That sound you've been hearing all week? Oh, it's nothing: just the collective exhale of millions of people who are all grateful that Broken Age doesn't suck.
After the tidal wave of cash and enthusiasm about Kickstarter's possible impact on video games in 2012, 2013 was the year that malaise set in, with scams, dubious stories and general fatigue becoming part of the conversation. But the release of Broken Age's first act, The Banner Saga and République—all well-received games made possible by crowdfunding—could be a reason to have some renewed optimism about what Kickstarter can mean for video games.
Of course, those titles above come from experienced developers who already had impressive games on their resumes. And that probably makes all the difference. But there's no denying that Kickstarter—and the crowdfunding revolution it's leading—has changed the way that video games get money. It's an avenue that minimizes the influence of publishers and other traditional power movers and closes the gap between players and creators. But, for all the hosannas of unfettered creative freedom that get sung, the well-intentioned act of giving money to a production campaign still amounts to a roll of the dice. Backers and consumers who choose to wait don't know what they're going to get until the creating's done.
We're only beginning to see the first few harvests of the crowdfunding crop cycle but already there are cautionary tales. Ouya's struggle for relevance. Developers leaving. Games that hit funding goals with no further communication from project leads. Campaigns where breathless support curdles into rancorous bad-mouthing.
Exposing the business management skills of developers and adding in the emotional component of fan investment has proven to be a volatile mix. When Valve passes yet another year without showing Half-Life 3, observers have the emotional distance to snark at the legendary lack of information. The biggest Half-Life superfans may want a return to Gordon Freeman's universe more than oxygen itself but, even at their most frothy lather, the stake they have in the existence of HL3 is a psychological one. With a crowdfunded game, however, people identify with the money they've put in. Adding that currency to the hopes-and-dreams dynamic that fuels so many Kickstarter campaigns creates a mechanic that's the metaphorical equivalent of splitting the atom. Sure, all that radioactive energy could kill you. Harness it the right way, though, and your needs for cash, marketing and inspiration all get taken care of in one fell swoop.
Every day, it seems like dozens of game-centric Kickstarters are rattling their cups in your faces, jostling for your attention and donations in ways that range from desperate to annoying. Add it all up and it's easy to be cynical.
That's why it's important that, right now, Broken Age stands as the anti-Ouya: a big-deal Kickstarter product that isn't derisively snickered at and that sort of justifies the annoyances of crowd-funding. The wait for the final version of a Kickstarted product is agonizing because, again, that's your money that you're waiting on to come back to you. But when it ends with sharply realized games like, say, Shadowrun Returns, it feels like the donation, the wait, the doubt were all worth it.
Looking ahead, 2014 might also see the releases of Project Eternity and Wasteland 2. Other buzzed-about crowdfunded games like Mighty No. 9 and Star Citizen are probably at least a year out, but when they do finally launch, backers and buyers will likely find some kind of comfort knowing that it's a project where the creators did what they wanted. If you'd heard about a new video game Kickstarter last week, your impulse might've been to ignore it. This week, though, reminds you of what's possible when the money, the passion and creativity of a crowdsourced video game clicks.