou Uematsu who had composed many iconic tunes from gamer’s childhoods, and were careful to dole out the reveal that they had him onboard. They also promised that there were other big names they couldn’t reveal yet. It didn’t hurt either that most of the rest of the team could name drop successful big-budget games they had worked on. And the reason most JRPGs kept trying to redo the wheel on the combat system was because traditional JRPG combat gets tiresome well before a game is over, so one more try could be forgiven. Maybe this time it would work.

Thus, the project was backed and has paved the way for further Japanese video game Kickstarters, also pitched at Western audiences. But questions remain. Will it be good? Will it revive the dying JRPG? Time will tell. But the name “Phoenix Project” is apt. It is how some of the best and brightest in the ailing Japanese game industry hope to rise again.

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Converging to a point we can’t see yet

In many ways, crowdfunding one hundred percent requires the internet. Using more traditional means, it is difficult to see the phenomenon working except in local face-to-face type grassroots affairs. A good comparison may be a political convention. In this case, having to run locally would be a disaster for most would-be projects, because the local nature limits the scope of possible attendees. Even worse from that point of view, crowdfunding relies on being able to accept funds from as many people around the world, in as many countries as possible.

So it’s a good thing the internet is a thing! Pledge campaigns have used, met, converged, split apart, and combined anew with all manner of other forms of media.

Today I am going to be looking at some ways crowdfunding converges with other media. For the purpose of this entry I will be using the two definitions of media convergence from my textbook:

  1. “Media convergence is the technological merging of content in different mass media. For example, magazine articles and radio programs are also accessible on the Internet. And songs, TV shows, and movies are now available on computers, iPods, and cell phones.”
  2. “…a particular business model by which a company consolidates various media holdings–such as cable connections, phone services, television transmissions, and internet access–all under one corporate umbrella.”

Welcome to the Order of the Stick
Order of the Stick is a webcomic that caters to particularly geeky interests. The characters: Stick figures. The subject: A Dungeons & Dragons, tabletop roleplaying… campaign. The comic began on the website Giant Playground in 2003, and there it has remained. It is characterized by a light-hearted tone (as well as a similar dose of irreverence), fourth-wall breaking moments, a knowing look at both the foibles and better parts of the game’s rule system, social commentary on gaming as a culture, and a well-written, steadily advancing plot.

Despite what might seem to be niche subject matter, Order of the Stick has consistently been in the top 10 of all webcomics according to site traffic reports such as this one from 2007 where it ranks 9th.

Like more traditional newspaper comics, this one too eventually branched out into the world of book collections of previous strips. However, despite being near-identical to the free content found online, the books sold out in 2010, which soon led to price inflation. Author Rich Burlew lacked the funds to order a reprint, and there things remained until January 22, 2012 when he began a single month Kickstarter campaign wherein he explained the situation and requested help raising the $57,750 he needed to fund a second print run.
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However, he ran into an unexpected problem: The campaign promptly proceeded to exceed its funding goal, which led to interested coverage from a number of high traffic blogs. Seeing that there was more than expected demand, and with the funding period not yet over, Burlew began trying things out. He added what are now known as “stretch goals”, further additional funding targets, each with an additional reward for backers if met. These new goals were also quickly met. So he added more. Which led to more media coverage including from the traditional press, more awareness from the general public, and eventually culminated in  the involvement of the actual D&D publisher Wizards of the Coast (albeit in limited fashion) as well as an actual D&D author who agreed to autograph a certain D&D book for backers who paid $200.

When it was all said and done, the campaign finished with $1,254,120 in pledged money (remember he had asked for $57,750 initially). A number of crowdfunding records had been broken, and possible pledge rewards were notable both for their mix-and-match nature and for how many there were. The number of possible pledges people could pick from had mushroomed to over 60. The rewards pledgers would receive from these pledges including all of the following types of media: The book reprints themselves, various other limited edition books, fridge magnets, digital PDFs of original stories, crayon drawings of any character, an art print, clothing patches, a coloring book, a tabletop game (and expansion pack) based on the comic, autographs, digital art commisions of customers themselves drawn in the comics’ stick-figure style, D&D sourcebooks autographed by their authors, holiday ornaments, and commisioned short stories. There were over 60 different mix-and-match pledge options pledgers could pick from the campaign.

The campaign was also noticeable for how Rich Burlew went about organizing (“conducting” may be a better word) the Kickstarter. Various actors whether they were fans organizing get-the-word-out drives, word of mouth, media blogs, curious onlookers, or comic activist groups, everything converged into a symphony of varying formations. Burley was at the heart of the storm, busily announcing records being broken on the Order of the Stick blog, responding to customer questions on the Kickstarter page itself, updating on the Kicskstarter campaign’s blog (finishing with 63 updates), and coming up with new funding goals.

