Games based on historic events have a surprisingly bad track record on Kickstarter. Or maybe it’s not that surprising, judging by a similar video we did looking at crowdfunded sports games. Historical games, like sports games, are a niche, and being a niche within the niche of crowdfunding doesn’t make things easy for developers.
There is the occasional Kingdom Come Deliverance and Battalion 1944 that rack up millions. But for a majority of history-minded developers and potential backers alike, the chances are even more stacked against you than usual. There’s about a 12 to nine success to failure rate amongst historical games on various crowdfunding sites. That includes the obscure World War II online shooter Enlisted, whose developer is holding a funding campaign on their own site. That’s only counting pure history, not alternate history or games inspired by historic events like Sunset or The Sun Also Rises.
Of those 12 successfully funded games, seven are based on World War II. Only three of the nine failed campaigns can say the same. At first glance, it’s hard to pin down exactly why that ratio is so lopsided. There’s a good variety of genres, funding goals, and experience among developers between the successes and failures. Because of that, you may initially think the World War II setting is what makes or breaks one of these games. But like with many aspects in life, the truth is a little grayer than that.
When we looked at sports games, there were a few campaigns that were funded, but most of them failed. That was because most sports games on Kickstarter aren’t very good – either the campaigns were poorly run, the developer wasn’t trustworthy, or the game itself just looked like butt. The same cannot be said for most of historical games. There have been some great games with equally great campaigns that weren’t funded. Legion 1917, Iron Wings, and 1979 Revolution all failed, and I cannot fathom why. It makes you wonder – are people just not interested in historical games? Are there certain historical periods backers aren’t interested in?
Those are really hard questions to answer, especially with such a small sample size. These campaigns could have failed for any number of reasons. Fritz, a World War I RPG, was canceled by the developers when a backer claimed to have put too many zeros at the end of their donation. They shut the project down to ensure the backer didn’t lose their money, however the game never resurfaced again. Whether or not that’s true is another story, but it goes to show how weird crowdfunding can be.
So Much War
I can only offer my best guesses as to why historical games seem to do so poorly with crowdfunding. One of the big things is that all of these games have one thing in common. It seems as though every single historical game on Kickstarter is based on war, or some other armed conflict. This likely isn’t a startling revelation; video games have always struggled to make non-combat gameplay engaging. Telltale games can be fantastic, but it seems nobody ever told them that gameplay can be more than just walking from one conversation to another. That kind of thing doesn’t matter for most games, but in the world of crowdfunding, that make all the difference.
When it comes to crowdfunding, there are generally two types of games that succeed: games that are built on nostalgia like Wasteland 2 or Broken Age, and games that offer something totally revolutionary like SuperHot and Elegy for a Dead World. Games that don’t fit into either category tend to not do well, as evidenced by 3D platformers. So when you see a campaign for a first person shooter, strategy game, or even an RPG that’s draped over yet another war scenario, you know it’s going to have a hard time.
Gameplay is King
We can see this from the historical games that have been funded. Kingdom Come Deliverance sold itself on extreme realism, Battalion 1944 boasted the return of online World War II shooters, and Uboot had the unique idea of a survival/strategy game set in a World War II submarine. What about the failed campaigns? Legion 1917’s developers relied too much on the comparison to XCOM: Enemy Unknown, a game from 2012 that doesn’t have nearly enough nostalgia behind it. 1979: Revolution looked like little more than a Telltale game. Apocalypse Now might be the worst gaming campaign in a long time, because its developers threw up their hands and said “check out this great movie, huh?”
We’re just talking about the gameplay side of these games. Whereas these failed campaigns didn’t have much new to offer in terms of gameplay mechanics, their uniqueness was derived from their historical background. But as we can see from the deluge of successful World War II games, history, on its own, doesn’t matter on Kickstarter. If the developers of these games put more focus on coming up with a wild and unique gameplay structure, and maybe think about the history second – just in the crowdfunding pitch itself – then they might have a little more success. That way not only do you have a cool historical game that gets funded, you might even create a whole new type of game. They could even double down and showcase something we don’t often see in games.
Imagine if there was a game where you played as a diplomat from South Africa while negotiating with Cuba and Angola at the end of the Angolan Civil War. Or a sports and historical game where you played as Jesse Owens in the 1936 Berlin Olympics and you had to win all those gold medals, but it were like Rocky in that it wasn’t all sports all the time. Oooh, oooh, what if there was a game where you played Martin Luther King Jr. and led peaceful protests throughout the south, or his time in the Birmingham jail. The possibilities are endless if once you start thinking outside the box, namely, the shackles of combat-driven gameplay.
Or go down the nostalgia route, if you must.
Historical games are important. They have the potential to be better teaching tools than any book or movie could ever be. They let you live history, not read about it or look at it. You can insert yourself into the thick of things, looking through the eyes of someone who was there, and hearing the thoughts of people who really where there. You wouldn’t just learn history, you’d experience it. With enough research and care to detail, a historical game can stand up to any textbook. Maybe we won’t see video games taught in schools anytime soon, but that shouldn’t stop us from asking for more historical games, for more accurate and detailed historical games.
Think back to what your high school or college history classes were like. If you were like me, it was mostly a bunch of names and dates thrown at you in rapid fire. But with video games, you can see the people attached to those names, hear their thoughts and why they did whatever they did. You can walk around the world from those dates and get a firsthand account of what really happened. And it goes beyond simply teaching history, it also explains the psychology of the people, the politics of whatever event the game is covering, and you can see with the benefit of hindsight what people of the time did wrong, like how World War I could have been prevented.
There’s an endless sea of possibilities, and we need to encourage not only more historical games, but more diverse ones. Games don’t just cover a war, or a battle, or an armed rebellion. They can open the door to other significant historic events that we aren’t often taught in school, and make it fun and interesting. And that’s where crowdfunding comes into play.
This kind of thing is exactly what crowdfunding is for – breaking the mold. Places like Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and Fig should be breeding grounds for history-based video games. To create that environment, it’ll require backers and developers alike. Backers need to be willing to take more risks on bland or even unimpressive campaigns as long as the developer behind it is solid. Developers need to experiment with gameplay more and offer more unique experiences. History doesn’t have to be viewed down the barrel of a gun.
In an effort to encourage this belief, you can bet there will be more Cliqist and Games of History crossovers in the future. Until then, I’ll see you next time.
Cliqist is partnering with Games of History to provide a series of articles looking at history-based video games on Kickstarter. Games of History is a YouTube channel run by Cliqist Executive Editor Josh Griffiths, examining the accuracy of history-based video games.