Last time we looked at the Mooncrest Kickstarter and why it failed. Now, I readily admit I’m no analyst. I’ve never run a Kickstarter Campaign and if I ever had an idea worth funding, the sun would probably turn black and fall from the sky, so heading to Kickstarter would probably be the last thing on my mind. But I think we narrowed down at least a few of the major lessons to be learned from Mooncrest, namely not to rely solely on name recognition, be realistic with your funding goals, and provide gameplay footage.
Our next subject of study is the ambitious title Lost Pisces, which failed to reach its modest $204,000 goal on July 4th this year.
The Lost Pisces
One of the most ambitious titles I’ve ever seen, the Lost Pisces was a project that sought to advance interactive AI in ways that have scarcely even been imagined before. The basic pitch was to create a sci-fi reimagining of the Little Mermaid. Now, we’re not talking about the vapid thing that Disney made in the 90’s (ok, ok, I enjoyed it too). The team over at the Lost Pisces’ studio, Sirenum, led by Dan Rutkowski, is hearkening back to the original by Hans Christan Anderson. In Anderson’s original yarn, the mermaid saw and fell in love with the handsome prince, of course, but she also yearned to have a human soul, to live past death as humans do (rather than turning into seafoam after death like mermaids do…which admittedly would be a bit of a bummer).
In the Lost Pisces, the mermaid is replaced by a synthetic creature (android, robot, whatever you want to call it, I’m not up on my artificial-being terminology) named Pisces who craves the same thing: a soul. Obviously, this makes the merbot character the star of the game…which makes it a bigger surprise that you actually don’t play her. You play a human dude who accompanies Pisces through this amazing journey both above and below the waves in the ruined backdrop of human society, the husk of broken and faded technology everywhere around you.
And this is where the game’s ambition comes in: the game promised a dynamic AI that learns, forms memories, and even gets to know the “real you” through the Kinect which was, at least at the start of the campaign, a requirement to play the Lost Pisces.
“What if she could see you? We mean, really see you. See your emotions. Could it give a piece of AI a better insight into who the gamer was? And how to react to them?” The Kickstarter page reads. “Our faces tell each other an incredible amount of information. Without even speaking, we can communicate a great deal about our current emotional response to a situation. The gamer has to develop a relationship with Pisces. Because like the little mermaid our Pisces looses her voice as the human condition weighs on her. Communication between the gamer and the girl have to take place on a different level. A deeper level. Let’s use the 3D Sensors for something more.”
Rutkowski poses the question that, with graphics constantly improving…why not AI? And that’s exactly what the Lost Pisces hopes to do.
Other than that, the game also promises, you know, actual gameplay as well (which became more important after a future announcement stated that the Kinect was no longer going to be a requirement), with third-person action, strategy, exploration, and shooting elements incorporated in. And it looks gorgeous.
So, why did it fail?
I don’t know if it’s fair to say that a Kickstarter project has failed for being too ambitious – again, I’m no analyst – and I really, really do not want to discourage ambition in this industry, but if any project has (and I predict will continue to) collapse under its own ambition it is the Lost Pisces. Facial recognition as a technology is still incredibly new and incredibly shaky. I remember trying to use it with Pokemon X (maybe not the most apt comparison considering the difference in technology) and becoming frustrated when it scarcely seemed to recognize that my face was, in fact, a face, let alone what expression I wore.
Maybe that says more about my face than about the technology, but whatever, I just don’t personally believe that the Lost Pisces can accomplish their goal along with cutting edge graphics (seriously, the art on the page is absolutely gorgeous) and I would hope at-least decent gameplay.
And like Mooncrest, the $204,000 price tag is just ridiculous. A triple A company would put this game together for millions, I have a hard time believing even experienced developers (particularly a team of only four) can put this game together at all. Particularly for only $204,000.
Again I say I’m not an analyst and my understanding of the video game creation process is abysmal, but my gut feeling is that if this project is doable, the industry as we know it would be much different than it is right now. I know big developers hemorrhage money, but I have a hard time believing they do that much.
And unlike Nightmayor (the folks behind Mooncrest), the Lost Pisces folks barely even addressed how they intend to accomplish a feat that would make a wealthy triple-A developer blush with envy at a tiny fraction of what they usually spend on games. If this is doable, they need to explain how. They need to chart it out from start to finish and convince us that we’re not wasting our time by typing in our credit card information.
