#CrowdPleasers #003 – CHIKARA: Action Arcade Wrestling on IndieGoGo

Admittedly this campaign almost slipped by me entirely. Thankfully it came back into my focus with enough time left for us to break down the campaign and see what it’s doing right and, just maybe, what it is doing wrong. At the time of writing this article CHIKARA: Action Arcade Wrestling (a terribly generic name) sits at just 48% of its stated goal with eighteen days left in its fundraising cycle. Obviously, there’s something to look at here.

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It’sa solid logo. Nice job there.

Now, if my #DiscoveringWrestling articles haven’t tipped you off already, I’m going to say it outright: I LOVE PRO-WRESTLING! Above and beyond that, I particularly love CHIKARA. They are innovative, different, exciting, and fresh. More importantly, they’ve been all of those things since they first hit the scene in 2002. The first time I ever went on a road trip to see a wrestling show was for a CHIKARA show in Ottawa, and they have only gotten more impressive each year. Their annual King of Trios tournament is an under-recognized highlight of every year’s Pro-Wrestling content. If there is ANY cast of characters in Pro-Wrestling who deserves to have a video game made featuring them, it is CHIKARA’s colorful and charismatic roster. It is hard to describe, in any brief manner, how different CHIKARA are from other wrestling promotions, so I’ll just leave this match here for the uninitiated.

With at least a cursory knowledge of the awesomeness of CHIKARA, we can all dive in to the campaign and start rooting around in its innermost chambers. As usual, the video package is where we’re going to start. Unfortunately, unlike the other recent entries in the #CrowdPleasers series, i don’t have much nice to say about the video. The package consists primarily of two components, some early alpha build footage and a “backstage promo” from The Estonian Thunderfrog and the game developer David Horn. While Thunderfrog, as a professional wrestler, delivers his parts with relative ease, the developer sounds uncertain of what he is doing. I can understand nerves getting the better of you, but the hype video is no place to put that front and centre. It lends no confidence to the viewer that the project is secure in these hands. This is particularly emphasized by the fact that the clear, well-enunciated and confident Mike Quackenbush immediately precedes Horn’s segment. It would have likely been better for Quack to have more involvement in the hype video.

The early alpha footage is heavily on the “meh” side of things but is, thankfully, easily forgotten as the campaign’s original video package is immediately followed by more video content. This further video content not only answers important questions about the game (a shame that they only released it halfway through the campaign) but also highlights some higher quality renders and animations. Again, the further video content showcases developer David Horn who is so anti-charismatic that it fails to sell me on the project, even when – from a detached and objective standpoint – the game’s controls sound fairly well thought out and intuitive. The developer’s have chosen to streamline the game to as few as two action buttons, with pushing both action buttons at the same time generating additional effects. They have even factored in the fact that some players would want to map the combined button press to a third button. It all sounds pretty solid and the video does highlight these facts. It is, therefore, even more of a shame that the developer himself brings my passion from a fire to a spark. Even the awesome nod towards mechanics from the timeless Fire Pro Wrestling franchise can only go so far to counteract an otherwise boring presentation of very crucial and potentially exciting information.

With the lack of salesmanship in mind, it seems very smart that the game’s developers chose to use IndieGoGo’s flexible funding option, which allows them to keep all of the money invested in the project ― whether or not they hit their initial goal. This is particularly true in light of what happened with CHIKARA’s previous attempt at crowd-funding a video game with Rudo Resurrection. Rudo Resurrection’s campaign failed to meet its $50,000 goal, hitting only just barely over $18,000, and even then it still delivered a more competent presentation and out-paced this current campaign by, at this time, approximately $8000. While CHIKARA: Action Arcade Wrestling’s developers have made a commitment that no matter how much money they raise the game will be released, they have done nothing to create the sense of urgency that drives a lot of people to fund campaigns in larger sums (of both people and money). As usual, the flexible funding option is a double-edged sword. In this type of situation you have to rely far more heavily on your campaign selling the need to invest early instead of waiting for the game to come out.

This actually leads nicely into the topic of the lack of any game content. Until it becomes a standard practice for crowd-funding, I’m going to bring this up at every opportunity. This campaign has no demo for the game. In fact, as mentioned earlier, it launched with only meh-inducing early alpha footage and next to no information on how the game mechanics would function was provided until the midway point. This is no way to inspire confidence in the ability of the developers to deliver a fun, functional game worth investing your hard earned money into. Sure, if you select certain perks you can get early beta access, but that’s just not good enough. Maybe I am being too idealistic, maybe the developers couldn’t reach a playable state without additional funding, but the lack of a playable demo to entice the investor with a tangible understanding of the project does nothing but lower my expectations.

