#CrowdPleasers #002 – Code: HARDCORE on KickStarter

I’m going to start this off by revealing my bias: Little in life gets me as excited as Giant Robots. Mecha just reach deep down inside of me and flip a switch that fills me with childlike exuberance. I grew up, and still am, enamoured with Transformers and easily found that love of heavy  mechanical action carried over to Gundam, Front Mission, Mazinger Z, Gurren Lagann, and a seemingly endless supply of other amazing designs and stories centered around them. My introduction to many of the most classic of Mecha franchises came through a fan created English language patch for Super Robot Wars 3, which I ate up vigorously and played with fervor on the old ZSNES emulator. What I couldn’t have anticipated would be that in the long run I would fall more in love with SRW for its Original Generations designs and characters than for their licensed appearances. To this date, the only games I have been willing to import and play in complete Japanese with tonnes of translation guides and menu aides open on my computer next to me have been these vaunted Banpresto masterpieces. Rocket Punch Games’ Code: HARDCORE draws heavily, and openly, from this and so much more.

I came across Code: HARDCORE about a week ago in, frankly,  an unusual way for myself. Generally I like to browse through KickStarter and IndieGoGo project lists sorted however they would be at their default setting. “By Magic” as KickStarter calls it. This is to give myself an overview of what is presently there and to try to pick out the ones that are doing the beat and the worst jobs at catching the viewer’s attention in this overcrowded crowdfunding marketplace. This time however, I chose to click on “Recommended for you”. I was curious how well they could do at guessing what I would like based on what I have looked at, and they went well beyond what I thought they could do. This game was right at the top of the pile, and is right in my wheelhouse.

I knew immediately that SRW was an influence from the primary visual they chose. It was very high quality work in that eye catching image. I’ve seen this aesthetic chosen before and been for something that wound up looking subpar in concept or execution and had been disappointed. But something of the care they’ve taken shone through and I didn’t expect it to be bad. But I never could have expected how good it would be.

This campaign is very slick and pretty. No doubt can be had in the fact that a lot of time and cost has already been put into getting this project ready to be put on KickStarter and to structure the campaign page in the best way possible to try and get their funding, and as of this writing they have about 30 days left and have already blown past their very first funding goal. They look on track to hit stretch goals en masse, with very attractive options built into what looks to be a reasonably paced layout. Most Mecha fans, and I feel confident in saying this, will easily want the campaign to reach each and every stretch goal level that adds additional playable machines to the lineup.

I’m going to try something a bit different from the last time I critiqued a campaign. I’m going to go from top-to-bottom and point out strengths and weaknesses in the way that they are encountered . I may not be 100% on target, but I will try to cover everything.

Thus, the obvious place to start really deconstructing the qualities of this campaign is with the video that headlines their page. I really like it when campaigns include a video at the very beginning. It’s an easy hook for an overall distracted and over busy Internet population. A campaign that includes absolutely no video content at all better  damned well be a 10/10 + Bonus Points on all other parts of it.

Code: HARDCORE’s opening video package is beautifully animated and edited SRW-fan pandering at its finest. If they had splashed in the SRW logo in place of the Code: HARDCORE one, I would have believed it was a new spin-off side game. The aesthetic quality that has come to be expected from Banpresto’s franchise is replicated with loving attention to detail by Rocket Punch Games, not only in the amazingly fluid gameplay footage using SD styled art but also in the regular styled cut scenes and super move animations. The gameplay on display in their campaign video, before they very openly talk about their influences, looked familiar and exciting. At play were elements from classic side scrolling arcade-style shooters, like U.N. Squadron and, not coincidentally, Metal Slug. After they’ve wowed you with their stunning visual display, their video gives you a window into their mindset, as many campaign videos have done before. Switching from a hype reel to the talky bits can often be where a crowdfunding campaign’s video package falls apart due to their creators’ lack of personality or charisma, or, worse, not sounding like they have confidence in either themselves to complete the project or in their project’s quality. Not only is their product high quality and well showcased , their staff are as well. Charming, confident, and passionate. Those are the traits that Rocket Punch’s staff, and Louicky Mu in particular, convey to the viewer. Their blatant acknowledgement of their inspirations and their mission statement, that Super Robot Wars is the coolest Mecha series around but that they wanted to make a game that let you perform the cool moves instead of having them all be pre-rendered, gives the viewer a succinct and clear definition of what the game will be, and informs your understanding of the previous flashy gameplay trailer.