It was a lesson that others would heed in the days that followed. Stretch goals, in particular, are now standard on many Kickstarter campaigns. And the Order of the Stick book reprints remain on amazon at a more affordable price.

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April, 2012. 2 months later.  An indie folk/pop band from Fort Collins, CO seemed to have been taking notes. While popular locally because of extensive touring, sunny dispositions, entertaining showmanship, and musicianship that was in many cases virtuoso, SHEL had been active for a number of years yet had only been able to release two limited run EPs. Still unrecognized, the goal of the four sisters (the name an acronym for the members’ first names: Sarah, Hannah, Eva, and Liza) was to break out and release an album.

So the band launched a crowdfund on Pledge Music. The goal was to raise enough money to record and release the band’s first album, and the structure was tailored to unique things the band members could offer anyone who was willing to give them money. This included: T-shirts, handwritten notes, hand-made and hand-delivered cookies, hand-made journals, customized top hats (somewhat of a trademark of SHEL’s concert appearances, often given away after a performance), “a box of 50 embarrassing facts about the band”, a poem, VIP treatment at a concert, lyrics sheets, cuff links, personalized songs, instruments, dinner, and house concerts.

The media was also paying attention this time, with Fox News immediately jumping on it as a story, and SHEL were not resting on their laurels either. The same day the campaign launched, they put out a youtube video promoting their campaign, which was spread on their social media accounts: Facebook, twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, and etc. as well as their website.

The band also continued playing shows and using that as a natural opportunity to bring up the funding drive to their audiences. Getting exposure on a big network on their first day, as well as having a natural grassroots movement of fans who already liked them, propelled the campaign to sucess, and the album has since come out.

A more accidental example of media convergence was Mailpile’s IndieGoGo campaign. Mailpile is a small startup company in Iceland. Concerned about Edward Snowden’s leaks about the NSA spying on, well, anything and everything, including email, the company sought to raise money for an encrypted email service.

In what seemed to be a major setback, the campaign was unexpectedly frozen by PayPal who processes the payments for IndieGoGo. This triggered the Streisand Effect and resulted in a storm of tech news and media coverage, leading to Mailpile’s funding going viral. However, it was a thoroughly unexpected convergence of those who dislike Paypal’s practices or had also had a bad experience with the payment processor, people concerned about NSA overreach, those who felt sympathy for Mailpile, anyone who thought, “hey, private email sounds neat, time to give them some money”, and many other diverse interests.

No one could have predicted it in advance, and, indeed, Mailpile barely had to do any of the work themselves. Mailpile only barely made their funding goal, but, in the end, they did make it.

Star Citizen
A final example, which I hope talk about in more depth later, is Star Citizen, a massive online space video game being developed by Chris Roberts plus the startup video game company he has built. Roberts has raised money from multiple sources: Traditional venture capitalist investors, a never-ending crowdfunding campaign on the Star Citizen website, and a second, crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter at the same time. The two crowdfunding campaigns have currently raised about $18 million, with the Kickstarter portion being about $1 million of that total. Having formerly been a famous video game maker before moving to Hollywood, Roberts took advantage of many connections in both industries he had built up throughout the years, as well as interviews with the gaming press.

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CLANG crowdfunding campaign opener: A closer look

When the CLANG campaign began, there was a noticeable air of expectation. Having been open for business since 2009, it was now the summer of 2012, and Kickstarter was starting to take off. Along with companies such as Instagram and ask.fm, Kickstarter was one of the beneficiaries of the next set of internet trends after first world interest flitted onward from the likes of Facebook, Twitter, reddit, tumblr, and Pinterest.

Putting on some new shoes

Kickstarter was part of the so-called “crowdfunding” phenomenon: websites which provided means for someone who lacked the money to ignore a traditional publishing route and pitch a project of some kind to the internet itself. Direct. No middle men! (Except Kickstarter, of course.) Most often used for an entertainment product (books, movies, comic books, video games, and that sort of thing), the project owner would pitch their vision in a sales-pitch format, and visitors could pledge various amounts of money at the project. Campaigns were time sensitive, with a commonly selected time period being 30 days. If the project met its funding goal, Kickstarter would do all of the paperwork and money processing, minus their own thirty percent cut, of course, and disperse the funds. On the other hand, if the project failed, no money ever changed hands. (This was and remains not with some other crowdfunding services.)

A typical Kickstarter project might last a month and have graduated funding tiers such as:

  1. $1 tip, in exchange the tipper will be promised exclusive updates.
  2. $10 limited to the first 2000 pledgers: A copy of the product when it is finished.
  3. $15 – A copy of the product when it is finished.
  4. $25 – A project-themed T-Shirt.
  5. $1000, limited to 3 pledgers – The opportunity to have cCreative input on the project.
  6. $5000, lunch with the people in charge of the campaign.