In that same vein, without a demo to figure things out in, the audience is limited to the campaign’s explanations of gameplay, and the video packages released, to get a solid grasp on what they can expect to see in a final release of the game. In this regard I was left with some pretty big unanswered questions. Why were there no moves involving the corner turnbuckles? Why were there no top rope moves and no dives through the ropes? CHIKARA has built itself up as superheroic Lucha Libre and I’d expect that to be recreated and, particularly in a game billing itself as Arcade style, made a central part of the game. these are the flashiest looking parts of any match and they are completely absent from any of the information this campaign presents.

Then, with all of this uncertainty in place, the campaign recently released a video for their “Wrestle Factory” feature, the game’s “Create-A-Wrestler” mode, where the tone comes off all kinds of wrong. They seem to be proud of and bragging about the inclusion of CAW features that are, honestly speaking, standard practice and commonplace amongst Pro-Wrestling games since ―at the very least ―the Playstation 2 era. I cannot fathom how they thought that basic body-morphing options would impress their audience ― who have likely owned pretty much a minimum of one or two wrestling games for every console generation, if not more. It really feels as if the developers have their priorities all backwards when it comes to the campaign.

Immediately following all of these different video packages they go into a diatribe on why they wanted to make an Arcade styled wrestling game instead of a Simulation game (though, let’s be honest, no wrestling game has really been a simulation of the actual industry other than Grey Dog Software’s Total Extreme Wrestling games). Now, they do provide some decent logic for their Arcade aesthetic and gameplay but I don’t feel that these really jive with some of the odder elements of the gameplay footage they displayed, like the fireballs and energy beams being used. CHIKARA has had a long history of interesting non-standard wrestling moves, such as Ophidian and Amasis using hypnosis on their opponents, or Ultimate Spider Jr’s invisible web shooting abilities and, my favourite, Chuck Taylor’s invisible grenade. These would have made handsome additions to the game and would have actually felt at home in CHIKARA’s world. But then, maybe that’s all part of the problem CHIKARA: Action Arcade Wrestling is facing…

After this brief explanation from the developers on their gameplay choices, they have a section promising to provide more details. Problematically, instead of providing the details themselves in the campaign page they only include an excerpt from an article from some website I have never heard of before today. This then forces the reader to make the decision on whether or not they want to dive down that rabbit hole. From my perspective, all relevant information should be included in the campaign page itself and I’d personally be interested to see the number of click-throughs  versus the number of visits to the IndieGoGo campaign page itself.

At this point, for research’s sake, i went down the rabbit hole myself. It is a dangerous prospect to lead someone away from your campaign mid-pitch, they could easily find themselves never coming back. But I wanted to get a full set of information to write this article. At this point, through the link and Google searches, we find out that this is actually the third game in the Action Arcade Wrestling series developed by Mr. Horn,  this is just the first time he has had a licensed property to work with. The other games don’t look bad, from a gameplay perspective, but the graphics are just… ugh. Obviously, and thankfully, this CHIKARA edition of Action Arcade Wrestling is using the wonderful Unreal 4 engine and looks much better, both for its licensed character designs and the better, stronger engine. More important than the graphical progress is the fact that these videos for the older entries in the franchise answer some of the questions I had about the campaign itself. Such as how interactions with the turnbuckles and top rope moves might look, as well as affirming their likely presence in the game. Furthermore, these games advertise themselves as priced in the $1.00 to $3.00 range, indicating that they cannot be all that expensive or difficult to produce. Granted, the Unreal 4 engine is bound to up the costs, but at the least this news helps to reassure the potential investor that the game will come to fruition. It is a far cry from an actual playable proof-of-concept, but it goes some ways to changing how I felt about the viability of the game. While the staff credits at the very end of the campaign do mention this fact,  it should have been made much clearer in the body of the campaign at this very point, instead of sending me off to other sites and Google searches. I needn’t have left this page to get this information.