Immediately after the video they jump to what is, unequivocally, the most important piece of information: they have a ready to play alpha demo. However, this information is also problematic. The demo is locked away behind a pay wall. Before the campaign was funded no one had access to the demo, and now that it is funded, you can start playing and testing the game out immediately so long as you are willing to first support the campaign for at least $25.00USD. Really, this isn’t a demo so much as an early access situation. While this is still leaps and bounds above presenting a video game crowdfunding campaign without any play-ready content at all, it really doesn’t do what I want it to do. Play-before-you-pay demos being standardized is the model I see for generating the most success and transparency in Video Game crowdfunding. Maybe I’m spoiled, having really only started seriously putting my own money into other people’s dreams starting with what I see as a benchmark in crowdfunding,  Lab Zero Games’ Indivisible,  but I see being able to present a sample upfront,  and not just an idea pitch, as paramount to earning the trust of the investor on these platforms. Particularly in response to the very large amounts of negative press generated by certain projects who have stunk it up with big promises and delivering big failures. Locking the sample, the Proof of Concept, behind a pay wall is foolish. As this article exists to critique the quality of the campaign, not any of the products delivered afterwards, I can only really take into consideration the promise that there is a demo, and not the quality of their innovative gameplay nor the super high caliber animation which they have spent good effort and good money hyping up to me.

And hype it up they do. They run through different control options, gameplay modes, and awards in a heartbeat. While I can’t say I have heard of the IndiePlay show before this campaign,  a quick  Google search informs me that it is a Chinese independent game developer convention of sorts. The fact that they have brought Code: HARDCORE to IndiePlay and the Tokyo Game Show and have footage and proof of people playing their game lessens but not dissolves my concerns about preventing the Play-before-you-pay opportunities I think are essential for moving forward. I won’t dismiss a campaign entirely if it doesn’t have a ready and free to play demo, but it has to work much harder to win me over. Every campaign I dig into my expectations are a little higher and my sense of discernment is that much greater. I fully recognize that the potentiality that I will not get my reward for my investment exists, but if by being smart and critical I can maximize the probability that there will be a return on my investment,  why wouldn’t I do it? It is my money.

This does not, however, decrease my excitement that one of the awards they won was for “excellence in design”, which means so much more than one purely for animation would. Rocket Punch Games have no reason to worry about communicating how good their game looks to their investor base. Their work speaks for itself, and the campaign page is repleat with it. The game is, barring anything else, one of the prettiest looking games I’ve seen come out of anywhere in a long while. Their art style and gameplay looks like what I imagine a team up between Banpresto and Vanillaware to make a licensed SRW game would be. No, they need no award to tell me that this game is pretty. But gameplay,  and game design, can only be experienced through the act of play. Without a demo to play before I hand over my money,  I  have to take your word that your game is good, or innovative. But an award of this nature, it legitimizes your claims.  And while not all awards are equal, all awards are better than no awards. Unless they’re a sham award, or an award for being bad. Along with their usage of GIFs to demonstrate how their gameplay and animation features will look in game, this award goes a long way to solidify one’s confidence in the team.

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Image Taken from Code: HARDCORE’s campaign page

As such, their lists of features are all the more tantalizing. They promise a cinematic story mode, competitive local and online multilayer,  tight and responsive controls, a wealth of customizability in, from what I can tell, both story mode and more explicitly multilayer (user loadouts). For now, let’s simply say that they have presented enough of a well laid out and professionally constructed and presented campaign that I am willing to trust them on  their claims, even with their demo locked behind a paywall. I’m also willing to admit a certain amount of personal leniency, as there really aren’t enough good Mecha games on the market (a fact that they themselves draw attention to in their campaign video) and, as a biased fan of the genre, I’m more willing to have hope take a frontseat in this equation. The further you scroll down their campaign page, the more impressed you get.

I’m going to take a brief moment to get critical about their Mecha design before we move onto their reward structure and stretch goals.

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The four major designs revealed thus far for Code: HARDCORE. Again, sourced from the campaign page.

