Massively Overthinking: The cynicism of modern MMO Kickstarters

    
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This week we’ve been abuzz about Smed’s Hero’s Song Kickstarter cancellation – the KS more than the game, mostly because the game is happening regardless, but the Kickstarter might be more a window into the genre and the wider gaming industry than the game itself.

Our audience has seemed particularly prickly lately about so-called “rockstar devs” taking “AAA games” to Kickstarter for “no-strings” money and promotion instead of to investors or publishers, which might be leading to the corporatization of Kickstarter and squeezing out of smaller studios. We talked about that last month too when we asked our readers whether they planned to Kickstart anything in the new year.

So let’s talk about the present and future of crowdfunding. Are you over it? Is it dead? Is it being killed off by so-called “rockstar” devs, or is that sour grapes? If you’ve backed games, how many have delivered? What are your criteria for backing games in 2016? These are the questions I posed to the team for this week’s Massively Overthinking.

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): I’m not exactly over Kickstarters, but I’m very cautious. I didn’t back The Stomping Land’s Kickstarter, but after multiple people mentioned enjoying it up during E3 2014, I bought it and regretted it to some extent. There may be some interesting ideas out there, especially from the little guys, but so much stays in public development for so long that I mostly only focus on official release dates for AAA games without publicly available betas.

That being said, I don’t think it’s all about Rockstar devs. It may not be an MMO, but Toby Fox’s Undertale is was a very small Kickstarter game by 1 guy who made what may be my favorite RPG (which is really hard to say, as my nostalgia glasses are hardest to ignore when looking at Star Wars and JRPGs alike). It’s the one Kickstarter I really wish I’d supported. The others I’ve supported still haven’t been completed.

For 2016, my criteria will be mostly the same as always: Only make small investments to games that will come out even without my money. That may make it sound like I only support the big guys, but the little guys with a lot of passion make it work. Project Gorgon failed not once but two times to get the money it needed, and ECO found government and academic support before coming to Kickstarter. To me, it shows the creators aren’t just dreamers; they’ve thought out what they’re doing.

That being said, I do have a new restriction this year: It either has to be a single player game I know I’ll have time to finish or one I can wrangle someone into playing with me. Being in Japan with Japanese work hours in addition to research and writing takes a chunk out of my game time, which has only recently started to bounce back a little since I hit it off with another gamer here (it’s nice to have a Cho’gall partner who doesn’t AFK to make a sandwich!). I really need to make wise purchasing decisions so my social life and game life can balance with my work life.

Camelot Unchained

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I’ve backed four card games, all four of which were delivered to me on time. I’ve backed four MMOs, all four of which are still in development. Then I backed Smed’s game, which was canceled, and a video game magazine for kids, which sadly didn’t fund. There are three other MMOs I wish I’d remembered to back and didn’t, but they’re not done cooking either. Overall, I think it’s a good record; I don’t feel personally screwed by Kickstarter. I made all of my pledges with full understanding of what I was getting into. Plus this site wouldn’t exist without it. So I don’t think Kickstarter is dead, though I definitely see the MMORPG audience souring on the idea, but that’s more because most people aren’t accustomed to seeing just how the sausage is made as Kickstarters ensure. In fact, I suspect Kickstarter (and early access) may be contributing in its own way to the pain our genre is suffering as the pressure to develop at lightspeed is much worse, slowly but surely leading to less feature-rich games at the end of it.

And for what it’s worth, I don’t blame “rockstar devs” for wanting to skip the yoke of a publisher or pour money down a drain in excessive promotional campaigns when Kickstarter is gleaming and cheap. What I object to is the fact that those “rockstar devs” have helped reset the scale in terms of what gamers expect from a Kickstarter campaign. As I argued in the comments yesterday, no one donates to a game campaign that’s just an idea anymore — we’ve become “in-engine footage or gtfo,” which means no one should even bother to try to Kickstart but the rockstars. That’s definitely strayed far from the point of crowdfunding, and it’s our fault as much as theirs.

Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): I’ve said in the past that Kickstarters, as a funding method for games in general and MMOs in particular, have some big red flags that haven’t actually been fixed yet. Heck, the sole MMO success that we’ve seen in the Kickstarter arena has been Elite: Dangerous; every other successful Kickstarter is either still not at launch, ran out of money, or ran into some completely unforseen issue that caused a horrible delay. (To be fair, Kickstarter probably had nothing to do with what hit The Repopulation, but still.)

