Will Kickstarter Video Games Kick Activision and Electronic Arts to the Curb?

Will crowdfunded video games on Kickstarter -- such as Torment: Tides of Numenera, Mighty No. 9, Double Fine Adventure, and Wasteland 2 -- eventually threaten Activision and Electronic Arts’ dominant roles in publishing?

Feb 15, 2014 at 12:48PM

Gamers don't have much love for leading video game publishers Activision Blizzard (NASDAQ: ATVI) and Electronic Arts (NASDAQ:EA) these days. Activision CEO Bobby Kotick's poor reputation among developers, EA's questionable track record of quality control, and a constant deluge of nickel-and-diming DLCs (downloadable content) have alienated plenty of gamers.

That's why several famous game developers have taken to crowdfunding site Kickstarter instead to fund the development of some very eagerly anticipated games. It's a gutsy move, but one that has generated lots of support among gamers.

In fact, four of the 10 top Kickstarter campaigns in 2013 funded the development of video games -- Torment: Tides of Numenera ($4.2 million), Mighty No. 9 ($4.0 million), Double Fine Adventure/Broken Age ($3.3 million), and Wasteland 2 ($2.9 million).

What's more impressive is that these aren't tiny indie games -- they all have origins with much larger publishers. Let's take a look at why these four games gained such a following on Kickstarter, and what it means for the future of large video game publishers.

Torment: Tides of Numenera and Wasteland 2
Torment: Tides of Numenera is the spiritual successor to the 1999 PC title, Planescape: Torment, which was developed by Black Isle Studios and published by Interplay Entertainment.

Planescape: Torment was an RPG title based on the multiverse of Planescape, an Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (AD&D) fantasy campaign. It was powered by Bioware's Infinity Engine, which was also used in another hit AD&D title from Black Isle Studios, Baldur's Gate.

Planescape: Torment was a critical hit, and was named RPG of the Year by GameSpot and Computer Gaming World, and named Game of the Year by IGN in 1999.

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Planescape: Torment (L) and Torment: Tides of Numenera (R). (Sources: PCGamer.com, Kickstarter.com)

However, Interplay experienced major financial problems in the early 2000s, and consequently laid off the entire Black Isle Studios staff in 2003, causing the cancellation of huge titles like Baldur's Gate III: The Black Hound, Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance III, and the original Fallout 3.

Although the studio was gone, its fans remained. In 2008, IGN ranked Planescape as number 8 in the "Top 10 Franchises We Want Resurrected." In 2013, gamers got their wish -- inXile Studios, which was founded in 2002 by Interplay founder Brian Fargo, brought Torment: Tides of Numenera to Kickstarter, where it raised $4.2 million by April 2013 -- blowing away its original goal of $900,000.

Speaking of Mr. Fargo, his other huge kick-starter project, Wasteland 2, raised $2.9 million in 2012, also effortlessly topping his original goal of $900,000. Wasteland 2 is the direct sequel of Fargo's 1988 post-apocalyptic sandbox RPG Wasteland, which is generally considered the predecessor to the original Fallout (1997).

Mighty No. 9
Many gamers of the 8-bit NES era have a soft spot for Capcom's (NASDAQOTH:CCOEF) iconic Blue Bomber Mega Man (known as Rockman in Japan). The original 8-bit titles, especially Mega Man 2 (1988), have aged as well as Nintendo's (NASDAQOTH:NTDOY) original Super Mario titles.

Unfortunately, Capcom didn't take good care of Mega Man over the years. The franchise, much like Sega's Sonic franchise, became a bloated mess known for cheesy, disposable anime characters and mediocre games. New efforts to expand the franchise with titles like Mega Man Legends and Mega Man Battle Network further diluted the brand.

Capcom's disastrous business decisions culminated in developer Keiji Inafune, who had been the franchise's character designer since the first game in 1987, leaving Capcom in 2010 to "start his life over."

Inafune then went to Kickstarter to fund a brand new project called Mighty No. 9, the true spiritual successor to Mega Man.

Mighty No. 9's robot protagonist bears a striking resemblance to Mega Man, and the 2D gameplay strongly resembles the 8-bit Mega Man that retro gamers know and love. However, the graphics have received a big upgrade with the Unreal Engine used in modern titles such as EA/Bioware's Mass Effect.

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Mega Man 2 (L) and Mighty No. 9 (R). (Sources: Ign.com, Kickstarter.com)

Inafune's expectations on Kickstarter were originally low, with a goal of $900,000. However, fans helped Inafune raise $4.0 million in a single month. On Feb. 8, Infaune released the game's first pre-alpha gameplay footage, whetting the appetites of classic and modern gamers alike.

Double Fine Adventure aka Broken Age
In a previous article, I professed my love for Tim Schafer's Psychonauts, an underappreciated psychedelic platformer from 2005 that was a critical hit but a commercial flop. The game, which only sold 400,000 units, was one of the main reasons that publisher Majesco (NASDAQ:COOL) stopped developing "big budget console" titles later that year.

Schafer founded his studio, Double Fine Productions, after leaving LucasArts in 2000. Psychonauts and Brutal Legend were the company's highest budget titles, but neither has achieved mainstream recognition.

Brutal Legend, which starred Jack Black as the main protagonist, sold slightly better than Psychonauts with 1.81 million units, but only after Activision Blizzard dropped the title after merging with Double Fine's former publisher Vivendi. EA eventually picked up the rights to Brutal Legend, but Activision and Double Fine ended up suing each other over publishing issues.

All that big studio drama apparently convinced Schafer, who had developed cult favorites such as Grim Fandango and the Monkey Island series, that Double Fine would be better off appealing to its fans to crowdfund its games instead.

Schafer's newest title, Double Fine Adventure (which was later renamed to Broken Age), raised $3.3 million on Kickstarter, easily surpassing its original goal of $400,000. Unfortunately, Broken Age was delayed last July after Schafer admitted that the project had exceeded his original budget.

Rather than ask for more money, though, Schafer made "modest" cuts to the game and released the first half of the game on Jan. 28. The game, which was a refreshing throwback to old "point and click" adventures, earned a favorable rating of 81% at review aggregator site Metacritic.

The future of crowdfunded gaming
Let's be realistic, though -- crowdfunded games might generate a few million dollars, but "triple A" titles now frequently cost more than $100 million to develop and launch.

However, I believe that crowdfunded games have a bright future ahead, since devoted fans are willing to help equally devoted developers create sequels to critically successful but commercially neglected franchises. Sequels to other cult favorites, such as Shadowrun and Dreamfall: The Longest Journey, have both generated over $1 million on Kickstarter as well -- which indicates plenty of healthy interest for projects that major publishers such as Activision or EA consider too insignificant to pursue.

What do you think, fellow gamers? What are some other titles you would like to see revived on Kickstarter? Let me know in the comments section below!

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Leo Sun has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Activision Blizzard. The Motley Fool owns shares of Activision Blizzard. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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