There were several catches, however. First, people of the internet had to know about the project. Not only that, the viewers needed to like what they saw. Not only that, there had to be something at a price point that viewers were willing to throw some money at. In addition, the project had to have a reasonable funding target. And finally, if the project ended up successfully funded, that meant the people behind the campaign suddenly had to deliver on all of their promises.

However, people proved to be a discriminating bunch, and, in order to get at peoples money, crowdfunding campaigns soon learned getting creative produced better results. How many pledges a campaign got early on seemed at the time to be important for likelihood of success. In turn, first impressions were soon discovered to be a significant factor in how many early pledges a typical campaign might receive. As such, the opening presentation of a campaign, usually consisting of an opening video (the sales pitch), pledge tiers, funding target, the first of many blog updates, and anything else that seemed funny or cool. And so this strange mix of sales-pitch, hey-I-have-a-neat-idea-but-no-money, begging for money from the masses, song and dance variety show (are you not entertained?), glorified pre-order scheme, quasi-investment model, and indie sensibility took form.

When the CLANG Kickstarter launched in June 2012, Kickstarter was a rising star cresting over a horizon of optimism and excitement. A few months before, Double Fine Adventure had just broken crowdfunding records, having raised $3.3 million dollars, well beyond an asked for $400,000.
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Part of this was because few crowdfunding campaigns had reached their “pay the piper” time yet. Most had collected their money and gone silent, backers still giddy with anticipation.

Enter the CLANG
CLANG came out of left field because it was one of the first notable occasions when someone with plenty of money was asking for more. That someone with money was Neal Stephenson, a niche but well-loved, well-known, well-acclaimed, and well-sold futurist sci-fi and historical fiction author:

Stephenson wanted $500,000, not for a book, but so he could make a strange looking video game 2013-09-04 - blog 01about medieval sword fighting. He didn’t even seem to want to make the game so much as he wanted to make a sword-like controller that people could hold with their hands. It also seemed he had assembled quite a large team of geeks (including a cameo by billionaire game maker Gabe Newell, along with a reference to Newell’s company’s one-decade-and-counting-delayed video game, Half-Life 3.)

Looking at the pitch video for CLANG itself, it is representative of the state of crowdfunding in 2012. One could point out the the trying to be different, yet ragged quality to the whole affair. Or one could discuss the odd effect that occurs when people who clearly are not used to being in front of a camera are doing precisely that. Or the offbeat (but funny) comedy moments. Or the swearing, as if to remind the viewer: This isn’t going to be some corporate, sanitized project, for-better-and-for-worse. Or the trying to be all things to all people, in hopes of reaching a funding goal. However, what comes through the most is something more infectious: Excitement. Neal Stephenson and co really seem like they genuinely want to make their quirky virtual sword-fighting project become a reality. They seem invested in their own idea, but there is a great deal of uncertainty. What works? What does not?

And From There… Boots Hit the Ground… and Got Muddy

The CLANG Kickstarter had a strong start before going on to struggle, ending up barely making it across the finish line after an 11th hour funding push. If I had to speculate, I think the project ran into this difficulty because, despite a steady drip feed of comic updates and videos, most delivered by Stephenson himself, CLANG struggled to find an audience. “Who is this product for?” was a problem on June 9th, and it was still a problem when funding concluded successfully thirty days later. I think that was because waving a sword-shaped object in front of a TV screen and grunting doesn’t actually sound all that fun, despite the high-quality, unorthodox sales pitch and enthusiasm.

Something Different Would Be Nice, But Why Boots On The Beach In Summer?

Also, in the end, it was only a hobby project. A potentially “realistic” sword-fighting game controller is unlikely to change the world for much ill or for much good. Neal Stephenson had many fans, but he was not writing a new book, which is what those fans would have latched onto. Instead he was making a game, something he was unproven in. People also knew Neal had enough money from royalties that he could, no doubt, fund this virtual sword experiment himself, if he wanted. Gabe Newell was popular, and he actually made games, but people knew he was not really involved with this particular project. Lastly, it was not obvious at the time, but me-too crowdfunding campaigns, designed as quick cash grabs more than labors of love, were springing out of the woodwork around the time CLANG came into being. It was only natural, once it was realized there was gold in them thar hills, a gold rush was sure to follow.

Still, where things stand now, the jury is still out, as is CLANG itself. CLANG updates are currently for project backers only, and the public has heard little to nothing since. More than anything, CLANG was a sign that niche products could raise enough money via crowdfunding… if they were careful how much money they asked for. More importantly it was something different, and even as someone who wasn’t compelled to send them some money, it was an entertaining diversion. Their antics have made me hope they do succeed. Plus, they were pitching something different in a world where publishers would never have allowed something like this. Peripheral sales had tanked. Guitar Hero and Rock Band had died. The recession was worse. No one cared about sword games, said conventional wisdom. And yet here we are.

Also, first post on my blog! Feel free to comment.

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