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The heartbreaking saga of Mighty No. 9

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Crazier than that time Wily was an alien

[Might No. 9's crazy trip from promising concept to resounding thud can be hard to follow. It felt like it had been in the cooker for years and fans at first were willing to accept it because they wanted the game to be good. But somewhere along the way, the direction for the spiritual blue bomber just kind of got lost. So how about we see what resident decommissioned fighting robot Tony Ponce has to dig up about the story of Beck. ~Strider]

This is an article I was never sure I would write. I've gone back and forth over past last year and half, itching to put my thoughts into text, only to step away because my feelings were too conflicted. So I sat patiently, holding out hope that the final product would make up for the bizarre circus that has been the Mighty No. 9 development campaign.

Lo, the day of reckoning arrived. What should have been a momentous occasion -- the realization of a dream that began nearly three years ago -- was capped off with a most uncomfortable livestream, during which a somber Keiji Inafune accepted all the blame that has been leveled toward this game and his management.

Is this it for Mighty No. 9? And what lessons can we learn from this ordeal?

Many of you may have made your own judgments long ago, though by my observations, the bulk of those are born of anger and incomplete information. It benefits no one if discussions continue to revolve around inaccuracies, breeding further resentment. Therefore, I urge you to join me in reflecting upon last three years, that we may better understand the circumstances that led to this moment.

Full disclosure: I'm a massive Mega Man nut -- my love affair is well documented. I was also in attendance at Inafune's PAX 2013 panel, where he announced Mighty No. 9 to the world, immediately after which I conducted a half-hour interview with the man himself. As for the Kickstarter, I pledged a hefty $250, then bumped up that figure a few weeks later to $348 because I really wanted those Famicom and NES cartridge-shaped USB flash drives. I certainly deserve to be fuming over my investment, but as a concerned parent would say, I'm not mad, just disappointed.

The more common reaction from backers is one of deep regret -- regret in getting caught up in the hype, and regret in not seeing the pitfalls from the beginning. But please, don't knock yourselves down. There was nothing in the initial pitch that could have foreshadowed the game's troubled production.

Mighty No. 9's announcement was the perfect storm -- fans were still fuming over Capcom's decision to seemingly put the entire Mega Man franchise on ice. Most egregious was the cancellation of the long-awaited Mega Man Legends 3, which broke traditional development rules by involving the fans heavily in its design. Then former Mega Man producer Keiji Inafune comes along with the intention to launch a spiritual successor through Kickstarter, aping Legends 3's community-driven creation process but without the threat of an overbearing publisher.

And what's this? The lead music composer is Manami Matsumae, composer for the original Mega Man on NES? Chief development is being handled by Inti Creates, the studio responsible for Mega Man Zero and ZX as well as Mega Man 9 and 10? How could you not get excited with such a dream team ready to take the court?

Fans were understandably excited and thus met the campaign's $900,000 target within hours of launch. The team was excited as well, and it's here where the first red flag should have been raised. As Inafune explained during the recent livestream -- highlights of which can be read here -- the team became too overzealous, thinking it could handle versions for nearly a dozen different platforms when the initial target was just PC. Then consider the campaign's massive list of stretch goals, which grew in number as the money kept pouring in and the team attempted to keep the flames stoked, resulting in curious (though, at the time, not really unwelcome) additions like an online co-op and competitive racing modes.

Yes, ambition was this game's biggest downfall.

It's at this point that people bring up the roughly $4 million raised by the campaign -- $3,845,170 from the Kickstarter itself and an additional $201,409 from PayPal -- as evidence or some sort of foul play, since it seems incredulous that a simple side-scrolling throwback could not be easily realized with such a massive stack of green. Other Kickstarter games were able to come to fruition on far smaller budgets and were still met with critical acclaim. This should have been a walk in the park!

Chalk this logic up to the typical fan's lack of knowledge regarding the true cost of game development. In general, developers who take to Kickstarter significantly lowball their budgets, while those who better understand their financial constraints seek other means of investment and only turn to Kickstarter for that extra push. The most popular example of this reality is Yacht Club Games and their critically lauded Shovel Knight -- if $311,502 is able to yield such a masterpiece, you may wonder, then there's no excuse for studios with many times that balance, right?

Yacht Club shone some light on their situation with a candid budget breakdown just a month after Shovel Knight's launch. As it turns out, SK production was a taxing ordeal in which the team scrimped and saved every way they could. They even decided to withhold a bunch of stretch goal promises as well as music maestro Jake Kaufman's payment until after the base game hit the market. Despite all that, they ran out of money with five months remaining! Then there's also the revelation that the budget for the Plague of Shadows DLC campaign was a cool million -- if that's how much a mod to a finished product cost, it's clear that even a "mere" 8-bit-style platformer demands a hefty price tag.

