As we’re all quite aware, the much-anticipated Mighty No. 9 released this week, and, well, it’s been kind of a mess. The review scores are middling, it’s been raked over the coals all across YouTube and Twitch streams, and everybody who thinks they can make a quick grab for nerd attention by hopping on the trainwreck du jour has been making half-assed (and sometimes shockingly misinformed) digs at the game since its release.
But here’s the thing: there’s a lot more to MN9’s problems than just some angry yellman screaming about how Keiji Inafune scammed people out of four million dollars. I’m not trying to say “you shouldn’t be let down by MN9,” because it’s not my right to police your personal feelings. But I do think it’s important that people understand that there’s a lot to take into account when thinking and talking about this game. There are countless valuable lessons to learn here: about how games are made (and why they sometimes don’t live up to expectations), of keeping hype in check, and why putting money up for anything sight-unseen is a risk you really need to consider carefully.
Perhaps the biggest misconception is that Mighty No. 9’s particular failings are somehow unique to this particular project. This is absolutely not the case.
This is a situation that happens behind closed doors all the time
Most of the anger towards MN9 comes from the fact that it was visible from a very early stage in its life. Most developers would pitch a project like MN9 to a publisher or other private funding source, and if they bit, they’d supply most of the money needed for development in hopes that they’ll make a profit. Crowdfunding is different: the “profit” you expect comes not from game sales, but from the end result (and the associated baubles you pledged for) being good. We first saw MN9 during this “pitch” stage, when usually we first see games that have reached a point in development much, much further along. The Kickstarter was the pitch.
Of course, not all products live up to their initial pitch. Every publisher picks up a dud from time to time, some of which seemed like surefire wins when they were being sold on the concept. Sometimes they pick up a pitch, only to later kill it before it even reaches the state in development where it can be shown publicly out of fear that continuing and releasing the game will cause more problems than just axing it. Sometimes development goes pear-shaped well into the game’s production (which is, ironically, usually due to their own meddling), and all they can do is try to reduce the damage by fixing things as much as they can and tossing it out onto the market. It’s disappointing not just to consumers, but to those who were sold on what they thought was a great game idea. But due to crowdfunding, we get double the disappointment – as backers and as players.
Concept Art is just that – concepts
One of the biggest complaints I’ve seen is in regards to the art used in the game’s initial pitch, and how it doesn’t look like the final product at all. Unfortunately, people don’t seem to understand that concept art rarely resembles the finished game product: it’s meant to convey ideas of what the devs want to do with the game’s visuals. When the reality of hardware, budget, and developer limitations set in, things often wind up very different.
Want to see how much can change from the concept art stage to the finished game? Here’s an example for you: concept art for Street Fighter II.
How many of the character ideas pictured here do you recognize? Probably not very many – a lot of stuff was heavily reworked as the game’s development progressed along.
Want a more recent example? Well, OK then! How about what was basically a concept trailer, the “gameplay” reveal of Bioshock Infinite? Watch it again and see how much stuff shown there didn’t make it into the final game.
Mighty No. 9 is a disappointment, not a failure
There are plenty of failed game Kickstarters: I can think of at least a dozen just off the top of my head. These are genuine failures: games people gave money to that never emerged as a finished product. Mighty No. 9, for its many flaws and bugs, at least delivers all of the levels and features that were promised (albeit much later than hoped). This isn’t a case where the “finished” game says that the rest of the levels will be available later: you can finish MN9 from beginning to end and take advantage of extra promised features like co-op.
I’m not saying it’s “better than nothing” – a disappointing product can be just as bad as one that never existed. But calling MN9 a “failure” seems like a stretch: it did deliver a product, just one a lot of people got far too carried away with hype over. Speaking of which…
Peoples’ expectations were far too lofty
There are some really, really great Megaman games. But as a series, Megaman has a lot of ups and downs. Taken as a whole, most of the games are entertaining – but hardly mindblowing – platform action titles. Some of them are even just plain bad. People who invested in the game did so specifically to get a new Megaman-style title, many with the expectations of getting something phenomenal… without taking into account that they were most likely to get an end product that was “pretty good.” Which is, coincidentally, what the more positive MN9 reviews out there describe it as.
