Is Sony poisoning the Kickstarter well?

Kickstarter has made dreams come true, whether it be some maker's dream product or a backer's dream game. But the promise of crowdfunding isn't completely foolproof, and Kickstarter has seen its fair share of people trying to take advantage of loopholes and fine prints, like this latest issue surrounding Shenmue 3. It was revealed that Sony was somewhat "supporting" the game's production, ruffling a few feathers and raising some questions. Has Sony found a way to game the Kickstarter system or is it completely within bounds? Or has Sony set a pattern that could potentially ruin Kickstarter for indies and smaller groupus?

The Story

Let's be fair. Shenmue 3 would have reached, and it did, its $2 million goal easily. The nostalgia factor,and the fact that it was announced in front of a captive audience at E3, practically sealed that deal. Another Kickstarter, Bloodstained from Castlevania creator Koji Igarashi, also rose to fame quickly and broke Kicstarter records. What these two games have in common is that they had access to the Sony marketing engine. But apparently, especially in the case of Shenmue, it had access to more.

It turns out that Sony was doing more than help publicize the Shenmue 3 Kickstarter. It actually had a hand, a financial one, behind it as well. In short, it was practically fulfilling the role of a publisher, a fact that was never revealed until later, when the campaign was already well beyond its funding goal. In Bloodstained's case, Igarashi was more uprfont in his pitch. He said that they already have an unmamed publishing partner. The Kickstarter was then, more like a litmus test that the publisher needs to invest in the game. That was pretty much the same explanation that Shenmue's Yu Suzuki gave when word got out about Sony's involvement.

Suzuki recently wrote an update that explained Sony's role in Shenmue 3's development. To be precise, Sony assists in production, marketing, some publishing, and some other things that he is legally bound not to talk about. He reassures backers that no money is flowing back to Sony, which was probably never a concern in the first place. What he does leave out, however, is how critical Sony's involvement would have been. In other words, if Shenmue 3 raised the $2 million it asked for, or even the $4 million it's close to reaching, will they be able to make Shenmue 3 without Sony?

The Problem

Kickstarter and video games are somewhat of a gray area. There's barely no physical product involved, almost everything is software. Kickstarter doesn't have rules on exactly what situation qualifies a game to be on Kickstarter, but the unspoken agreement is that game makers go to Kickstarter to raise funds they would otherwise never get if they pitched the game to a traditional publisher. In short, no money, no game. That situation is more clear cut in the case of indie or small game developers. In the case of Shenmue 3 and Bloodstained, however, things get a bit murky.

In Bloodstained's case, they already had a publisher. Shenmeu is a bit more coy about the matter, but its clear that there are bigger wheels at work behind the scenes. If that's the case, funding was never really an issue. The issue was convincing publishers to fund the game. Kickstarter, then, was turned into a popularity test to gauge interest in the game. And the metric used was real-world money.

It seems that Sony has found a less risky way to publish less mainstream games. They could let the game developers make a pitch on Kickstarter to measure its interest or even profitability. If it flies, Sony can support it with all its might behind the scenes. If it sinks, at least it didn't lose time nor money for a game that wouldn't sell. Is Kickstarter meant to be used this way or has Sony found some loophole it could use?

The Answer?

Sadly, there is no clear cut answer, at least not yet. There is nothing in Kickstarter's policies that explicitly prohibits this particular use case. Probably except for the part that projects must be honest. Kickstarter has been by backers to more than just fund the project, they've also seen it as a way to support a cause. Campaigns have also used it to get closer to users/buyers, allowing them to be involved directly in the development of a product. Shenmue 3 definitely meets both cases.

Did Shenmue and Sony do something improper? The jury is pretty much hung on that one. On the one hand, they didn't do anything technically wrong, as mentioned above. On the other hand, the Shenmue 3 Kickstarter never mentioned it at all, waiting for news to leak out and theories to be drawn before saying anything. Perhaps they worried that if the fact was out when the campaign was still running could have ruined their chances. That's the part about them not being so honest. Given legal considerations, they might not have much choice, in which case the onus of proper disclosure falls on Sony.

Could they have done things differently? Probably. If they were simply looking for proof of interest, they could have used different price tiers and a different amount goal. GamesRadar suggests a single $50 tier. With more than 40,000 backers, they'd still reached $2 million easily. They could have still set aside two or three $1,000 tiers for die-hard fans. That said, it would have also removed some of the nice rewards that were offered on other tiers. They could have also just been upfront about it. Judging by Bloodstained success and by continued fan support even after word got out, it wouldn't have been an issue anyway.

Final Thoughts

Sony definitely seems to have stumbled on to something, opening a can of worms, small as it may be for now. While this singular case may be forgivable or even forgettable, there might come a time that it might not just be Sony doing this kind of strategy. Game publishers might start looking at Kickstarter as a cheaper, more effective survey. Game makers might start suggesting this strategy to publishers as well. Without any clear rule, this could make Kickstarter open to a new kind of abuse.

That is, if this is, in the first place, considered as an abuse.

Somewhat ironically, it's business as usual for fans. It wouldn't have mattered which ever path Shenmue 3 took, it would have still been funded. When Yu Suzuki let it slip that his dream goal is really $10 million, fans have come up with suggestions on how to make that happen. Kickstarter has given them a chance to become co-creators of their favorite game, to have a voice in its development. Whether or not Sony ultimately ends up shouldering it like a traditional publisher mattered little to them. Kickstarter has just made their dream come true.