Inafune's own Comcept and partner Inti Creates may be small relative to the big dogs in this industry, but they are much larger than the "bedroom coders" you usually picture when you think of indie developers. These are salaried businesses, so the extreme cost-cutting measures of a group like Yacht Club -- who were willing to max out their credit cards and plead for loans from friends and family -- was never in the realm of possibility. The $900,000 initial target for MN9 factored this in, and as the scope of the game grew, so did the need for more funds.

But as it turns out, MN9's actual budget wasn't even close to that $4 million figure. After taxes, Kickstarter's cut, and backer rewards fulfillment, the total was about 40% less. Split between the multiple versions of the game -- which the team bizarrely chose to work on simultaneously instead of settling on a base and porting from there -- as well as the additional stretch promises, those leftovers simply weren't enough to realize a solid product.

So development was heavily crippled early on, but it's not like Comcept and Inti Creates couldn't have worked around those hurdles. The much-maligned online modes -- which allegedly were responsible for the game's multiple delays over the course of a year -- could have been given proper time to germinate had the game followed Shovel Knight's lead and been withheld until after launch. According to producer Nick Yu, it sounds like the desire was there, but development on the single-player / multiplayer joint package was already locked. Some speculate that this may have been a mandate from publisher Deep Silver, though without confirmation it's hard to know for certain.

Maybe the team could have decided to chop a few of the target platforms -- the prime candidates would have been the PS3 and Xbox 360 in favor of their successors. Perhaps the team did seriously consider eliminating some of the stretch goal plans, but decided that they'd rather not upset fans by reneging everything that was promised. It's ironic that development was spread thin as a result of trying to cover all those bases and wound up disappointing fans anyway, likely much more than if they had just trimmed some of the fat and taken their licks earlier.

We can only speculate on reasons for these decisions, which leads us to the next major failing: lack of communication. Well, they technically did communicate a lot of their thought processes, but usually only after they pulled a stunt that riled up the community. It didn't start out this way, but it wasn't long before the train went off the rails. Naturally, I'm talking about the introduction of community manager Dina Abou Karam.

The drama surrounding Dina's stint as CM is a lengthy topic that I'm only going to briefly discuss -- this reddit thread is a good place to dive into some of the finer details. In short, she was hired allegedly out of nepotism, revealed that she had very little Mega Man experience prior to being hired, and (oh!) expressed feminist ideals. It was that latter bit that really drove a vocal chunk of the community, who seemed convinced that she was going to force changes onto the main game, into a frenzy. This wouldn't have been a huge deal had she done her CM job adequately, but she went on a power trip, locking threads and hiding posts on the game's official forums whenever dissenting opinions cropped up.

Anyone with a sensible head on their shoulders would understand that a game's CM would have extremely limited influence on the game itself, but regardless, Dina's performance led many folks to lose trust in the campaign's ability to fairly interact with its backers and accept criticism. Communication never really improved since then, even as Dina retreated further into the background. This particular episode formed a dark atmosphere around the campaign; every new piece of unfavorable news from then on felt amplified in its negativity as a result.

When we started hearing about media expansion plans -- namely the Mighty No. 9 animated series -- that distrust made it difficult not to imagine that funds from the Kickstarter were being funneled into these unrelated projects. Of course, there was and remains no proof that money was changing hands -- Comcept stressed that the media company Digital Frontier was handling production of the cartoon on its own -- though now there were worries that not enough focus was being placed on making MN9 as solid a game as it could possibly be.

What was Inafune thinking when he decided to take this yet realized property in so many different directions? Personally, I don't think that building a new franchise that targets multiple forms of media simultaneously is inherently a bad idea. Look at Yo-Kai Watch, for instance -- a tie-in manga kicked off serialization a full six months before the first game, while the anime debuted a scant six months after launch. If nurtured properly, these various pieces can bolster one another and maintain long-term interest. If a company like Digital Frontier saw enough merit in MN9's Kickstarter to jump on board with a cartoon pitch, what property owner would say no?

But that was small potatoes compared to the big daddy of ill-timed announcements: the Red Ash Kickstarters. Another Comcept-led campaign for a Mega Man Legends-inspired game (plus a separate anime campaign), this new initiative launched very close to MN9's purported release in the second half of 2015 -- catch up on that can of worms here. Throughout all this, there were rumors that MN9 would be slipping into 2016, though Comcept acted like everything was moving along swimmingly. Once the campaign ended, Comcept admitted that, yes, MN9 would be missing its 2015 window. Why would they keep that information so close to their chest unless they were afraid that any news of a MN9 delay would impact the Red Ash Kickstarter? (Well, yeah! Of course it would, but that's not the point!)

