More than 20 years after being the target of industry-changing controversy, infamous live-action video game Night Trap has all eyes on it again thanks to a Kickstarter for an HD revival that was sloppy at best. I brought a slew of concerns to its creators, and their responses were... kinda weird.
At first glance, Night Trap's Kickstarter page seems average enough. Videos, backer reward tiers, history—all that jazz. Some of the promises raised a few eyebrows, however, and the deeper wary fans dug, the higher their eyebrows rose. Case in point:
Meanwhile, Night Trap's creators rather radically altered their planned platforms shortly after launching the campaign. First it was simply "PlayStation and Xbox," which the game's creators then clarified to mean PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, but capable of running on Xbox One and PlayStation 4 (source). Problem: that's not technically possible. It's since been changed back, and now just says Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.
That doesn't exactly inspire confidence, and many potential backers are understandably wary. It seems like Night Trap's creators don't entirely know what they're doing, and it's not too much to expect that they would've educated themselves better before making promises and asking for an estimated total that may not encapsulate the budget they actually need.
Night Trap's Kickstarter total is creeping upward slowly, having only hit a bit over $16,000 of its $330,000 goal as of writing. According to Kicktraq statistics, it has very little chance of getting funding at this rate.
Yesterday, I spoke with executive producer Tom Zito on the phone. He didn't seem malicious in our conversation—his responses to my questions were just kind of half-baked. I asked about everything from fan worries over money to the console switcheroos to the Night Trap's creators' self-confessed fear of technical issues down the line. Zito was frequently terse in his responses—not afraid to answer, but rather on-edge, as though speaking through gritted, grinding teeth. It was a strange discussion, and some of his replies left me unsatisfied.
Let's break it down, concern-by-concern, with my questions and Zito's responses. I'll add additional details from the interview where I think they're relevant.
Kotaku: Why $330,000? Is that actually enough to do everything—manufacture games for multiple platforms, including consoles, and sell copies at $20 a pop?
Tom Zito: It cost us $250,000 to buy the rights. So, you know, you add on development costs, manufacturing costs, and fulfillment costs, and it's more than $330,000. That was an amount of money we felt comfortable with bringing in to reduce our risk. We put in $250,000 to buy the rights. I will say part of the Kickstarter will reimburse us for the rights, but it won't make us whole.
[He also mentioned that money will go to a third-party game developer who will implement a lot of the changes and handle the porting process. They will apparently be paid "six figures." When I asked which developer, Zito said that because of non-disclosure agreements, he couldn't tell me.
Still though, $250,000 plus six figures for a developer. That's already technically more than Zito and co are asking for—as he pointed out. And that doesn't factor in manufacturing costs, the process of becoming licensed to print discs for Xbox 360 and PS3 (which is quite costly), or any scenario in which the game takes more than six months to finish, since a lot can go wrong when you're developing on four platforms at once. That's all... risky, to say the least.]
Kotaku: Do you really, honestly think this is enough to do all of that and manufacture console versions of your game? I've spoken with multiple developers who say you're underestimating a lot of factors—
Zito: If we didn't think this was the right number, we would've gone with something else.
Kotaku: You switched the consoles you're aiming for a lot. But it's just PS3 and Xbox 360 now, correct?
Zito: That is correct. Xbox 360 and PS3.
Kotaku: What about the paper sleeves for those version's packaging, as opposed to a normal box? Are you actually allowed to do that? And if you didn't know for sure, why promise you could?
Zito: It's not clear... I have had several conversations with both Sony and Microsoft, and it may in fact be that we're gonna have to put those console versions in their standard packaging. They may allow us to do them in sleeves, but that's still TBD.
Kotaku: You're sticking with a $20 price point for those versions, though, right?
Zito: They have told us we can price this wherever we want. The reality is that they charge roughly 30 percent [of what you make]. If you spent millions of dollars developing a game, you don't want to sell it for a low price point. We fundamentally wanted to do it this way for a couple reasons. We talked to a lot of people—including a couple retailers—and we were told that pricing the game really, really low would actually work to our advantage. So that's what we did.
Kotaku: But just to be clear, it's not going to be available at retail stores? Or even online as a download?
Zito: It's not coming to retail. It's Kickstarter-only. For the maximum number of units as listed. [Here he was referring to the fact that each backer tier is limited to a certain number of potential buyers. After that, that number is met, they won't manufacture any more.]
Kotaku: Why only do that? Why not give people something they can download? The Kickstarter mentions you're "not certain" you can deliver on that. Why not?
Zito: The real impetus for doing this was to put the game out with a degree of video quality we haven't been able to do before. If we can't deliver a robust downloadable version of the game, we won't do it. And we won't know that until we finish doing the engineering for the disc versions.
Both Apple and Google have limits on the size of an app you can sell through them. We don't know if we can get all the video compressed to a degree where it will still look good and meet that requirement. Similarly, being able to stream simultaneous tracks of video to have a mobile version of this that will look good... we don't know if we can do it. We know we can do it on a disc, but we don't know yet if we can do it for other formats.