At this point, I’ve stopped backing video game Kickstarters, period. I’ll still back Kickstarters in general, but video games in particular are all too frequently based upon offloading the risk of development costs on to fans. A Kickstarted game is just like any other sort of game – some good ones, a whole lot of bad ones, a whole lot of ones that don’t even make it out of the starting gate. That goes double for MMOs, and triple for MMOs wherein I know the budget being put forth is too low to actually make the game, since that means that the game is either A) being funded by elsewhere and looking for extra no-strings-attached funding, or B) being run by people who do not actually know what is required to make a functional MMO. Neither one loosens my grip on my wallet.

I’m also very leery of the increasing trend wherein Kickstarter is basically early promotion for the game that’s getting made anyhow. I recognize the very nature of funding and building buzz, but one of the biggest issues I’ve had with Kickstarter from the start to the present is that you’re not actually backing a thing, you’re backing an idea about a thing. Using Kickstarter chiefly as a promotional tool means that you’re no longer even supporting that idea’s development, but have moved wholly into the territory of paying to be advertised to. There are some really great projects on Kickstarter and some crazy ambitious games out there being worked on as a result of the platform, but I’ll buy them when they actually release.

You can live there.

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): I’m not over it, but we’ve certainly moved from the heady days of dreams funding for ludicrous amounts. Crowdfunding is a fundraising tool, one of many at a developer’s disposal, and if I was making a game, I would certainly consider it. Having people give you money, practically strings-free, to make the game you already want to make? That’s win-win for the devs.

That said, there have been enough big successes and major flops on the Kickstarter front to offer some sound advice for any studio pursuing that path. A rockstar developer’s name alone doesn’t ensure success (Smedley, McQuaid). Kickstarters that are planned poorly, not promoted wisely, and lack that “hook” that gets everyone to cough up money several times over are ones that will flounder as Hero’s Song will (and that’s regardless of the game’s actual potential).

I’ve only ever backed one title, which was Project Gorgon, because I have a soft spot in my heart for underdogs who are whipping up some creatively inspiring things in the genre. I might back again, but it would need to be something that screams to me, “this MUST be made!”

MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): Am I over Kickstarter? No.Then again, I don’t think I’ve ever been in it. I am not one to back much, but that’s from a serious lack of funds on my side, not a lack of things I’d be interested in supporting. It just happens that the best support I can offer currently is being a cheerleader. Yay for pompoms!

I also don’t think Kickstarter is going to disappear any time soon, though I do think consumers are going to be a bit more wary of tossing cash around this year. There really hasn’t been much in the MMO realm that has reached launch after Kickstarting to look to and say “Hey, this works!” On the other hand, there have been a noteable number of unsuccessful or canceled-before-it-can-be-unsuccessful campaigns. The newness has definitely work off, so starry-eyed investing will lessen.

As for the rockstar dev concerns, I don’t think well-known names in the industry need to avoid Kickstarter. Sometimes these folks are branching out and are doing something with a smaller studio — maybe even a studio of one! Why not gauge how much the public would want your idea? Between that and the trend to put a little more power in the hands of the community, I believe Kickstarter could still be a viable tool.

That said, I don’t really see major studios who already have inroads with publishers and investors needing Kickstarter. Going this route might even blacken their eye a bit to the community they are appealing to. But should devs be banned from it just because they are famous for previous work? No. Unless Kickstarter applies an entry bar that starts prohibiting the smaller, independent folks from utilizing the crowdfunding platform, I am fine with the big names giving it a go. And I want to give consumers some credit that they will be able to still see and support smaller things that tickle their particular fancy.

My personal criteria for backing a game this year would be to have enough disposable income to pledge! If I can meet that one, then it is just a matter of being a game that I really want to see made and look forward to playing. I know there is risk and wait involved, and I am OK with that (hence it needing to be disposable income).

SotA_Airship_CityHome_1

Patreon Donor Archebius: Crowdfunding is in a real trough right now. It’s only been two years since you really started to see big video games (indie or not!) on Kickstarter, and most of those are still in development. I don’t know about anyone else, but I have a lot of money invested in incomplete projects, and that makes me hesitant to invest in anything new. If The Repopulation, Crowfall, and Star Citizen all become huge success stories, then we’ll probably see more games relying on Kickstarter. If they make it, but they aren’t anything special, we’ll see more games using Kickstarter as part of a larger overall production strategy, a cheap way to manage pre-orders. If they fail, then it will continue to taper off until someone thinks we’ve all forgotten, and then they’ll try it again.