So again, the first lesson here is to be reasonable with scope. I can’t believe I’m the only one that’s skeptical, and rightly so with the potential for scams and broken promises on Kickstarter, which Rutkowski even addressed on the campaign webpage, stating that crowdfunding is something he takes very seriously. And I believe him. But if it’s true that Sirenum isn’t trying to bilk us out of our money and provide us a pile of broken technology, then I have to call them naive for promising far too much for far too little.
However, there are additional lessons to learn from the Lost Pisces’ campaign, namely that in order to have a successful campaign, you have to keep folks in the loop with constant updates. In the month-long campaign, Sirenum only posted five updates on Kickstarter – two about the same Q&A session and one talking about the future after the campaign was clearly going to fail. This provides little comfort for those who are looking to support the game.
It has to look like the team is dedicated to the project. Now, for me personally, if I believed in a project and saw the team wasn’t updating much, I probably would assume they’re actually, y’know, working on the project. But I have to admit, even from a small team, a lack of consistent updates is pretty troubling, especially with a game of this scope. The developer’s Twitter account was pretty abuzz, but the Kickstarter page and the game’s website itself have been all but radio silent (the last update on the game’s website seems to have been when the Kickstarter went live), which is never a promising sign.
Finally, and maybe most importantly, there seems to have been a bit of confusion as to what the project was really all about. A lot of the comments on the Kickstarter page seem to suggest that they were turned off by the Kinect-only functionality. While the developers clearly state on the Kickstarter page that the Kinect is not necessary to play the game (I have no idea if this announcement came later or if it was there to begin with), so much of the literature of the game was about how you would interact with Pisces through the Kinect that one could be forgiven for being confused.
Then there’s the fact that, despite stating pretty clearly that the game would be a “third-person adventure game,” that could mean so much that in the end, it really doesn’t say much of anything. Too much of the Kickstarter page focused on the immersive AI and the story – which are, admittedly, the most interesting parts of the game and what, if the game is ultimately developed, will make it stand out – that it was hard to get a clear indication of what the game was actually going to be, despite actually having a gameplay trailer (which is more than Mooncrest had).
The AI and the facial recognition and the story are all parts of a whole. They’re all mechanics. But mechanics alone don’t make a game. They’re puzzle pieces that fit inside of a framework, a framework we need to see in action before any description of these mechanics will mean anything to us. So in the end, this sort of muddied the vision a bit and the Sirenum guys probably should have sat down and made a more comprehensive description of the game to give people a more complete view of what they were potentially spending their money on.
At the end of the day, the Lost Pisces is a difficult campaign to really “criticize” because it feels, to my untrained eye, like it just wasn’t really well planned out. The developers’ Twitter account is a mess of delays and false starts and the Kickstarter page spends far too much time talking about the immersive AI and the story and far too little time on how those mechanics fit into the game as a whole…because we can’t even get a decent view of the game as a whole.
And of course there’s the fact that the Lost Pisces is a highly-experimental title that may only have limited appeal in the first place. So maybe they did everything right and there just wasn’t enough overall interest because people don’t want to get to know a mermaid robot girl. They just want to blow things up.
I just made myself a little sad.
At the end of the day, I just fear the the Lost Pisces is a niche game with a niche appeal and it’s going to be very difficult for a small team with limited resources to create it.
Sirenum has gone on record as saying that the Lost Pisces isn’t quite sunk yet and that they plan to go ahead with the lessons they learned from the Kickstarter Campaign. Rutkowski mentioned in his final Kickstarter update that the Kinect-only functionality has been abandoned and the team expanded somewhat, but again since that July 4th post when the campaign ultimately flopped, the team has been radio silent on their Twitter and website, so it’s really hard to tell what the future of the project will be.
After a very lackluster funding campaign with only eight percent of the game’s goal met, it’s hard to see how such an amazingly ambitious project, no matter how optimistic the small team claims to be, will deliver on its lofty promises. And if they want to get any of my money, they’re going to have to do a lot of very good explaining as to how they’re going to accomplish any of them.
What about you, fishy reader? Why do you think Lost Pisces flopped? Am I riding the right wave or does my reasoning seem a little fishy to you? Sound off in the comments below.