When we originally designed the game, the expectation was that it'd come over a table system. You need to have sufficient bandwith on the streaming part, and you need to have sufficient buffering on the client side to be able to do the instantaneous switching. Interestingly nobody has done a product like this on iOS or Android. We think we can, but we don't know for sure.
Kotaku: The specific tech concerns you listed on your Kickstarter have been called out by other developers. Brianna Wu wrote, and I quote, "When we were doing [mobile game with similar tech] Revolution 60, we found the length of a played movie had NO IMPACT on RAM. It seems to be hardware decoded on the fly. Yeah, having CoreAudio loaded has an impact on RAM, but you don't have to load the whole movie. That's just a lie."
Zito: They're absolutely correct, but they're playing one stream of video. We have to have four, sometimes five, streams of video queued up and ready to be switched to instantaneously. It's a completely different environment than just playing a movie.
After that we moved on to the Kickstarter backer rewards, which range from weirdly pricey ($150 for a beta disc) to kind of insulting ($350 for... a written note). They get downright bizarre, though, in the highest tiers. $1,000 gets you into the "special thanks" portion of the game's credits, $5,000 gets you declared an associate producer in said credits, and $10,000 grants you executive producer status, again, in the credits.
Executive producer is, among other things, Tom Zito's job title. Also, associate and executive producer are real job titles—not arbitrary designations handed out to generous donors. So…
Kotaku: You have executive and associate producer tiers? As titles people can buy? But aren't those, you know, actual jobs people do?
Zito: The fundamental thing that producers do is raise money.
Kotaku: I have not heard that. I know quite a few producers, and I don't think they'd claim that's their job. Rather, they tend to work on many different elements of production, especially where coordinating various teams is concerned. It is sometimes a studio-to-studio thing, though.
Zito: OK, well on this project the fundamental thing producers will be doing is raising money.
Kotaku: Er, OK. Fair enough. I think, though, that after all of this—changes to your Kickstarter page based on things you didn't clarify or know about, doubts about your ability to do everything you've promised with the amount of money you're asking, etc—people are wary. They think you might not entirely know what you're doing. How do you reply to that?
Zito: We can complete the product. That's not an issue.
Kotaku: Do you have anything to say to specific concerns? A concrete reason people should believe in you despite evidence that's giving them pause?
Zito: Well, it's not for everybody! Clearly nothing is for everybody.
Kotaku: That's not really what I meant, though. I mean, like, for example money. Some people think you're asking too much, others think it's too little—people don't know what to think. Maybe more clarity on how you plan to pull this off would be good.
Zito: That just shows that lots of people have lots of different opinions.
[I decided to pull up what people were saying on Twitter, to give him a better idea of how folks were feeling, but then he abruptly cut the interview short. "I really have to go. I have to deal with my son right now."
I attempted to thank him for his time, but he'd already hung up.]
Since I talked with Zito, a couple big things have happened. First off, Night Trap's creators issued their first Kickstarter update. Here's the most important bit:
"We've had lots of comments and questions from folks, some of whom think we're trying to raise too much money and some of whom think we're not raising enough. Without divulging confidences we have signed in writing, we can tell you that the four of us have invested low six-figures for the game rights, and have committed low six-figures to a developer we want to work with."
"If we were only to raise $330K, we would cover the development, manufacturing and fulfillment costs, but not have recouped our rights investment. That said, we believe Night Trap has long-term value, and are happy to have made that investment."
However, they also explained why there won't be a version of Night Trap for any Nintendo platforms. The reason? A grudge. From 1994.
"Ever hear the term 'never burn bridges?' Well, Howard Lincoln, the former president of Nintendo US, made our lives miserable during the 1994 Senate Hearings on Video Game Violence. Not only did he quietly suggest to congressman, though the use of Nintendo-supplied and heavily edited footage, that they should demonize Night Trap rather than Nintendo's Mortal Kombat, but he also declared publicly that Night Trap would never appear on a Nintendo system. And he was right: as much as Nintendo desperately needs publishers to support their third-place platform, we won't be one of them. There's just too much bad blood between us and them."
It's uncertain. While Night Trap's creators have explained a little bit of their money plan, they've only scratched the surface of the valid concerns that people have raised. They continue to be vague and unprofessional in ways that don't exactly inspire confidence in their ability to see this thing through to completion, even if they themselves believe they're fully capable.
Maybe they've got this all locked up and, come April 2015, everyone will be reliving Night Trap's particular brand of magic/madness/(kinda) badness. I really do hope things work out for the best—but this is a Kickstarter campaign we're dealing with. Every project is a risk and sometimes those risks don't pan out, as we've been reminded on multiple occasions recently.
This one sounds worth holding off on, at least until we get some more information. I've contacted Night Trap's creators for a follow-up interview, so we'll see. Until then, buyer beware.