Crowdfunding and pre-ordering are completely different

One method of raising money that some game developers started using in the late 2000s and early 2010s is crowdfunding. Check out popular crowdfunding websites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo and you can find plenty of video game projects on offer, all of which are asking for your money.

In exchange for supporting a project or helping it get started, many crowdfunded games offer players their own copy – which can be a digital download or a physical boxed version depending on the title and the amount of money invested – to be delivered when the game is finally ready. This transactional approach to crowdfunding, combined with prices that are often comparable to the “standard” price of a brand-new game, has led many players to consider crowdfunding as an extended form of pre-ordering.

Logos for Kickstarter and Indiegogo – two of the web’s biggest crowdfunding platforms.

Unfortunately nothing could be further from the truth, and this fundamental misunderstanding has caused an awful lot of disappointment in recent years. It isn’t the fault of individual players, many of whom simply saw an exciting-sounding game and wanted to place their order as early as possible. Instead the fault really lies with the way these crowdfunding platforms and individual developers market their products.

When placing a pre-order for a video game, players are almost always committing their money to a project that is already fully-funded. Perhaps an indie developer has taken out a loan, or maybe we’re talking about a game produced by a larger publisher with the financial resources of their corporation. Regardless, by the time pre-orders go live for practically every title, the game’s development costs are covered and a release is assured. Some games receive delays even after accepting pre-orders, but even then a delay is usually a matter of weeks, months, or a year at the most – and the title is still being worked on.

A visualisation of buying things online…

Pre-orders are purchases – they’re a transaction between the player and the platform, shop, or publisher. As such they’re subject to a range of consumer protection laws, the most significant of which is the right to be refunded. If a pre-ordered game is cancelled, or even if a player changes their mind before release, they can simply contact the retailer or publisher and request a refund without too much hassle.

Crowdfunding, as many players have found to their cost, doesn’t work this way at all. At a fundamental level, crowdfunding is akin to a donation or an investment. As anyone who’s ever played the stock market or cryptocurrency can tell you, the value of investments can change over time, and as the developer or company you’ve donated to takes your money to use in the process of developing their game, there are no guarantees. Caveat emptor indeed.

Buyer beware!

Creating anything is an incredibly difficult and complicated process, and all manner of different unforeseeable situations can adversely impact a project. The current pandemic is an example – many films, television shows, and video games saw their production disrupted by events completely beyond their control. In short, a project may not always go as intended, and even if production goes as smoothly as possible, the end result may be radically different from its creator’s original vision.

For players who’ve donated to a crowdfunding project, this can be incredibly hard to take. They feel they were promised a particular kind of game within a given timeframe, but for any one of a thousand different reasons the game they got doesn’t align with those initial expectations or developer promises. Unfortunately there really isn’t much that can be done about this.

Many people end up angry or upset when a crowdfunded game fails to deliver.

Two examples come to mind of crowdfunding projects that didn’t go to plan. On a personal note I’ve got 2019’s Shenmue III. This title, which dedicated fans of a long-dead pair of games managed to raise an astonishing $7 million to help create, had one job as far as I was concerned: finish the story. Shenmue II had ended on a cliffhanger, and fans wanted to see protagonist Ryo Hazuki bring his quest for revenge to a conclusion. But for reasons I find utterly inexplicable, that didn’t happen. Shenmue III didn’t finish Ryo’s story.

The second example is one of the most egregious crowdfunding disasters of all time: Star Citizen. In development now for over eleven years, the game is nowhere near ready for release. While a small part of the game is available in an early alpha state, developers Cloud Imperium Games have mismanaged the project in truly epic style. With well over $300 million raised – almost all of which has been spent – Star Citizen is a complete disaster, with many of its original backers and fans now calling it a “scam” for the way it took their money.

Logo for the unreleased game Star Citizen.

Shenmue III had specific problems with its story as a result of its creator being unwilling to make cuts to the game’s bloated narrative. Star Citizen is an example of a developer getting completely out of their depth. With the amount of money Cloud Imperium Games raised growing, they felt the need to promise more features for the game. But more features meant more development time, which meant more money was needed to keep the lights on, and in order to raise more money they promised more features… leading to a catastrophic spiral from which the game will never escape. It’s a case of feature creep on an unprecedented scale.

There are plenty of other examples of disappointing crowdfunded games, including titles that ended up baring little resemblance to what had been originally promised and, of course, many games that simply never made it that far, being cancelled or simply vanishing without ever releasing so much as a teaser trailer.

