Backing a video game on Kickstarter seems to be an increasingly risky prospect. When this first became a thing, each and every project was greeted with the rose tinted glasses and as many bottles of champaign as we could find. Nowadays, backing a game seems more like playing Russian Roulette with your cash, where one of the barrels is loaded with confetti and the opening ten seconds of “Everybody Dance Now” and the other five are loaded with napalm so concentrated that it will even destroy the memory of the fact you had money in the first place.
And yes, some projects are clearly doomed for failure from the start. If you back a project where the developers couldn’t even spend enough time to make sure their sales pitch wasn’t half typos, you deserve to have them throw your cash in a garbage disposal in front of you. Those kinds of projects, however, tend not to reach their goal so the backers aren’t actually losing any money. There have been an increasing number of projects, however, that get funded only to later combust in a spectacular explosion of failure and wasted money.
Dysfunctional Systems didn’t look like it was going to be one of those disasters. Its pedigree certainly gave you enough of a reason to trust it. The developers, Dischan, had already put out a couple of successful outings including episode one of Dysfunctional Systems. While it didn’t exactly set the visual novel world on fire, many of the people that played it had positive things to say about it and it generated enough of a fanbase that people were clamoring for subsequent entries in the series. Most of the original team remained intact and in comparison to other genres a visual novel tends to be somewhat easier and cheaper to put together. Thus when Dischan took to Kickstarter asking for $60K of funding for the next two episodes of Dysfunctional Systems it seemed like a slam dunk. We have a company asking for money to create a game in a relatively simple genre, a genre the company was familiar with and demonstrated previous success in, in a series the company had already created a game for, with most of the same people that made that game still on staff.
And yet the company announced on their Kickstarter page that money from all the backers has gone up in smoke and they have nothing to show for it.
In their mea culpa post, Dischan goes out significantly better than some previous Kickstarter failures that just disappeared off into the woods with a sack of cash and some fake IDs. They are even attempting to refund the money they received from most of their backers, which is a noble sort of gesture but one I am not entirely sure will be fulfilled. They admit the cash has mostly run out and they will have to dip into their own personal funds to pay some people back. Unfortunately, the promised games are unlikely to ever see the light of day which is a bit bizarre as Dischan says the first of these episodes is essentially finished.
The reason they are currently refusing to release the episode is because it isn’t quite the quality they were hoping for. As they said on their during their penultimate update:
“Yes, episode 0 is basically finished. It’s part of the reason for this decision. To put it simply: it’s average. It’s not good and it’s not bad: it’s average. Playing through it makes me feel like releasing the game would only disappoint the people who expect more from us. Therefore, we will not be releasing it.”
Now, while I am always inclined to believe someone at their word, I have a hard time imagining this is entirely true. You know what will disappoint loyal fans more than an average prequel? No prequel at all and a loss of the money they previously gave you. If they asked their fans, “Hey, would you like an average game or no game at all and also we burn your money in front of you” I’m pretty sure that wouldn’t be the most difficult decision their fans had to make that day. I’m sure people excited enough to back the project are foaming at the mouth to get their hands on even an average entry in the series, so to decide that it would be better for them to have nothing indicates to me that the quality of the game is actually more in the “hazardous waste” range. In fact, it is even harder to believe this reasoning when the following statement is a part of their original Kickstarter pitch under the risks and challenges:
“I cannot guarantee the quality of the final products in the worst case scenario, but I can guarantee that I will devote my entire efforts to their completion.”
We are at the worst case scenario here, so it seems like a poor time to decide that quality does in fact triumph completion unless the team fully knows their product is a hot steaming pile of vomit.
In their retrospective about their failure, Dischan gives us a long list of reasons as to why their project didn’t succeed and it sounds eerily similar to what other companies have said in the past. A lack of quality control, a loss of interest, and a fundamental failure to even understand the basics of how to run a gaming company all are listed as contributing to this disaster. Among their reasons:
“Before the Kickstater, Dischan operated as a group of volunteers and there was very little process. We each had our jobs and we did them at our own pace. I thought we could continue working this way, but it proved not to be the case.”
“We also didn’t have any kind of process to guarantee quality. People completed their assigned work and then a box was ticked. “
“We should have tightened the scope and made the sequels less ambitious.”
“I paid people too much, or at least incorrectly.”
And on and on it goes. It reads like a laundry list of all the reasons we’ve heard in the past from these sorts of projects. Costs get too high, eyes get too big, and you end up having spent all of your money without getting anything done. It is getting difficult to recall the number of similar situations that have arisen where the essentially failure comes from the fact that there is nobody in charge that understands how exactly to manage their employees or the basics of how a game is made.
I’m not saying the people at Dischan are bad workers or that people shouldn’t consider any future projects they put out. But it is becoming increasingly difficult for me to justify backing a developer on Kickstarter when so many of them end in such unmitigated disasters. Sure, there are games like Divinity: Original Sin or Shovel Knight that prove this concept is not only a brilliant idea, but a way to usher in different kinds of games that might not have found a publisher elsewhere. Unfortunately, these sorts of outings are becoming increasingly rare and a lot of what is coming out of Kickstarter now is disappointing final products or failed promises. The sad truth is the reason that many of these companies aren’t funded the traditional way is because they don’t deserve to be.
As always, be careful with whom you decide to trust with your money. You are paying for something you might never get, with only a company’s promise that the goods you want will ever materialize. As Dysfunctional Systems proved, not even past work can guarantee future success. But hey, at least the game lived up to its name I guess.