Code: HARDCORE’s first set of revealed Mecha,  based on both what is visible in the hype package in their video as well as what they display on the campaign page itself, all look very smooth and their drive to present the player with Mecha based on all sorts of international genre tropes seems well within their grasp. The four named machines on the campaign page are, each and every one, a love letter to certain traditional giant robot archetype. The Thunderbolt is your Gundam/Huckebein archetype, with a very predictable set of armaments and a body type instantly recognizable to even your most casual Mecha fan. Maybe it’s head borrows more inspiration from the Gespenst or the designs from Virtual-On,  but it’s movements and build give it away clearly. The Roundhammer screams Macross,  Battletech, and, to a lesser extent, later Gundam-franchise styled artillery Mecha. The Geier is more Macros Plus meets the SRW Altairlion. The Crimson Flame is certainly a modern super robot, blending together aesthetic elements I’ve seen in such disparate entities as Gurren Lagann, Danball Senki  (LBX), and the SRW Original Generations’ own attempts at the modern super robot. Every design they do at full size and then squash down to the toddler-like SD style popularized amongst Mecha fandom by the Super Robot Wars franchise, in direct reverent mimicry of Banpresto’s aesthetic. Their competent design choices along with their wonderfully high quality referential art styling really works hard to reinforce the idea they present in their video, that they want to make a game that is as cool as the  SRW games but where the player can do the “cool moves” themselves, instead of entirely prerendered combat. And they furthermore understand where their project would benefit from prerendered sequences, dedicating prerendering to the realm of super moves for the players to execute that would freeze the action much in the way super moves do in Street Fighter. Herein they also call heavily upon the roots of their aesthetic,  switching to regular proportions for these sequences much as SRW does in their major moves. They know their target audience so well because,  most likely, they are their target audience.

Now, when it comes to their rewards I have my reservations. Their lower tier options allow the investor to get in on the ground floor rather affordably,  with access to the alpha build of the demo coming in at a reasonable $25.00USD as mentioned previously, and they have your standard “backer exclusive skin” and “backer exclusive weapon” to up the ante a bit. As these are likely very simple digital goods to produce without wildly unbalancing the game, I see these as standard fare. Heck, even Indivisible has a backer exclusive colour pallette. These kinds of aesthetic perks act like preorder bonuses would in the regular game market. What concerns me the most are their more elaborate rewards, both physical and digital in nature.

I  worry that their “Metal Saga” tier, which exists as a standalone option or as an add-on for other tiers, will bog them down logistically and be undeliverable. Physical goods are expensive to produce and prohibitive to ship, and this beautiful looking Thunderbolt action figure is being made of metal, which inevitably will raise the cost of materials and shipping.  Even worse than the action figure being undeliverable due to unforeseen costs would be them cutting corners to ensure that it is deliverable and we wind up with something akin to the Transformers: Titanium toys that could hardly hold together because of unbalanced weight and weak joints over stressed by heavy metal components. However, if they can pull this off at the high level of quality they attest to, it should be a very interesting piece of Mecha history to own. The Chinese gaming industry is on the rise, and I could see this becoming a franchise all on its own.

As for the digital goods that trouble me, my eyes are drawn to the “creation” tiers at the higher end of the investment spectrum. As of this writing there have been 69 people who, on Kickstarter alone  (the game has a Japanese-language crowdfunding campaign as well over on Modian), have purchased reward tiers that requires the game developers to include them or their designs into the game to varying degrees. This is no small undertaking. Many of these tiers include more than one thing for the investor to design, which means that the larger cost investors could slow the project down if the team does not carefully manage their time and the backers’ expectations and punctuality. I’m not bashing this kind of reward as an option.  In fact,  “creation tiers” are often my favourite options to see, as I fancy myself a good designer and want to put it to the test. And, while I lament my inability to afford to get these tiers, I respect the logic behind them having high costs and big rewards.  But this is a lot of work to do, particularly if they aim to keep the same quality animation throughout these designs. Being untested, Rocket Punch Games have an excellent opportunity to prove that they can deliver on some big promises and big rewards.