Shenmue III is one of the biggest crowdfunding disappointments to me personally.

These things will always happen. In the games industry there are many examples of titles that entered development but never made it to release, including some whose details have subsequently leaked out – like Star Wars 1313, Rockstar’s Agent, and Prey 2. The key difference with those titles is that they were never being “sold” – players didn’t have to part with their money, meaning the only negative consequence of these cancellations is disappointment. On the rare occasion where a game has been cancelled after pre-orders were available that money is able to be refunded.

Because of the way crowdfunding works, players can be left out of pocket – some to the tune of thousands of pounds or dollars – if a project doesn’t go to plan. And because of the way many crowdfunded titles are marketed, players who believe that they essentially pre-ordered a game or engaged in a transaction are understandably upset. This is why we all need to educate ourselves and understand the fundamental difference between pre-ordering a game and participating in a crowdfunding campaign.

Some people invest vast sums of money in crowdfunding campaigns.

The best way I can explain it is like this:

Pre-ordering means you’re buying a game and engaging in a transaction with a company. They have already committed the financial resources to making the game, and while it can still turn out to be disappointing for all manner of reasons, your money is safe and in almost every case you’ll be able to get a refund.

Pre-ordering is a purchase; the proceeds go to the developer, publisher, and/or shop as proceeds for work already completed.

Crowdfunding is donating to a project. You aren’t purchasing anything – not even if a copy of the game is listed as a “reward” for investing your money. Your money is going to be taken by the developer to be used as part of the game’s creation, not to make a profit on a game they have already committed to making. Because a lot can go wrong or simply change during the creation of a video game, there’s a higher chance that when the game eventually releases it won’t be exactly what you expected – if it even releases at all. In any case your money is almost certainly gone, and unless you can afford to lawyer up or prove that a project was a deliberate scam or con, perpetrated by someone with no intention of creating a video game, you won’t be able to get it back.

Crowdfunding is a donation; the money is a gift which goes directly to the developer so they can fund the game’s creation.

Most projects are not scams – but that doesn’t mean things won’t go awry.

Speaking for myself, I’ve never donated to a crowdfunding campaign. Even when it came to titles like the aforementioned Shenmue III I simply concluded that I don’t have the money to lose. As someone on a low income my budget for video games – and any other entertainment product – is already low, so the idea of investing in the creation of something, no matter how “cool” it might sound, is something I’m unwilling to commit to.

Sadly, some of these failures and disappointments will lead to fewer players being willing to donate their money to crowdfunding campaigns in future. That will have an effect on some smaller independent developers for whom crowdfunding may be the only viable method of fundraising to bring their dream to life. In some cases we can lay the blame at the feet of large companies or wealthy individuals who essentially “abused” the crowdfunding model to create projects they could almost certainly have afforded to fund out of their own pockets. But some of the blame also lies at the feet of developers like Cloud Imperium Games, who have failed to deliver what they promised after more than a decade – while trying to convince players to buy in-game items that can cost upwards of $1,000. The whole thing gives crowdfunding a bad name.

Cloud Imperium Games is the company behind Star Citizen.

Your money is your own, and how you choose to spend it, donate it, or invest it is up to you. I would never tell anyone not to participate in a crowdfunding campaign, because at the end of the day it’s a personal decision. The gambler’s advice is always worth bearing in mind, though: “never invest more than you can afford to lose.” That’s true of poker games and it’s true of crowdfunding too.

I’ve been meaning to write this piece for a while; it was one of the articles I had in mind when I first created this website almost two years ago. Having spoken with several acquaintances who felt “scammed” by a crowdfunding project gone wrong, and seeing many comments and criticisms online of titles like Star Citizen from irate backers who feel – wrongly, I’m afraid – that they had something akin to a purchase guarantee or pre-order, I wanted to add my two cents to the conversation.

It’s my firm view that crowdfunding and pre-ordering are very different things, no matter how a project may be marketed. Some companies and individuals definitely cross a line, or come close to it, with how they talk about their projects and try to convince people to part with their money. But at the end of the day it’s up to us as individuals to make sure we understand what we’re getting into before we make any kind of financial commitment.