While the information on it is mind-bogglingly minimal, the campaign does say that the game will be available both through Steam and on consoles. Which consoles, however, is never mentioned. Lack of information in this matter is bad and makes the campaign carry an additional burden it needn’t have to. Even speculative information such as “likely Playstation 4 and XBox One” would be better than literally nothing.

Another informational downside to the campaign is having to infer the game’s roster from the video packages. It’s pretty lame. I can see the benefit in not revealing the entire roster until the game is closer to release. It certainly could change based upon who has signed contracts with CHIKARA for their likenesses, but having no one confirmed is a criminal shame. Some, really any, promotional roster art would go a long way towards making the campaign not seem amateurish. Along these exact same lines lies the fact that the risks and challenges section is also not very well defined.

This campaign’s rewards are limited in scope, but at least that makes it easy to analyze and critique them. Almost every one of the rewards is a digital reward. This makes their shipping and handling fees a likely minimal worry. Even then, based on their funding breakdown, I would be assuming that all of the physical rewards are being fulfilled by CHIKARA directly and that they will be eating the costs to encourage the game to hit completion unhindered by these worries. I cannot be certain, but it’s what i suspect.

The minimum donation level at $10 dollars nets you a one month access coupon to Chikaratopia, CHIKARA’s streaming service ―normally $7.99 per month. Thus, for marginally more, you get to support the game being made and get the streaming service you never knew you needed (seriously, if this is your first interaction with something bearing the CHIKARA name, do yourself a favour and check out their matches. The promotion is brilliant.) But I could never recommend a level that does not include getting the game afterwards, so that’s where we go next at $25. At this level of expenditure you get the game and the Chikaratopia for one month. As you move up the perks you get more and more time on Chikaratopia and some early access to beta features of the game, such as beta CAW at $60. Physical perks only kick in for $75 and above, with a t-shirt, an Ultramantis Black mask, and a signed poster kicking in as you go up.

The $100 tier is, from some rudimentary calculations, probably the most bang for your buck, with a mask (probably about $30 on its own, based on costs I’ve seen at shows), a t-shirt ($15), a year of Chikaratopia ($96), the game with all early beta access (approximately a $15-30 value, I’d bet) all together. This really isn’t all that bad of a value if you are a dyed in the wool CHIKARA fan.

I WOULD SPEND: $0-$100

This is a first for me. I find myself remarkably divided on how I feel about this campaign. On the one hand, the game could be great and I love CHIKARA. On the other, the campaign felt amateurish and underwhelming the whole way through. It all boiled down to one particular question for me: If this weren’t a CHIKARA game, would I care? Likely the answer would be “No.” The unfortunate fact is that this campaign does not sell me on the investment on its own. It relies too heavily upon the licensed property to catch my interest. At best, even with a licensed property I care deeply for, the campaign is middling to above-average quality. I backed Rudo Ressurection on KickStarter and I want CHIKARA to have a videogame, for I think they are the perfect property to turn into an exciting game, but sadly I’m not 100% sold on this.

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#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.

#CrowdPleasers #001 – Long Gone Days on IndieGoGo

My passion for crowd-funding was kindled during the time I spent as part of the nascent Indivisible fan community as we campaigned to help Lab Zero Games reach their oft scoffed at funding goal. I grew to appreciate, through my efforts as well as through observation, the work that goes into setting up a campaign and the emotional toll that the ride from launch to finale can take on those involved. I started to want to understand what exactly it takes to make a good crowd-funding campaign, and have spent hours just poring over the category pages of KickStarter and IndieGoGo looking at not only what catches my eye but what doesn’t, and why. I’m not going to call myself an expert, or say that I have this down to a science, because I’m not and I don’t. I will, however, dedicate some of my time to trying to point out campaigns that I believe people should be paying attention to, and highlight in them what they do right, what they do wrong, and try to help those on the fence make a decision on what to do with their hard-earned money.

To that end, let me introduce you to Long Gone Days, presently on IndieGoGo, with just over a week left to reach its fixed-funding goal. Take a minute to open that link in another tab, scroll through it a bit, and then we’ll get down to business. The first thing that jumps out at you about this campaign is how clean and pretty it looks. Information is well organized and clearly labeled throughout the page, and all of the art assets are stunning. The in-game pixel art on display is smooth and attractive, with an aesthetic that is fresh and separates it from the bulk of 2D RPG Maker styled games on crowd-funding sites. Long Gone Days let’s you know, right off the bat, that it isn’t like anything else you’ve seen a million times before. This stellar sprite art is complimented by a near flawless level of execution in the Anime-styled character portraits and cut scene art. It all looks so shiny, smooth, and, best of all, professional. Professional is always a good note to hit. Crowd-funding sites are rife with projects looking for your money that, from just a casual glance, cause you to instantly question whether or not they can deliver a fully realized, polished, completed as proposed result.