This does bring up the question concerning why Comcept would even attempt another game project when the first hadn't been completed, but thankfully the answer is quite simple. Remember how we previously discussed that Comcept and Inti Creates use a salary structure? By this point in MN9's development, Comcept's role was essentially complete, so its employees needed to move on to something else to keep income flowing. People often forget that Comcept is not a software developer in the traditional sense. It's a lot like Hironobu Sakaguchi's Mistwalker -- a small outfit that doesn't have the capabilities to create games on its own, so it teams up with other studios to realize its goals. Concept provides the general designs and concepts, while the partner studio does the actual game construction.

As work on the main MN9 campaign was complete by mid-2015, it was all up to Inti Creates to take production to the hole. But in any case, the argument that a game studio can't handle multiple projects at once doesn't hold water. Case in point, Inti Creates itself has spent the past year providing art to WayForward for Shantae: Half-Genie Hero, toiling away on both Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night and Azure Striker Gunvolt 2, and prepping the Western localization of Gal*Gun: Double Peace. Since public perception of all those other games has been positive so far, it's safe to say that the multitasking capabilities of the main team in charge of Mighty No. 9 should not be of any concern.

Again, this all circles back to those pesky communication issues. I strongly believe that once Comcept and Inti Creates realized that development of MN9 was not going the way they had hoped, they clammed up out of fear. They probably thought that backers wouldn't want to hear updates if the only kind of news they could share was bad news. Rather than demonstrating transparency and disappointing fans with trouble behind the scenes, they opted to wait until the last possible second to share anything, which wound up making people upset anyway!

Not that I think full disclosure would have helped in this case. Were MN9 successfully hitting all its benchmarks and every piece of new game footage looking better than the last, fans might have been more receptive at the detailed reasoning behind unexpected delays. But no amount exhaustive explanations would have changed the reality that every update painted a darker picture than before; people would have still been upset to see what was becoming of their donations.

I could spend another thousand or so words laying out the remaining campaign and development pitfalls -- something about "prom night" comes to mind -- but what you want to know at the end of the day is, was this all a scam? Were fans strung along by nostalgia and teased with a vision of a future that was never going to happen?

I don't think so.

Sure, Mighty No. 9 is not the second coming of the Blue Bomber, and sure, the visuals fall well below those early concept stills and footage. But you have to admit, if this was a big scam, it wasn't a very good one. We're talking about a capable group of talent that wanted to deliver the next evolution of the very brand of gaming they are famous for. What reason would any of them have to intentionally throw away all that goodwill?

At the same time, they are not blameless. At the very least, Inafune had the decency to say that all the game's problems are on him (and before you bring it up, no, he did not say that Mighty No. 9 in its present state is "better than nothing," which is actually the personal opinion of translator and Digital Development Management executive VP Ben Judd). We may not know to what extent the game flew out of the team's control and likely never will, but we mustn't let our displeasure toward this outcome lead to outlandish, undeserved accusations.

Try not to let Mighty No. 9 turn you off from Kickstarter, either. Kickstarter is still a wonderful tool that can result in games that wouldn't have been realized by other means -- Shovel Knight, Undertale, Pillars of Eternity, FTL, upcoming headliners like Yooka-Laylee and Shenmue III, and beyond. It may be a gamble, but nothing worth striving for is ever a sure thing.

We know that Bloodstained was made possible because Koji Igarashi wanted to ape the success of Mighty No. 9's initial campaign, and it's obvious that his team has taken the failings of MN9 to heart. Both games share the same developer (Inti Creates), the same publisher (Deep Silver), the same merchandiser (Fangamer), and the same business agent (Digital Development Management), so it seems that every involved party has made the effort to step up their game for a second go-around.

As for Inafune? The man has caught a lot of flak these past few years, mostly deserved, but in people's fury, they seem to want to completely discredit all his contributions over his nearly 30-year career. I'd suggest cutting back on the overuse of Hideki Kamiya's "He's a business man" tweet, considering: (A) That quote is taken out of context, as Kamiya intended it as a compliment, and given that Kamiya has an extremely blunt social media presence, you shouldn't necessarily take everything he says literally. (B) Leading any kind of project in an independent capacity, no matter who you are, demands good business sense. Now, whether you think Inafune is lacking as a business man, that's another story entirely. People will definitely be wary if he ever tries to Kickstart something again, that's for sure.

Then there's Mighty No. 9 itself. You would think, given everything we've experienced since that fateful day in 2013, that the game would be an irredeemable disaster. However, even the harshest reviews admit that there are glimmers of a solid action platformer beneath all the mediocrity, so I wouldn't call the property a lost cause. I would love to see Inti Creates take a shot at a sequel, with a tighter development focus and perhaps even a change in art style (I wouldn't mind if they aped Shantae: Half-Genie Hero's hand-drawn art atop 3D backgrounds). It would be a shame to just let all this effort go to waste, leaving nothing but the bitter dregs of unrealized potential in our cups.

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Tony Ponce
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