It was poised to be a poster child for a new age in gaming, one where a new business model was going to usher in a flood of creativity like never before. It was supposed to prove that crowdfunding was a cure to the choking grip of publishers. Free from bureaucracy, it was meant to be the Mega Man successor we never got but deserved. With $4 million dollars funded by bona fide gamers, what could possibly go wrong? Turns out a hell lot.
Mighty No. 9 will unarguably go down as one of the biggest gaming blunders of this decade. It's is a prime example of how scope creep, mismanagement and false sense of infallibility could ruin what was once a promising game development plan.
Most people seem to forget that at the beginning of the Kickstarter campaign Mighty No. 9 actually had a realistic scope. Reading through the original pitch I was surprised to see how simple the marketing was: A Mega Man spiritual successor that would be released on PC.
Backers at the time had every reason to believe the project would succeed. Mega Man's game design is one of the easiest to emulate, and developer Comcept was going to follow it to the tee. And it initially only targeted Windows. I wasn't even bothered at the use of Unreal Engine 3 because PCs and consoles at the time had no trouble running a AAA game running on Unreal Engine 3 with far more scope than Mega Man.
If all you knew was that Mighty No. 9 was an Unreal-based Mega Man remake releasing for the PC, you'd probably think it was a realistic $900,000 project. Hell, a working prototype stage was made in just 7 days! It even looked pretty decent. How could the project possibly fail?
The Tyranny of the Stretch Goal
If I were only allowed to say one thing that ruined Mighty No. 9 and many other crowdfunded games, it would be stretch goals. The very concept of stretch goals is dangerous because it's the main driver of scope creep in any Kickstarter project. It's tempting to want to incentivize people to fund your project past the funding goal, but wider scope cannot simply be achieved with more money.
Mighty No. 9 is a prime example of stretch goals getting completely out of hand. A lot of funding money was suddenly flooding in, so Comcept added enticing stretch goals to encourage further funding. First they promised two more levels (reasonable), then they promised Mac and Linux ports (reasonable for a platformer), then they added additional game modes (huh?), then they added PS3, Xbox 360 and Wii U ports (uhm, Unreal Engine doesn't support Wii U), and then they added online modes (what?!), and then they promised Vita and 3DS ports (!!!).
The scope creep really spiraled out of control. I mean, how do you even get Unreal Engine 3 to work on the 3DS? It would be an easier task to get Bioshock to run 60 fps on a netbook! But it was too late. Comcept publicly promised to make it all work, and the public expected them to deliver with $4 million in the bank. Mighty No. 9 became a vastly different game by the time the Kickstarter campaign ended.
Counting Your Eggs...
In what is the clearest example of pride, Keiji Inafune began to behave as if Mighty No. 9 were already a hit. Maybe he thought he and Comcept already succeeded, that making the game was the easy part of this whole project.
Comcept started asking for additional funding in addition to to the $4 million they received from Kickstarter just for voice acting. Then they started talking about a Mighty No. 9 animated series well before the game even got close to completion. And if you thought that wasn't shameless enough, they even launched a Kickstarter campaign for another game project before they even finished their first crowdfunded game!
What initially looked like an amusingly premature proclamation of Mighty No. 9's success slowly morphed into a delusional money grab based on no other merit than nostalgia. Keiji Inafune thought he had an empire well before he was even able to prove he could build a house.
A Blind Investment
Something that Comcept never really took to heart is the fact that Kickstarter backers are not only fans; they are also investors. That rabid gamers can become investors via crowdfunding is a rabbit hole all on its own, but needless to say Comcept did a poor job adapting to this new business environment.
Investors are rarely confident in companies that aren't transparent, so it should come as no surprise that the fan base began to turn against Mighty No. 9 towards the final, secretive year of development. Almost certainly caused by scope creep from the stretch goals, the game was delayed multiple times, but there was little explanation from the developers as to why. It also didn't help when Comcept signed a publishing deal with Deep Silver, a move that called into serious question their commitment to their original investors the backers. You know, the ones who believed in the game before any publisher did.