All titles mentioned above are the copyright of their respective developer, studio, publisher, etc. Some stock images courtesy of Pixabay. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

I didn’t buy Shenmue III

I was a huge Shenmue fan back in the Dreamcast days. I played both the first and second instalments many times over, and I loved the modern, real-world setting, and the cinematic storytelling. Before I played Shenmue, my experience with video games was limited mostly to 2D titles on the SNES and Sega Mega Drive, and while I had played 3D games before on the Nintendo 64, most of those were titles like Super Mario 64 or Donkey Kong 64, neither of which you’d describe as particularly story-driven, cinematic, or realistic. My favourite N64 games, by the way, outside of Super Mario 64, were probably Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire and Jet Force Gemini, both of which managed to have decent stories. But I digress.

Shenmue represented a colossal leap in gaming for me, showing me that video games were more than just digital toys and could tell stories that would be equally at home on the big or small screen. And Shenmue was a genuinely groundbreaking game in many ways. Its large world, with short transitions between areas, was as close as it was possible to get to an open world in 1999. Characters felt real, they had jobs, they had schedules, their place of work was open during some hours of the day and closed in others. Almost every shop and restaurant in the game was accessible, even if many of them played little or no role in the main story. It was possible to spend hours and hours just walking around town, soaking up the atmosphere, talking to people, and yes, playing mini-games. To call the mini-games “mini” is a bit of a stretch, because contained within Shenmue were two full games of the 1980s – Space Harrier and Hang On – as well as a darts game and two QTE games. This alone was enough to draw me in. I spent hours playing Space Harrier and Hang On, first at the in-game arcade, and later when I realised it was possible to win copies of the games to play at main character Ryo’s home (on an anachronistic Sega Saturn), I tried to do that too.

While we’re talking about QTEs or quick-time events, Shenmue was the game that invented them. While QTEs get somewhat of a bad rap nowadays, thanks I’m sure to their misuse and overuse in other titles, in Shenmue they added a sense of tension and drama to what would’ve otherwise been a simple cut scene. Shenmue had even found a way to make its cut scenes interactive, and again that was a huge deal in 1999 and one I really came to enjoy. It kept the gameplay going during those moments. Sure, there were still cut scenes (a large number of them) but the QTE sequences were something new and exciting, and because you had mere seconds to respond, added a great deal of tension to the sequences in which they appeared.

Shenmue described its world in the manual as F.R.E.E – “Full Reactive Eyes Entertainment”. For some reason I still remember that two decades later! It was the term for describing an open world before anyone had invented the name “open world”. And though Shenmue‘s world may seem small in comparison to some titles today, it really did let you do a lot. It’s easy to understate nowadays just how much the game fitted into its four Dreamcast GD-ROM discs – there was walking/exploration, fighting, QTEs, driving (both a forklift and motorcycle), examining both the environment and objects in first-person, mini-games and arcade games, fully-voiced characters, a day/night cycle, randomised weather patters (and day-accurate weather for that region of Japan based on real-world weather data) which included snow, rain, overcast, and sun, and other elements which I’m sure I’m forgetting. For its day, Shenmue was incredibly ambitious, and while the finished product might not appeal to everyone (I’ve heard some describe its slow pace as “boring”) it blended together all of those elements successfully into a single experience that really felt like a real, lived-in world. No other game before had come anywhere close to this, and I was awed by what I was playing.

Some aspects of Shenmue and Shenmue II have not aged well, and it’s worth admitting that up front. The controls for the fighting sequences are essentially taken straight from the 2D beat-em-ups of the early- and mid-90s, complete with complicated multi-button combos, and don’t translate well to a fully 3D game. I would often find Ryo flailing around, swinging kicks and punches at mid-air because an opponent had moved to one side or the other. And the lack of a difficulty option is noticeable nowadays, especially speaking as someone with health issues who usually will play games on whatever the easiest setting is! And the controls, even on last year’s remaster, are clunky and awkward by today’s standards. I lost count of the number of times Ryo would get stuck halfway up a staircase because there was no fine control, or how he would find it difficult at times to successfully navigate a doorway. Much of the recorded audio in the first game is also of relatively poor quality, and on a decent set of speakers or a soundbar today sounds like listening to an amateur YouTuber who’s just upgraded to their first $15 microphone.

But despite these criticisms, when I replayed the games last year, for the first time in well over a decade, nostalgia hit and I was really enjoying myself again.
So why haven’t I bought Shenmue III now that it’s finally out?

It’s been eighteen years since I left Ryo in a cave in China, and as a huge fan of the first two games, I should’ve been first in line on day one to pick up the third title and resolve that cliffhanger. But I wasn’t. Shenmue III has been out for a few weeks now, and I still haven’t picked it up either on PC (my primary gaming platform) or PS4. As the third part of a game which was all about a single story, Shenmue III was unlikely to pull in a lot of new players, which means it really needed older fans of the games, or people who’d become fans by playing last year’s rereleases, to step up and buy in. And while early sales put Shenmue III somewhere in the top ten PS4 titles in its launch week, it doesn’t seem to have sold like hotcakes.