But still, there’s no reason why it can’t be as good as the best Megaman games, right? Well…
You can’t recapture lightning in a bottle, even with big names attached
This goes along with the point about the Megaman franchise’s general lack of consistency. Keiji Inafune might have been involved with some fantastic games in his career, but his best games were very much a perfect storm of a particular era, development team, and market.
For many fans, Megaman 2 is the most treasured game in the franchise, but there were numerous factors that contributed to its quality: factors that would be impossible to reproduce. The original Rockman didn’t set the market on fire, but the small development team believed so strongly in the concept and the character that they worked on a sequel in-between other projects – a true passion project. When it came out, the market adored it in spite of the reserved expectations of both Capcom and the dev team. Since there really were no platform games in that style (aside from, well, the original Megaman), players were impressed by things like the stage selection process, the unique weapon-collection system, and the tightly-crafted jump-and-shoot platforming. It was the right game at the right time.
Mighty No. 9’s development environment, in contrast, is completely different. Besides Inafune, few of the other Megaman 2 staff was on MN9. Where the MM2 devs only had to answer to their higher-ups at Capcom, there were far more fingers in the MN9 development pie: Comcept, Inti Creates, Digital Development Management, Deep Silver, and (of course) the Kickstarter backers, all of whom likely had their own demands and visions for the project. Team sizes, game budgets, and development time needed have also ballooned tremendously since the Famicom days, as have consumer expectations: After all, the formula Megaman pioneered has inspired numerous other games to follow its lead.
All things considered, expecting MN9 to deliver the same sort of magic and formative gaming experiences of titles like Megaman 2 or even Megaman X seems like the perfect setup to have one’s hopes dashed (pun not intended). Of course, the game certainly could have been better than it turned out to be – nobody wants to buy a bad game, or even a mediocre one.1
Nobody wants to work on a bad game, either. But it happens.
People can and do work hard on things that turn out bad (and sometimes they even know that it’s bad)
A particularly gross and ridiculous thing I saw someone hopping on the MN9 hate train say was that people who work on something that turns out badly don’t deserve respect or sympathy, because if they really worked hard, the game would be good.
That is, quite frankly, a tremendous load of horseshit. People work hard on things that turn out poorly all the damn time, especially in games.
One of my favorite examples of this comes from my pal Dan Amrich’s old page about the infamously bad (and never officially released) arcade fighting game Tattoo Assassins. One of the people who worked on the game described how they worked on continuous crunch, all the while knowing the product was substandard. Here are some snippets:
The team was promised $25,000 bonuses and $25 per game manufactured if we could make it to production within 8 months. This was a pretty juicy carrot, and we all hung out our tongues and nodded our heads and began chasing it like fools. Of course, hindsight is 20/20 and all that but I think you will agree that the deadline was ridiculous considering we had no video game experience whatsoever amongst us. During the whole project, we were required to work 12 hours a day, 7 days a week…. If we were late to work, or left early, we would be threatened with having some of our $25,000 bonus docked. The “carrot” had become a big baseball bat we were beaten with almost daily. One guy walked out after having his bonus docked for coming in at noon, and he quit on the spot. The next day he was placated and he came back. I remember this moment vividly–working away at 3:30 a.m. one morning. I was so physically exhausted that I casually leaned over to the garbage can and vomited, after which I went right back to tapping away. My fingers never left the keyboard.
