If you had to explain Kickstarter to an alien, it would be difficult. Also, your priorities would be completely out of whack – really, you couldn't think of anything more important to discuss? We're at war! People are starving! Stop talking about Kickstarter and ask to see the mind ray. Still, the point stands: the evolution of Kickstarter has been confusing.
When Kickstarter first came into the collective gaming consciousness, it was all about the little guy. It was an awesome idea buoyed by the arrival of big name developers like Tim Schafer and Brian Fargo, who all wanted help to deliver games that fans wanted, but had been flatly rejected by evil, bean-counting publishers – who already had loads of beans but still wanted more. Kickstarter was an underdog – a promise that no matter what your background or industry connections, if you could convince people your idea was cool enough, you could scrape together the backing to make it a reality.
And then the headlines changed a bit. Suddenly, Kickstarter successes were being measured not in thousands or tens of thousands, but in millions. Suddenly, the little guys weren't little at all: they were giants, gathering up all the news coverage in their big, beefy arms and carrying it off over the horizon.
In a way, it was great. We got Broken Age (well, a bit of it) and Wasteland 2. Pillars of Eternity and Tides of Numenera and Elite: Dangerous are on the way. People who made great games for years are making games again.
But what happened to the real little guys? The ones left pitching games in the giants' craterous footprints? Who was Kickstarter really for, now?
"I remember in preschool I would take cardboard boxes, cut out a 'screen' area, then make a cardboard controller," says Gabriel Priske, developer of the just-launched isometric puzzler See No Evil. "[I'd] attach a stick to it and put a Lego guy on the end of the stick. I had some pretty elaborate cardboard game systems. The weird thing is, it wasn’t like I played loads of games as a kid. I just loved the idea. Often I loved the idea of making games, and what games could be a lot more than I enjoyed playing them.”
In every way, See No Evil's Kickstarter was different to the stuff that usually made headlines. For one thing, while the development team was unknown, the game was basically built. There was even a working demo. For a second, the funding goal wasn't something you'd normally have to stick up a casino to achieve – Priske and the team wanted a meager $2,000 (€1,500). As Priske says in the pitch video, the team had been working out of their own pockets.
"Our small goal is to allow us a little bit more time to polish and make the game exactly what we want it to be," he says.
And then there was Priske's age. He's just 19. The difference between Priske and the giants couldn't be starker.
The game released on Steam on 26 August after several years of on and off development. It's good. In it, you slip behind the eerie glowing eyes of an unnamed character called a 'Seer'. That's not some spooky, magical term in See No Evil, either – the central crux of the game is that, for reasons that would be a shame to spoil, all the inhabitants of this grim reality have deliberately chosen to go blind. Patrolling enemies can't see you, but they can hear you – and if they do, they'll doggedly chase you down.
That makes See No Evil a cruelly challenging blend of stealth and puzzling. Guards stand in place or walk fixed patrol routes, and your goal in each stage is to slip past them to an exit. Fortunately, you know a trick they don't: you can shout, which sends out a visible sound wave in a single direction, used to pull guards away from their posts, over switches or into areas where you can trap them.
But that requires timing. Get too close to a guard when you shout and they'll be able to follow you by listening to your footsteps – and they all run faster than you can. It's challenging from the start, and as you progress, the game becomes rapidly less forgiving, introducing greater numbers of guards and switches, thick fog that completely blocks your vision, and piles of decomposing flesh that – if you walk in them – cause you to leave pungent tracks everywhere you go, providing a malodorous trail for enemies to follow. It's all deceptively simple on paper – but hits that puzzle game holy grail of leaving you sat there, muttering, "this must be broken. This is broken. There's no way to do this. This bit doesn't, oh, wait, no, that's it" over and over again.
The game was Priske's first ever team project, after a childhood spent playing with tools like FPS Creator, Game Maker and basic 3D modelling software like MilkShape. After first fiddling around with development aged 12, he moved onto collaborations with friends – abandoned projects that Priske himself dismisses, variously, as "small", "unbalanced" and "weird". Such were the foundations of See No Evil.
"I wasn’t some prodigy," he says. "I was just a motivated kid absolutely obsessed with interactive entertainment, who had access to the internet."
"[With See No Evil], I knew I wanted to make something a bit bigger than I ever had on my own. So I wrote up a design document and sent it over to [programmer] William Holly and [audio designer] Luke Thomas. They both jumped right into the creative process. From day one we all intended to make the game something very doable. We didn’t want to try and make our first commercial game some epic Gears of War, Civilization, Mario mash up.
"'Do-ability' was priority number one. We honestly started out with such a learning-oriented vision for the game that we really weren’t thinking about a large audience and what they might think of it. It was so humbling to find people really getting into the idea."
A learning experience it was. One of the great criticisms of Kickstarter's gaming explosion is that it makes smaller games whose developers aren't carried about in litters by legions of devoted fans much harder to see.
"[Kickstarter isn't] exactly friendly," Priske says. "A Kickstarter is great, but it’s a stressful thing; if you’re not ready to get beat around a bit you probably shouldn’t do it. It is really hard to push your game out there, since everyone and their mom has a Kickstarter campaign up now. That’s why [we also went to Steam Greenlight]. It’s sort of a shot in the dark."
Getting coverage for a game and studio no-one had ever heard of was a problem. While there are exceptions to the rule (the first-person bullet-chess that is Superhot, for example), without a following or lucky press coverage, smaller developers can wind up getting trampled in the stampede of people racing to toss cash at the 'spiritual sequel' to whatever game they rosily remember from their childhoods. Without contacts in the press or the industry, Priske and his team decided to send out unsolicited builds of the game ahead of E3 to any outlets they thought might cover it.
Then, the night before launching See No Evil on an unsuspecting games press, everything broke.
"We don't really have a QA team, so we have to play the game a lot ourselves," says Priske. "The problem with that is that we get used to playing it a certain way. The night before I managed to get three friends over to all playtest it. It was suppose to be more of a celebration, but it turned into madness when they all started finding bugs that we had totally missed. They were just doing stuff we hadn't tried.
"[Then], in the process of fixing [the bugs] our engine had an automatic update that broke the game. So we had to revert to an older version of the engine and spend time finding and destroying these bugs. This all took place at three or four in the morning. It was a mess, I don't think I have ever been as stressed as I was those few days in my life."
By the time the team had finished stamping out the gremlins, the window had passed. E3 was in full swing, and every news story on every gaming outlet in the world was breaking, only to be almost instantly buried under the avalanche of new announcements.
"It was really too late," says Priske. "Rock Paper Shotgun did an article about us that was great, but it got pushed to the third page by E3 stuff within hours. It was quite a battle."
Yet despite the team's relative inexperience, the lack of coverage, the buggy press builds and screaming-into-the-wind that is crowdfunding, See No Evil made it. It's there, sitting proudly on the Steam Store next to Broken Age, Wasteland 2, Shadowrun Returns, Divinity: Original Sin and all the other Kickstarter giants. All 2,000 crowdfunded dollars worth of it.
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