Back in the 1990s, the PC games industry was full of space combat sims like Wing Commander, cyberpunk RTS titles like Syndicate, and the pretty, witty LucasArts point-and-click adventures.
Then they all just… disappeared. People didn't want to play them, publishers decided, and soon enough store shelves filled with endless military FPS games rendered in shades of brown and grey.
But now, those long-dead game genres are returning – with the help of crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter. Veteran developers are ditching the big game publishers and returning to the games that made them who they are today. And gamers the world over are pitching in to help revive their favourite classics.
Back in the 1990s, developer Mike Diskett brought corporate warfare to gamers with the blackly comic RTS titles Syndicate and Syndicate Wars. The game put players in the well-polished shoes of a cyberpunk corporate executive, using cyborg "agents" to effect the most hostile of hostile takeovers. With miniguns.
Fast forward to 2012, when EA launched a new Syndicate game – one that was very different from the original. "It turned out to be a first person shooter. At the time I was thinking, 'What the hell are they doing?'" Diskett tells Stuff.
Fortunately for equally-baffled fans of the original game, Diskett has taken to Kickstarter with his new game, Satellite Reign – an RTS which bears more than a passing similarity to Syndicate and Syndicate Wars. It even takes its name from Syndicate Wars' Satellite Rain – an absurdly powerful nuclear weapon that levels skyscrapers.
"I've been watching Kickstarter ever since it started, and kept going, 'must do that one day,'" Diskett says. "Over the last 18 months Kickstarter has built up as an actual useful way of funding games."
Preaching to the crowd
Game developers have taken to crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo in droves – and they're taking the opportunity to revive and update game genres that traditional publishers have neglected. They include Ultima creator Richard "Lord British" Garriott, whose RPG Shroud of the Avatar has racked up US$1m in donations, Grim Fandango creator Tim Schafer, with point-and-click adventure Broken Age, and Wing Commander creator Chris Roberts, who has raised a whopping $US14m on Kickstarter and his own Roberts Space Industries site for space combat sim Star Citizen.
"Crowdfunding and Kickstarter is allowing a voice for gamers to speak up," Roberts tells Stuff. "You're going directly to the people that want to play the game and they're giving you the money. You don't have all these middle men – the retail store, the publisher with all its overheads – so more of that money ends up going to the game."
The problem with the game business, according to Roberts, is that the balance has shifted to triple-A titles from the likes of Activision, EA and Ubisoft – which need to sell at least five million copies to turn a profit. "That's left a lot of gamers out in the cold," he explains, "because you can't do a one-man indie game and do some of the stuff that, say, Tim Schaefer's doing on his graphic adventure. A cool RTS game, or a cool space sim game, or a cool adventure game needs more than one person doing it in their bedroom, but it doesn't need hundreds of millions like the triple-A games do."