Epic Games Store exclusives are not a strategy that benefits gamers in a direct way but it did help a known crowdfunding issue bubble back to the surface - the still unresolved question of developer accountability and backer trust.
Kickstarter and Fig are well-known places to pledge money so that a creator's dream may come true and make you, the player, happy to get a game by a studio you support. This definition would be correct in a dream world where everything is right and wishes come true just like that.
In reality, we have examples like Agony, Star Citizen and Phoenix Point where developers made drastic changes that disappointed those who laid down their money so these games could materialise.
Agony's developers promised "the most terrifying vision of hell in the history of gaming" and the opportunity to "explore the lake of fire with visually stunning graphics" on a "trip into the madness of horror".
The crowdfunded Agony proved to be a disaster with gore, sexual themes and disgusting visuals just for the sake of being disgusting in place of a "terrifying vision of hell".
It aimed to capitalise on the shock effect of grotesque scenery without actually having any depth or tension. Visually stunning graphics were the biggest overstatement since the visuals were underwhelming even for 2018.
Cloud Imperium Games
Star Citizen originally started with a $500,000 crowdfunding goal back in 2012 with the promise of delivering finished copies of the game in November 2014.
Instead of releasing a product five years ago on a budget of $2.1 million as promised, Roberts Space Industries kept taking more crowdfunding money, reaching $226,550,400 in May 2019.
One would think that with such a budget and seven years of development they could deliver more than a glorified tech demo.
Phoenix Point was crowdfunded on Fig, rather than Kickstarter, putting the game in an interesting position due to some backers going for the investment option with the possibility of profit, provided the game performed well.
Originally advertising a choice between a Steam or GOG copy, Snapshot Games decided to approach Epic Games of their own volition in order to put Phoenix Point on their store.
Normally, this wouldn't be an issue but it gave birth to an exclusivity deal that didn't sit well with backers who weren't investors.
Each of these transgressions against backers was promptly forgotten, which is what pretty much always happens when developers and publishers don't follow through - there is a bit of internet rioting, normalisation kicks in and we move on to the next controversy.
Lawsuits are rare, and when backers do pursue the legal avenues, they tend to lose. As long as crowdfunded projects deliver a product, they are in the clear. And if they don't? Well, there's a new Epic backdoor in town.
In the short term, it is obvious that it doesn't matter whether the product turned out to be a miserable failure, a neverending crowdfunded tech demo or one with false advertising. For the mentioned examples, developers enjoy a sense of immunity and backers who were wronged don't get a say any more since the relevance or volume of their earlier pledge arent deciding factors any longer.
Madmind Studio is in disarray, true, but not as a consequence of backers pulling out. Agony simply didn't sell and support for it was discontinued. Roberts Space Industries is still going strong, pocketing over $2 million each month in 2019 and Snapshot Games received enough money from Epic Games to stay afloat for a while.
That last one is a bit peculiar though.
The controversy surrounding the Epic Games Store exclusivity prominent in the first half of 2019 will continue for the foreseeable future. Whether Epic wanted it or not, the exclusivity deals cast a massive spotlight going beyond the company itself, digging up dirt previously fertilised by practices related to crowdfunding.
Whenever a particular crowdfunding scuffle ensued, it would die out in a matter of weeks but the one with Epic Games already persisted for about half a year at the time of writing. Gamers are becoming aware that once the money is out of their pocket, they don't get any say.
Snapshot Games opted for approaching Epic in their search for post-crowdfunded development juice. It is quite likely that this was just a business move by a studio looking to secure more resources, but it looks a lot like a project grasping at straws with exclusivity strings attached. What would have happened with Phoenix Point and Snapshot if Epic weren't around to pick up the tab? Potentially a disappointed crowd unwilling to fund further?
It is too early to say if this will count as precedent, but what is to stop other studios from simply going to Epic once they burn through backer funds? Enough money-starved studios and a rising publishing giant in need of exclusives combined could further aggravate the already shaky relationship between studios and backers.
Threads calling for caution when pledging are popping up like mushrooms after rain. Currently, they seem to be focused on having developers declare whether they will go for an exclusive deal with Epic, but backers should still be on the lookout for other early signs of failure.
What if the developers mess up and deliver a shallow experience like Agony? What if they don't deliver it at all and you get stuck with a tech demo for years?
Kickstarter itself states that backers simply support the creative process. The platform is not a store. You are owed nothing for your money, it is completely up to the developers to decide what they do and which promises they keep. Your money is merely a donation that might pay off in the future.
Gamers seem to be worried that Epic Games Store is undermining Kickstarter's reputation but the truth is, the game was rigged from the start and Tim Sweeney's store simply highlighted this. Agony and Star Citizen didn't find their way to Epic but they are crowdfunded projects that changed the deal after grabbing funds, just like Phoenix Point.