Now, remember how I mentioned that Code: HARDCORE also has a home on Modian, where it presently has a healthy ¥378,597?  Well, Rocket Punch Games have decided to combine the Kickstarter and Modian sums together to tabulate stretch goal achievement. This means that before the campaign even had time to catch it’s breath from accomplishing their initial funding goal, they had unlocked the first four stretch goals. With a physical art book,  two additional Mecha,  two additional multiplayer maps, and the game being ported to PS4 a lock, the new investor only has to worry about unlocking more boss levels, a playable boss robot, and a famous voice actor… But wait, what’s that down there at the bottom of the stretch goals all fuzzy like? That’s another goal that we aren’t close enough to see clearly. This kind of teasing is intelligent, but might remind some people of the endless list of stretch goal promises that tanked Mighty No 9. Again, we reach a question of tipping points and resource management. Even if they raise enough money between the two platforms to hit all of their stretch goals,  is it maybe too much?  Time will tell.

Frankly speaking, this game looks a lot bigger than their budget looks like it can cover. Indivisible’s campaign was lambasted for asking for the sum they did and Code: HARDCORE looks to have a lot of the same challenges to face. Beautiful 2D animation isn’t cheap. Certainly the wages in China are likely to be different and maybe Rocket Punch are closer to a finished product with their demo than Lab Zero were with the Indivisible proof of concept, but it begs the question of how much is really enough, if they have budgeted properly, and if maybe they have a corporate sponsor we are as of yet unaware of (the only console to be getting a version is the Playstation 4, could that mean anything behind the scenes?). I’m likely making a mountain out of a molehill, and I’d like to stay positive here, but concerns merit voicing.

As you move down the page you also come across the “Backer Achievements” section. I’ve seen variations on this idea used across many different campaigns of different sizes to varying degrees of completion. It feels like Code: HARDCORE’s has stalled. The amount of likes, retweets, shares etc. that they require to move on to the next level of unlocked achievement,  like a pseudo-stretch goal list unlocked by social activity rather than by monetary value, seems to have been miscalculated for the pace and scope of their campaign. They still have plenty of time to prove me wrong, but it looks like it’s headed that way. With that in mind,  they are presently only 2 points away from unlocking “a big stretch goal“, likely that semi-obscured one already on the list. I’d hope that they can at least reach that point to sate my curiosity, but I wouldn’t mind seeing an SD proportioned toy either. And, see, that’s exactly what this section is supposed to do. You get your curiosity piqued and then the requests are so simple in principle.  Like. Retweet.  Follow. Share. But can those numbers be overcome?

It seems in my excitement and consternation over other aspects of Code: HARDCORE’s campaign I skipped past discussing their OST samples. I think that kind of speaks to the point I am about to make. While none of them are bad, and they are all certainly genre appropriate, none of them goes beyond to become something special, like the rest of the artistry in this campaign has done so far. I wouldn’t turn off the music if I had it pop up on my headphones, but it’s no “Neppu! Shippu! Psybuster!“.

Before rendering any kind of verdict, I’d like to take a minute to look at their Financials breakdown. Their pie chart looks eerily similar to every other pie chart. I guess that’s the nature of pie charts. What stands out is the interesting fact that they have budgeted 40% of funds collected to game development and a whopping 20% to digital rewards.  Considering the 69 people who each have one or more digital reward that actually has an effect on the game being made, this number is a touch of comfort. Obviously I  can’t say whether or not it would be enough, and the time and resource management skills of this team will certainly be put to the test, but at least it doesn’t feel like an afterthought.  20% has also been set aside for “extra game features”, which is super fascinating, because that totalled with game development means that an easy 60% goes right into making the game complete and better. But why haven’t they budgeted any flexibility in? Maybe everything is scaled up by 1 to 5 percent more than they actually need in those areas already?  Unless they respond to this article, we’ll likely never know,  and if they deliver on this game as well as I hope they can, no one will ever care.

I WOULD SPEND: $25 -$250

As I’ve mentioned before, when I invest in a game, I’m always going to start at the level where, in the end, I get a playable full copy of the game. I can’t really see a reason to start lower than that. So, as the early-bird special is over, you’re going to start at $25.00USD. As this is something that, like Indivisible, I am really excited about I’m going to aim for that sweet, sweet merch. I’m looking at Union level with the Metal Saga figure as an add on. That being said, going up above where that’s at, to get the Civilian or NPC tiers would also be affordable, particularly if you are not interested in the Metal Saga action figure. In fact I may have just convinced myself that Civilian and the figure are worth it. It’s a $10.00USD difference over Union and the figure. Either way, if you’ve gotten this far then I hope that you’re interested in parting ways with some of your money and taking a chance on Code: HARDCORE. I think that just getting the game at all is a great idea if you even tangentially like Mecha.

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