Their campaign’s rewards are also well thought out, focusing primarily on easily deliverable digital content, with the physical rewards all being lightweight and shippable items that do not require a lot of effort to guarantee they are produced on-time and to specifications. Fifteen dollars will net you a copy of the game on launch, while thirty gets you the game, the OST, and a digital art book. They’ve priced these tiers well, I feel, as it guarantees that almost anyone can get in on the game – let’s be fair, I know not everyone has $15 to throw around online, but the average person who is going to be looking at crowd-funding campaigns for video games probably does. Even when they do get to the higher tiers, which on average are home to more complicated rewards for a campaign to deliver, I see nothing which is inherently difficult for them to bring to fruition. At $250 and up you can, in some capacity, get yourself or something you designed, added into the game world but the physical goods on offer still remain trinkets, posters, signed prints, and the like. For a game asking a budget of only twenty thousand, this is a smart move. I’ve seen numerous stories about crowd-funding campaigns being wrecked by the unanticipated costs of an ever changing international shipping scene and too many bulky physical goods to ship to their supporters. Long Gone Days’ campaign keeps it simple, which in turn keeps it deliverable.

With our faith in them bolstered by their clean, crisp, and professional looking campaign page, and their achievable funding goals for the project, let’s  get to the meat of this: the game they want to make. You may not have noticed that small quip at the top of the campaign page, in plain text, indicating that they have a demo available further down the page. Uncomfortably far down the page. This does them a strong disservice, as their demo is of superb quality. After the success of campaigns like Indivisible or Undertale, and the failure to deliver from Mighty No. 9, it is becoming increasingly imperative that video game crowd-funding efforts include some kind of playable demo. As such, the availability of a playable demo, particularly one of as high a quality as Long Gone Days has on display, should certainly be a highlight of the campaign and not be relegated to the bottom 1/8th of the page. It most certainly should not be below fan art contest entries in your main campaign page. I wonder how many people never downloaded the demo because they got bored of scrolling down to find it?

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Image taken from their campaign page.

If the unique setting, gorgeous visuals, and professional campaign page actually got you all the way to the demo, it offers up a wealth of talking points. The pixel art images shown on the campaign page hold up well in the demo, with a nice smoothness to them that is only marred by a slight stutter in the walk cycle of main character Rourke. A fault I anticipate will no longer be present in the final game. The environments in the demo are, of course, limited in scope but are all lovingly rendered. The colour palettes used from scene to scene really help enhance the emotional state of the characters in those moments, which could be happenstance or serendipity, but which I would hope are intentional efforts made by the artists on board. The sniping mechanic that is introduced quite early on in the game is a fun, if brief, excursion into how to create a secondary combat system in a retro-styled RPG. The “night vision” aesthetic makes the targets clearly identifiable, and the demo gives you plenty of time to fiddle and adjust your aim so it is on target. Without spoiling a big plot moment I can’t tell you why, but this sniping segment is remarkably easy to get through. It perfectly demonstrates what the ideas behind the mechanic are.  There is a lot of potential here, and I’m certainly curious about how the sniping features will function when the enemy targets are more responsive, Will they run in evasive, less predictable patterns? Will they take advantage of cover to make sniping more difficult? Will they fire back with weapons that have the range to hit you? Will there be sniper/counter-sniper duels? Answers certainly won’t be forthcoming unless the game is made.

 

While the demo is, certainly, outstanding and I still have more positive things to say about it, there are some areas where they could do to improve. Everything about the demo would be far more engaging, personally, if it had gamepad support. The control scheme on the keyboard was uncomfortable for my setup, and did the game a bit of a disservice and I do not think that I would, anytime soon, purchase a new keyboard exclusively to make one game feel more comfortable to play. Realistically, I don’t think allowing gamepad functionality would be too difficult for them to implement and I hope that they do.