It's no wonder that the original backers of the game felt deeply offended towards the end of Mighty No. 9's development. They believed in Inafune's vision so much that they literally risked money to allow him to make the game free from publisher constraint. They deserved to know about the game's development as much as any game publisher. However not only did Comcept not come clean with the state of their game, they seemingly justified their secrecy by joining forces with the very people they claimed were holding them back. Apparently Deep Silver had more right to know about the game than the backers.
The Pioneer's Price
While hindsight is always 20-20, the sad truth is that Mighty No. 9's high profile failure isn't really that surprising. By looking back at Kickstarter's brief history you will find that Mighty No. 9's Kickstarter happened at a time when few games were crowdfunded, and even fewer crowdfunded games were completed and released. The newness of crowdfunding meant that there was little for Inafune and company to learn from, so it's not really surprising that they screwed up.
I am not saying that what Comcept did was excusable, but I am saying that this is a sober reminder of what it entails to be one of the first in any field. Mighty No. 9 didn't have a rulebook; it is the rulebook.
Moving Beyond Grief (and Rage)
This is the part of the post where I do my best to make lemonade out of this really sour lemon. Yes, Mighty No. 9 is a mess, and backers were forced to pay a literal price to learn that Keiji Inafune is not trustworthy, but the best that we can hope for now is to make sure that a similar disaster never happens again.
Let's start with what you can do as a project creator.
The most important thing you can do is stop treating your Kickstarter funding like a budget. First, very carefully think about how much money you need to make the game, then increase that amount some more for overhead, and that's your funding goal. Use stretch goals sparingly, only promising easy-to-implement game features like more levels, more characters, more items, etc. I strongly recommend against promising additional game modes (especially online multiplayer) through stretch goals, as it's very unlikely that additional funding will actually make such features feasible.
A good rule of thumb would be to assume your initial funding goal is your entire game budget, with anything above that as insurance (and possibly profit upon the completion of the game). After all, backers should already be getting their money's worth with or without stretch goals.
Another thing to keep in mind is to choose your supported platforms very carefully, especially those that are promised through stretch goals. If your game is simple enough (i.e. uses 2D graphics) and uses a cross-platform engine, you can easily target Mac and Linux on top of Windows. If you're making the engine from scratch I would advise against supporting more than one platform unless you have plenty of experience. Using a cross-platform engine also allows you to target consoles like the Playstation 4 and Xbox One, but keep in mind that console ports will very likely require additional work and licensing costs. Don't target the Wii U anymore, since it's obsolescence is imminent. In the end just make sure that your choice of platforms are very much capable of running your engine of choice.
Lastly, always come clean with your issues. Some things will happen along the way, and it's possible you will have to renege on some your promises. Not everyone will be understanding, but the more transparent you are the better. You can also issue refunds to make peace with your backers, but it's best to only issue refunds (partial or full) if the whole project will be cancelled, or just a stretch goal.
If you are a potential backer, on the other hand, keep these in mind.
First, compare the funding, the scope, and the supported platforms of the project. If a project supports too many platforms, it's probably a good sign to refrain from backing it. Likewise, if the project has too many stretch goals, it's probably a very risky investment. Simple games with simple funding goals are probably good bets, but keep in mind that no project is a sure hit.
Second, never commit more than you can afford to lose. If you only want to see the project succeed, only pledge a minuscule amount. If you feel you need to be rewarded for backing the project, only pledge enough to be entitled to a copy of the game. Leave the higher pledge amounts to the 1%. That some projects will fail is a fact, so be smart with your pledges, and always be ready for the worst.
Lastly, be understanding of setbacks in the project. Developers will have to be more transparent about the state of their game in the wake of Mighty No. 9. That means some of the issues of game development that Comcept previously tried to hide will probably be shown to us now. There will be ups and downs throughout the project, and the least we can do for the developers who are at least open about it is be understanding, regardless of the final result.
It's pretty much a given that crowdfunding won't be the same after Mighty No. 9's disastrous launch. The silver lining in all this is what we as an industry are much better informed about the virtues and vices of crowdfunding, and I hope that we've learned enough to make crowdfunding more viable than it's ever been. We'll just have to accept Mighty No. 9 as a dark spot in Kickstarter history, but hopefully the lessons learned along the way will pave the way to a much brighter future.