The 90s videogame revival on Kickstarter powers on

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As we start playing Wasteland 2 (write-up next week), we reflect on how Kickstarter’s revived 90s games

Crowdfunding has been one of the most significant ongoing stories in video games over the past couple of years. Audiences have, more than ever before, been able to directly state their interest in titles that otherwise would have been considered without an audience and, as such, never got off the ground.

There’s little doubt that the most well-represented gaming demographic in this crowdfunding is the PC audience, particularly that of the 1990s. The game that kickstarted the Kickstarter trend was Double Fine Adventure, now known as Broken Age, the much-anticipated new adventure game from Double Fine Productions. Raising $3,336,371 after setting a goal of merely $400,000, the campaign showed that audiences had very deep pockets when faced with the prospect of a blast from the past.

Point-and-click adventure games were rather en vogue in the early 90s (the seminal Myst, also set for a crowdfunded follow-up in Obduction, was for a time the best-selling PC game ever) but have since fallen out of favour with the general public due to their often obtuse puzzles and sedate pace. However, the Broken Age Kickstarter campaign was evidence that forgotten genres like the point-and-click adventure game still had fans out there, and those fans were eager to play their part in the return of the genre.

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It’s a signal that the video game industry, like the entertainment industry as whole, is changing. Audiences are willing to use a service like Kickstarter to pitch in their money before production on the game has even started, and despite the obvious risks, there’s good reason behind this — these games are largely not wholly new concepts, more often returns to the work that these developers were doing some 20 years ago.

The 90s are back in full force, following on from the 80s resurgence that has filled multiplexes with big-screen adaptations of properties like G.I. Joe and Transformers. However, whilst those two films were part of something that many saw as a cynical cash-grab building off childhood memories, there’s something more proactive about current audiences clamouring for a return to the 90s.

Broken Age is far from the Michael Bay-directed trilogy of Transformers movies, which many have derided for being shallow excuses for a sequence of gradually larger explosions, rather than dedicated adaptations of the popular cartoon and toy line – Broken Age is a labour of love for both its developers and its backers. No matter what the genre, games made by Double Fine Productions are invariably praised more for their writing, their atmosphere the intangible feel that separates them from other developers, so a point-and-click adventure game would seem to play to their strengths. As such, Broken Age looks set to delight its many, many backers when it begins its two-part release later this month.

Like the adventure game genre, it’s been a while since the space flight simulator genre had any major entry, but having raised over $6,000,000 in its Kickstarter campaign, Star Citizen proves that there is still an audience for this type of game. Drawing inspiration from the Wing Commander series — in particular the open-world Privateer spin-off — Star Citizen will offer players the opportunity to pilot their ship through a campaign in either single-player or drop-in, drop-out multiplayer, but that’s not even the real meat of the game.

What really has tongues wagging is the massively multiplayer portion of the game set in a persistent universe. This is the sort of twist that will hopefully prevent the 90s game revival being a mere nostalgia act; rather than simply ape the classics, developers are striving to carry on the progress that was being made whilst these games were the norm. Star Citizen, amongst others, seems like it could have been plucked from some alternate history where space sims have actually been evolving rather than dying off. There’s sumptuous graphics, an intelligent story in the vein of the political intrigue of the Wing Commander series and the logical advancement of the trade systems of Privateer in an online world.

Another cutting edge take on a classic is the new instalment in the Tex Murphy series, Tesla Effect. Although an adventure game similar to Broken Age, the Tex Murphy series always stood out for the full-motion video that drove many of its story elements. Unlike some of the many awful examples of FMV adventure games that have gone on to internet notoriety after the fact, the styling of Tex Murphy was such that it gathered a large following; enough for a hugely successful crowdfunding campaign at any rate. The combination of 3D backgrounds and greenscreened actors used in Tesla Effect is similar enough to the older instalments to maintain consistency with earlier titles in the series while still taking full advantage of current technology to execute a HD vision of the future with high-end special effects. Based on the teaser trailers released on the official website for the game, it seems that Tex Murphy have a very visually striking game in store for us.

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It’s that sort of anticipation, though, that could be the undoing of some of these titles. It has been a long time since many of the original games were released, and there’s certainly rose-tinted glasses to be factored into the expectations that fans can have of their successors. Considering the fact that most of these fans have already paid for the new instalment, it’s no surprise that the audience have a vested interest in the development of the game as it progresses. Kickstarter make it very clear on their website that the money that you’re paying is a contribution rather than a pre-order, and since it’s impossible to predict what will happen over the course of any project, it’s up to the individual to weigh up the risks for themselve. Developers are faced with the challenge of working under a microscope — as they have to expect using a crowdfunding model, but there are still questions to be asked about what sort of impact this has on the work being done.

Double Fine have taken to recording their development of Broken Age step by step with a documentary series by 2 Player Productions. With the aim of this being a “warts and all” account of the creation of a video game, it certainly seems like a step in the right direction with a view to complete transparency and accountability. However, putting out a high quality product like this requires resources of its own, and Double Fine took this into consideration when budgeting the funds made from their Kickstarter campaign.

It’s an expensive method of keeping the fans happy and informed, and it’s not the only one available to developers. Cloud Imperium Games are releasing Star Citizen piecemeal, with the small-scale but impressive hangar module already in the hands (well, on the hard drives) of backers and wowing with its lush visuals and promise of things to come.

It’s a nice gesture from Cloud Imperium and it’s certainly been well received by fans, but it isn’t quite as gutsy as the move that inXile Entertainment made ahead of the official release of Wasteland 2, the follow-up to the trailblazing post-apocalyptic RPG. The developers have made a ‘feature-complete’ version roughly the first third of the game available to backers as they continue to smooth off a few of the harsh edges towards the end of the development process. It’s a move that seems like it will undoubtedly garner some backlash from backers less aware of the machinations of game development when they’re faced with a product that is, inevitably at this point in the process, without final polish. It’s perhaps testament to the developers’ confidence in their own work as well as their faith in a fanbase who presumably long-time gamers savvy to the development process, on the basis that they’re crowdfunding a sequel to a game made more than a quarter of a century ago.

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For those fans who have waited that long, but can’t manage another few months, it’s a fascinating peek into development and, at the very least, an opportunity to see how Wasteland 2 is coming along ahead of time. The original Wasteland is very much an early part of the lineage of PC games that went on to define the 90s as a golden age for games that didn’t insult the intelligence of players, and in doing so provided experiences that can’t quite be matched by some of the big-budget games of today; games like Grim Fandango, Wing Commander: Privateer, Under a Killing Moon and Wasteland. With successors to these games — spiritual or otherwise — all on the immediate horizon, Wasteland 2 might just begin answer the question of whether the crowdfunded revival of the 90s PC gaming scene.

Next week, we’ll be sharing our view on whether Wasteland 2 delivers as both a sequel to the original and a major indicator of the future of crowdfunded video games.

Images: Double Fine Productions, Big Finish Games, InXile Entertainment

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