Yesterday, Eurogamer published an excellent article about Scot Bryan Henderson, winner of Peter Molyneux's Curiosity cube. On May 26, 2013, Henderson tapped on the Curiosity cube and was treated to a video where Molyneux promised him a prize that would be "life-changing." That's a very audacious statement to make, and it was met with no small share of skepticism from those who have heard him make grand statements before. However, the promise of not only being an in-game presence as a digital God of Gods in the crowdfunded game Godus, but also receiving a share of the game's revenue during the time he holds the title, seemed like it might live up to the statement.
Although it's tremendously disappointing, it's not altogether surprising that Molyneux and the development studio 22Cans have yet to make good on that and other promises. Ever since the development of Fable, and perhaps some time before that, Molyneux established quite a reputation for over-promising and under-delivering--although not delivering anything at all is a new one. Part of it may be a genuine sense of enthusiasm, where he wants to include every feature and share the development process with the world. That is, until cold reality hits and cuts have to be made. Another possible reason is that he enjoys making grand statements to get fans excited about his games, whether he can really deliver on what he promises or not. Perhaps it's a combination of those things and more.
Whatever the case, history speaks for itself. Despite a dedicated fanbase and the release of Black & White 2, the Movies, and Fable: The Lost Chapters, Lionhead Studios had trouble keeping itself financially afloat, and the company was acquired by Microsoft in April, 2006. Before then, the company had a rumored sense of over-ambition, which often led to last minute redesigns and delays. Whether or not those rumors are founded in fact, and how much so, are irrelevant. What does matter is that games developed by Lionhead Studios, including Fable, Black & White 2, and The Movies often fell short of expectations and, in some cases, had some serious gameplay flaws.
So, it shouldn't be too surprising to learn that by March 2014--over a year after reaching its Kickstarter goal and a six months after the game was put on Steam Early Access--development of Godus was hitting some road bumps. Then earlier this week, it was revealed that the game was seeing more serious problems. Specifically, it was proving very difficult to balance between the features that were promised in the Kickstarter campaign and what was actually possible, given the studio's limited resources. Nothing new there. What is shocking, however, is the strange sense of priorities (or lack thereof) shown in Tuesday's Godus Community Update video, where Molyneux admits that more attention should have been paid to development of the PC game instead of pushing out the mobile game first.
What's astounding isn't that 22Cans chose to pursue the lucrative mobile market, which has been bringing in a decent revenue stream. It's that the company seemed to completely forget what the Kickstarter and Early Access funds were meant for. Now with a reduced team, thanks to a large portion of developers tasked to work on a different project called The Trial, completion of Godus for PC seems ever more distant. Godus is having problems with promised features like multiplayer and a persistent worldhub. 22Cans only recently started work on basic game concepts like combat and story. Backers are justifiably angry, and many are demanding a refund. Whether or not Godus will ever be finished remains to be seen, and moving forward, it will be difficult to overlook the stain that's on 22Cans' reputation.
At the same time, this is the unstable nature of crowdfunding. The Kickstarter description for Godus practically oozes with big promises that probably won't be realized.
From the Kickstarter page:
"GODUS blends the power, growth and scope of Populous with the detailed construction and multiplayer excitement of Dungeon Keeper and the intuitive interface and technical innovation of Black & White. The original Populous hailed from the 8-bit era but GODUS will use the most modern technology the world has to offer."
Reading the game description is like seeing a wishlist for Molyneux's Magnum Opus. The culmination of over 22 years of history, brought to you by the god game's originator. It's foolish to believe in it, but the prototype video does such a fine job of awakening memories of Populous that it's hard to not want to believe in it. It's easy to overlook the past, hope that the developers learned from past mistakes, and deliver on promises made by a notorious over-promiser. Then reality hits, and you realize that all a Kickstarter really amounts to is the sale of an idea... something that's completly insubstantial. You back the idea in hopes that it will become a reality, but there are no guarantees.
In the case of Godus, Molyneux puts some of the blame on his inexperience with crowdfunding and the "winner take all" nature of Kickstarter, where if you're even a penny short, you don't get any of the money. With just a few days left to the campaign and £100,000 to go, you might start promising anything. And it looks like he did.
But Molyneux is far from the first person to over-promise or hit a roadblock when reality intrudes on a vision. He just happens to be the most prominent personality, and given his years of game development experience, the one with the least acceptable excuses. However, the problem isn't so much that Molyneux over-promised as usual, it's that the money backers provided didn't fund the described project. When you put something up for funding, the basic understanding the money pledged by backers should go towards that project. Instead, the project was put to the side along with its promises, which is why backers are rightfully enraged.
Bryan Henderson, the not-so-winner of Curiosity, may actually be the most fortunate person to come out of this whole mess. Yes, he was promised a prize that may never come, and he was treated badly by 22Cans, but at least he didn't pay any money into those promises. And at least he can see some small satisfaction in becoming a god-like character in the game Not a Hero.
The larger issue at stake is whether or not this jeopardizes other crowdfunded projects, which depend so much on a trusting relationship between the developer and backers. If we can't trust a legendary game designer, who can we trust? I'm guessing there will probably be some fallout, but it probably won't be long lasting.
Crowdfunding, by nature, involves an amount of risk. Backers put their money into a virtual hat, and in return, they get backer rewards and the hope that the project will someday see completion. But once that trust is broken, it can be near impossible to fix. Although 22Cans (and likely anything Peter Molyneux is associated with) probably won't be able to get another project crowdfunded, that doesn't necessarily mean that other companies won't. For every Godus, there are also numerous success stories, where the developers did the right thing, went through hardships, and stretched limited resources as far as they could go to finish their projects.
There's also the matter of buying into the dream. After all, despite being a longtime game development veteran, Molyneux is well-known for being an over-promiser. The majority of fans likely knew this, even as they backed Godus. Sometimes the ambition of a game that embodies all the best aspects of Populous, Dungeon Keeper, and Black & White is just too good to pass up. Fans want to see their favorite games come back in a big way, even if it requires some suspension of belief, and the risk of deep disappointment. Plus, more often than not, the money does go toward development of the described project.
So, let Godus stand as an example of how not handle crowdfunding. Let's hope, beyond reason, that 22Cans will be able to rescue the game and its reputation from this disaster and that Bryan Henderson will someday see his long delayed prize. In the meantime, we can add Godus to the long list of recent debacles, disasters, and disappointments in recent gaming that span well beyond crowdfunded and independently developed games.