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Opinion – Sony And Suzuki Need To Come Clean On Shenmue Budget And Funding

by Mike Futter on Jun 25, 2015 at 07:01 AM

Last night, Shenmue creator Yu Suzuki posted an update to the Shenmue III Kickstarter. The note amounted to an apology for deception regarding the game’s budget and outside investors, including Sony, who invited Suzuki to announce the project during its E3 press conference. It doesn’t go nearly far enough, and fans should be demanding more.

I’ve written about Kickstarter before, cautioning backers to be smart with their funding. I recognize that Shenmue III is a game long anticipated and a white whale for many, but that isn’t reason to give project managers a pass. Rather, this is exactly the time to be hyper vigilant.

Kickstarter is many things, but at its core, it's fundraising. It doesn't have the charitable connotations of that traditional American nonprofit practice, but the parallels are plentiful. The Kickstarter pitch is an appeal for financing. It's a prospectus that must include all relevant details about inputs and outputs, risks and rewards, reasonable assurances and potential barriers to fulfilling those promises.

Kickstarter is not a store. It is not a mechanism for pre-ordering, though many project managers skirt that line as closely as they can.

Backers and donors both take significant risk when they opt to fund a campaign. There's no return on those funds, rather the reward (beyond tangibles awarded at certain tiers) is the satisfaction of seeing a project come to fruition. Backing a Kickstarter is not an investment, just like contributing to a nonprofit organization will not yield dividends.  

In order to make an informed decision, backers deserve transparency. They are entitled to know what they are getting into. Put simply: the campaign and its manager, Ys Net, failed to fulfill its obligation in the initial pitch. As the project manager, the buck stops with Suzuki. Because the campaign didn't state that there were other funders, if Sony or other investors pull out, Suzuki is still responsible for delivering the game as promised with the funding available via the Kickstarter. It's unlikely that this will happen, but the way the pitch was framed sets up expectations that seem exceedingly difficult to meet without outside funding sources. The first Shenmue game cost $47 million to make, so the $2 million won't go far in making a true sequel that fans expect Suzuki to deliver. That primary funding coming from other sources is essential to this project's potential success.

Whether Suzuki received bad counsel from Sony or other investors or thought it wise to obfuscate the true nature of the project budget doesn't matter.  There is one currency that rules everything on Kickstarter. It is not cash. It is trust, and Yu Suzuki has so far squandered it.

Yu Suzuki

Smart backers knew from the start, though it wasn't stated explicitly in the campaign pitch, that the $2 million funding target for the campaign was a pebble at the foot of Shenmue III’s mountain. The model of using Kickstarter as proof of interest isn’t new or outrageous (Koji Igarashi's record-breaking Bloodstained employed this method). However, from the moment the campaign was announced, something about this felt wrong.

Sony gave up valuable time during its E3 stage presentation, minutes that cost thousands of dollars, to present the campaign. Sony’s Adam Boyes went out of his way to tell those in the audience and watching via livestream that Sony had nothing to do with the project. 

“Recently, a developer told us they were bringing back a fan-favorite game for PC and PS4,” Boyes said. “Now, this is very much their project, but we wanted to celebrate their announcement on our stage, since this is a game that PlayStation fans have been very, very, very vocal about.”

When the Kickstarter went live, there was no mention of the other investors. When questioned directly, Suzuki admitted there were outside partners, but declined to say who. We asked Sony directly, who admitted that an agreement had been in place from the beginning. If Shenmue III hit its goal (which it did quickly), Sony would invest in the project. 

I do agree with Boyes that Kickstarter has made a number of wonderful projects a reality. However, when publishers use the platform to diminish their own risk and aren't clear about that, it's misleading to a hungry fanbase that simply wants to see a game finally realized.

Sony's Adam Boyes introducing Shenmue III Kickstarter

It took longer to get concrete evidence (not just budget-based supposition) that someone else was investing (and even longer to determine who) than it did for the project to reach its funding goal. That isn’t right, and it disrespects those fans who have been waiting years to see this game realized.

The problem here isn’t a matter of a major publisher mitigating its risk by ensuring fan interest. If Sony wanted to use its stage to strike a deal with fans, this wouldn’t feel so wrong. But the Shenmue III Kickstarter was launched in an extremely misleading fashion. This isn’t “very much their project.” It’s Sony’s too, even if the company isn’t the lead partner.

Now that the misleading nature of the campaign has been exposed, Suzuki’s apology yesterday isn’t enough. Sony doesn’t typically talk project budgets, but Suzuki must. Backers have every right to ask the hard questions and demand transparency from a project manager, whether that person is an unknown developer with his or her first game or an industry monument like Yu Suzuki.

Despite the new information, the Shenmue III Kickstarter still carries a number of oddities. Ys Net says that $10 million from fans is required to fund an open world. Not only is this budget number disconnected from the reality of game development (and Shenmue's budget history), but no gaming Kickstarter has ever approached that amount. Koji Igarashi's Bloodstained set the record at just over $5.5 million when it closed earlier this month.  If fans knew how much Sony and other investors were ready to contribute against fan funding, perhaps there would be more confidence and trust built to reach that milestone. 

It’s time for Suzuki and Sony to come clean on the Shenmue III budget and financing arrangement. Stop taking advantage of backers’ nostalgia and a 14-year-old cliffhanger.