Long Gone Days has a very well thought out world, which feels like it is rich with backstory and pregnant with tensions and meaning. The technologically advanced, secret and, literally, underground militarized nation known as The Core feels familiar and terrifyingly fresh at the same time. Combined in them is the fear of the deep, the mysterious things that come from below to assail us,  and the fear of fascism and military dictatorships prevalent in the 20th and 21st century zeitgeist. There is an interesting plot to be had here, and interesting characters to enact it… However, this is all marred by how poorly paced the plot is, and how poorly explained the characters’ motivations are. The believability of Adair’s defection is particularly suspect.  He goes from being cynical about Rourke and knowing, in advance, what kind of shenanigans are part of the mission they are on to being a full-blown, willing defector in what feels like a heartbeat. Like a binary loyal/disloyal switch was just flicked by the grand deities of fiction. That crucial establishing act of the demo feels like everything is just moving too quickly. This as well, I hope, is the fault of the limited scope of a demo and should be corrected in a full release that gives the player the time investment needed to properly develop character and motivation.

The game’s morale system, as explained in the campaign’s page, paints a wonderful picture of potential. However, in my experience with the demo, it wasn’t difficult at all to navigate the morale prompts as they were presented. It left me feeling as if the morale system were underrepresented in the demo. Yet, I still came off of it feeling as if it had unexplored depths that would come with major game changing ramifications if you have to balance multiple characters against each other as you aim for the optimal morale for success. I don’t know what the final roster size the developers intend to give their audience, but this feature of the game would be best served by a larger cast. At least, as I see it playing out. I would be happy to have them prove otherwise.

With exciting potentialities in mind, it’s the perfect time to discuss how the “interpreters “idea has legs. Long Gone Days, being set in a version of reality just a touch off centre from our own, takes full advantage of an asset rarely used to full potential in video games: Languages. As you move through the game’s world you are forced to interact with people and in-game elements that Rourke does not understand, because they are in a foreign language. Dialogue and other text emanating from these sources is written, in game, in an actual language other than English. Take, for instance, the early signpost Rourke and Adair encounter written in Cyrillic. For the player to be able to take advantage of these characters etc., they must actively seek out and recruit interpreters who can bridge the gap. I doubt we will see this concept taken to its limits mechanically, from a game design standpoint, but this feature screams of flavour and immersion. The greater the number of characters and languages available, the more that this feature will help to give players who want to learn as much as they can about the game world to latch on and find something to look forward to. Each interpreter recruited allowing you to backtrack towards new rewards again and again, without it feeling entirely arbitrary.  The biggest fear I have with this feature is that they’ll incorrectly use a language’s grammar or make an egregious spelling or word choice error. The magic in this feature is in striving to present each language as impeccably as possible.

The battle system in Long Gone Days falls into a neutral position for me. Aesthetically it is very pleasing. Crisp, simple menus enhanced with just the right amount of graphical design flair compliment lavishly illustrated enemy sprites. I’d expect nothing less from this game. Aesthetics aside, however, it isn’t as polished as it would seem. The ability to target different parts of your enemy, like old RPG composite monsters but for every single opponent you face, lends a sense of real world tactical combat to the game. This enhances the flavour of the Long Gone Days greatly, but unfortunately I often felt lost in combat, not understanding what the optimal strategy would be against these enemies. Figuring out the combat learning curve wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t also accompanied by an unusually high and sudden spike in difficulty for a demo. The enemy troops dole out damage in amounts that I felt ill-prepared to deal with based on the supplies made available to me through my playthrough. I can see how that could be intentional, to make the player feel the pressure these characters are under to survive ill-equipped in a hostile world, but it didn’t work out that way for me. I felt frustrated by it, not immersed in it. Once again, as this is a demo, I can see room to easily grow and make the game more welcoming for a diverse player base. At least so far as the early stages of the game are concerned.

I aim to be honest in my assessments of a campaign and the samples of content that they have available for the public to make financial decisions upon. Long Gone Days is a stellar campaign, with a superb demo, that is not without its flaws. These flaws are, in my assessment, not indicative of any crippling issues and will likely be negligible, or not present, in the final version of the game.

I WOULD SPEND: $30-$150

When it comes to supporting crowd-funded videogames, I always, at a minimum, select a reward level that will net me a playable copy of the game upon completion. More often than not, if my budget allows it I opt for a tier that includes a physical copy (and if I have it in the budget, a physical art book!). With that in mind, this is the price range that I would recommend you put forward. If you’ve made it this far, hopefully your interest in Long Gone Days has been piqued.