That matters because if the game doesn’t sell enough copies for the likes of Sony and Epic Games (both of whom pumped money into the title well above its $7m that it earned from Kickstarter) how will it get a sequel? But wait, isn’t Shenmue III the sequel I’ve been waiting eighteen years for? Nope. Because it doesn’t conclude Ryo’s story.

I genuinely don’t understand how Yu Suzuki and company could have made such a monumentally bad decision. Shenmue as a series was as dead as dead could be. And it died because it was a failure. It managed to have a very vocal fanbase, but that fanbase was tiny. Only around 100,000 people bought Shenmue II in 2001, a drop-off of more than 90% from the 1.2 million players who bought the first game. And Shenmue lost an insane amount of money for its companies. The reason Sega was totally happy to part with the rights to the franchise in 2013/14 is because they knew then that it would never make them any money. So when Shenmue fans raised a whopping $7 million in 2014 to make a third instalment, Yu Suzuki and his team should’ve recognised what a miracle that was. Finally, after all these years, the story could be complete.

But Shenmue‘s story, which had been planned out in 1999, was supposed to take place over multiple games, five, six, perhaps even seven titles being necessary to complete all sixteen “chapters”. The first game, by the way, contained only the first chapter, with chapter two taking place between games in comic book form, and three, four, and five encompassing the second game. So on the one hand, Ys Net – Yu Suzuki’s studio responsible for making the third game – had raised $7m to make another game, while on the other hand still having perhaps ten or eleven chapters remaining.

The sensible thing to do would’ve been to make cuts. Whole sections of the story could’ve been cut out, or alternatively released as novels or comics. And Shenmue III, so eagerly awaited by fans, could’ve rounded out the story and given Ryo the conclusion we’ve all been waiting for. It didn’t have to be a perfect ending by any means, but it did have to be an ending, because the chances of getting lightning to strike twice and being able to make another Shenmue game after this one were always slim to nonexistent.

And that was before Ys Net managed to upset many of their core fans with delays and the now-infamous Epic Store exclusivity deal on PC.

When that news broke last year, that Shenmue III wouldn’t complete the story, I was gobsmacked. I’d never imagined that they’d make such a horrible decision, and while I’d avoided donating to the project when it was seeking crowdfunding (as I do on principle for every project – I just don’t have the money to waste) I was certainly planning to pick up a copy when it released. But upon learning that the story wouldn’t draw to a close, I became increasingly sceptical of Shenmue III. For me, the worst possible outcome would be getting drawn back into that world, only to be left on another cliffhanger like I was in 2001. And with slim prospects of a sequel any time soon, that would be like reopening an old wound. And under those circumstances, it might be better to wait and see whether a sequel can be developed before deciding. At the end of the day, I don’t want to waste my time on another incomplete game. And you can bet your boots if Shenmue III doesn’t get a sequel, in another fifteen years there won’t be anyone around willing to stump up crowdfunding cash to try. It’s now or never.

If Yu Suzuki couldn’t bring himself to make significant cuts and changes to the story to get it to fit into a single release, someone else needed to be brought in to make those changes for him. Realistically, this was probably Shenmue‘s only chance to conclude its story and Ys Net blew it.

As a fan from the Dreamcast era, I’d rather leave Shenmue there, an incomplete masterpiece, sadly unfinished, rather than drag it into the modern era where it would become a still-unfinished game and a colossal disappointment. I hate becoming jaded, bitter, and negative about a series I used to really love. But I just can’t understand the decision-making that led to this. And I’m so very disappointed that still, eighteen years on, Ryo’s story is unfinished. They had a golden opportunity – handed to them by the fans – and they didn’t take it. If Shenmue III is disappointing for any reason, it’s that. And I honestly don’t know whether I want to bother with it again, because right now Shenmue IV seems like a very unlikely prospect. It’s disappointing to have waited so long only to get another unfinished story.

Sorry Ryo, but I think you’re on your own.

Shenmue III is out now on PC and PlayStation 4. Shenmue I & II are available on PC, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4 as a single title. All copyrights are owned by Ys Net, Sega, Epic Games, DeepSilver, and Sony. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Shenhua and Ryo Hazuki in a press image for Shenmue III.