The biggest problem at this point was that we were all completely burned out. We knew the game was crap, and that we were no longer capable of fixing it… we no longer cared about the money–our only true reward for finishing up was that we wouldn’t have to work on it anymore… New games like Primal Rage and Killer Instinct came out, and they blew Tattoo Assassins away. We resisted violently any attempt to change the game to make it better, because that would mean we would be working on it longer–I’ve since read about this attitude being common in projects under high pressure. The artists were hoping that the programmers would come up with some new game play feature to make the game sell regardless of the art. The programmers were hoping that the artists would miraculously beautify things so that the game would sell regardless of the game play. One programmer stopped working almost entirely in the hopes of getting fired–he had signed a three year contract and would have to be paid off in a huge way if he got fired.
There are plenty of stories like this in the game industry, but we don’t hear them very often due to NDAs and the stupid idea that crunch is a “natural” part of development. The comment this poor soul made about people losing their passion in big, high-pressure jobs – which, given the whole Kickstarter thing, Mighty No. 9 absolutely was – especially rings true.
Of course, I’m not saying that we should give bad games a free pass because people worked hard on them. I’m also not saying we shouldn’t point out very clear incompetence when it’s present – some people really should not be trying to make games. We do, however, need to recognize that sometimes good people get stuck in development quagmires that are miserable for everyone involved. That leads us to our next fact…
We rarely ever hear what went wrong with games that failed to meet expectations
Odds are that we’ll never hear the rationale behind many of the decisions made during MN9’s development, even the ones that, in hindsight, resulted in the game being a disappointing product.
This is just human nature. People love to talk about their successes and want to downplay their failures. This is even more of a factor when publishers and corporations are involved: they’d rather sweep stuff that didn’t meet expectations under the rug and move on to hyping their next thing. Stories from developers “in the trenches” like the one above rarely come out, and if they do, it’s usually anonymous: workers have NDAs to worry about and are reluctant to burn bridges in a very connected industry – even if the blame for why a project turned out badly can be placed on specific individuals.
As consumers, it’s extremely frustrating, and even more so for someone like me who really wants to dig into why these things happen. In fact, there’s another disappointing retro-revival that released a few years ago which I’ve been trying to investigate in terms of “why did this turn into a trainwreck?” I know a few folks who were heavily involved with said game, and they still can’t talk about it, even years after the fact.
But it’s also important on and industry level that postmortems on why and how products failed get out there. There have been a few talks at places like GDC that go into mistakes developers and publishers have made, but compared to the talks dissecting games that hit their mark, they’re still relatively uncommon.2 I think it’s incredibly important that we talk about development failure, because then how else are we going to keep other people from making the same errors, or prevent poor, naive artists and programmers from getting sucked into toxic companies and projects when all the signs are there?
So, with all that in mind, one question lingers: how do we avoid further crowdfunding disappointment? Well, I have one big piece of advice.
Never, ever back a crowdfunding project for more than you would be willing to lose if it fails or disappoints
This goes for any and all crowdfunding efforts. I don’t care how big the names attached to the project are, how nice the trinkets that come with higher backing tiers sound – you must always be prepared for the potential of being let down, and for having that letdown sting even harder because you put up your cash upfront. Sure, you might get a cool limited edition goodie if you pledge $150 rather than $30, but will that even matter if the game turns out to be mediocre?
Research the pitch. Look at the track records of the people involved. Delve into the fine print. If there’s a demo available, download it and give it a whirl – it’s usually a good sign that the people asking for money already have the passion and vision to see it through. Don’t feel bad to say “no” for any reason.
Also, if anyone is outright attempting to pressure or shame you into crowdfunding something you don’t feel comfortable backing, they’re awful and deserve to be ignored. (They’re also likely setting themselves up for massive disappointment down the line.)
So in the end, Mighty No. 9 probably isn’t going to be the franchise-starter that the companies involved dreamed it would be. Honestly, it probably won’t even remain the butt of internet jokes for very long once the next big AAA game turns out to be a stunning mess. But it should be something we remember going forward. We have to understand that sometimes, and for complex reasons we may never fully comprehend, things in gaming just don’t turn out like we hope they will.