I don’t think that big-name devs are killing it off at all. Double Fine was hardly an unknown back when they were one of the first KS projects to top a million dollars, and that hasn’t slowed down the slew of indie projects we’ve seen succeed since. If anything, they helped establish the plausibility of using Kickstarter for bigger, more ambitious games.

And I’ve been very satisfied with the success rate I’ve seen on those games. I backed The Repopulation, Novus Aeterno, Crowfall, Camelot Unchained, Star Citizen, Battle Chasers, and Battletech. The Repopulation had delivered a pretty playable game, prior to its server woes (praying for good news on that soon), Novus Aeterno released successfully (though I haven’t played much of it), and I’ve been very satisfied with the progress on CU, CF, and SC.

When deciding if I want to back a game, I look at quite a few things. Is this a game that I support the idea of and want to see succeed, even if it’s not quite my cup of tea? Are the rewards enough for me to take the risk? Does the team do a good job of communicating? I am a sucker for decent production values, too – if you’ve got a crappy project page, I’m definitely going to pass. You’re trying to create a very visual game; if you can’t create a visually pleasing project description, my faith is going to be a little shaken.

Your turn!

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SexyKingJesus
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SexyKingJesus

The only things I have ever kickstarted was The Repopulation and a book from my favorite author. As nice as some kickstarters were I have never really bought into any of them because there was and is no one to really hold them accountable for what they do with the money.
I havent been burned but I dodged several projects where I could have if I did back them. Ill only back projects that are further along and have an actual chance to come out.

Woetoo
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Woetoo

So far I’ve backed 5 video games (not just MMO’s). 0 anything else.
Torment: Tides of Numenera : Technically slightly late, but I’m okay with that.Maia : Estimated for Jun 2013. Still waiting. Looks like it’s going to be finished, but maybe not the game I hoped.Star Citizen : Estimated Nov 2014. Let’s face it, who didn’t back it? I’ll play it when Squadron 52 is finished – no clue when that will be.Nekro : Estimated for Jun 2013. Will play it when it’s finished, probably later this year due to RL problems for the dev. Again, I’m fine with that.Spacebase DF-9 : Oh jeez, but did I get burned on this one!
I got into the Kickstarter thing primarily because I saw publishers as a potential problem. They weren’t making the games I wanted and they were imposing business decisions onto games which made those games less enjoyable to me. I just wanted to get back to the “develop game / release game / buy game” model where I knew what I was paying for and that it would work out of the box. I saw it as a way of endorsing a system that developers could write the games they wanted to make without the baggage. Maybe make enough money to break ties with what I see as a broken system. Moreover, the state of games delivery over the last 10 years seemed to be teaching gamers some very bad habits, that I hoped delivering finished, tested, high quality games might again break the cycle of.

Clearly that experience failed for me.

Which brings be to where I am now. I’ll pay for games that are
finished and complete. I’m not interested in paying for promises. I’m not interested in content locked behind a paywall. I’m not interested “pixels as value-added content”. I’m not
interested in episodic, except where the episodes are substantive, self
contained, wholly complete content that fits that delivery choice.
Episodic for purely business decisions can go ***** itself.

Liraven
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Liraven

I’ve backed a number of game KickStarters including Pillars of Eternity, Dreamfall Chapters, and Torment: Tides of Numenera. All of those have either been delivered or recently entered beta. But they were made by folks who’ve made games I loved in the past, so I felt I could trust their future efforts.
Games by unknown studios always feel like more of a risk, but I’ve backed some of those as well. Most are still in development but posting updates often enough that I’m not worried they’re being shady.
I think having an industry veteran on a project is still a huge plus, but only if the type of game they are promoting is in line with their previous work. Chris Roberts for a space sim or Chris Avellone for a story-driven RPG makes sense. Smedley and Hero’s Song? Not so sure. If Hero’s Song looked more like the spiritual successor to EverQuest, would it matter so much that they’d already secured funding beyond KickStarter?

Estranged
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Estranged

What? You realize you just broke your whole respect rant. Sounds like a personal problem. I’ve been picked on about everything, especially my accent.

Ket_Viliano
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Ket_Viliano

Armsbend Estranged  Both of you, F’off, ageism is just disgusting. I got dogged on for looking and sounding too young in my 20’s and 30’s, now the asshats say I am too old.
Grow up, and learn to treat people kindly.

peyo01
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peyo01

The only KS project I invested in and that delivered is Massively OP. It proved me that KS can work, if the devs or the authors of the project are honest and stick to delivering what they promised and nothing more.
All the other KS I pledged are solo games that are still in development when they should have launched yet. They are still in development because the devs wanted to deliver far more than they promised and it’s not the good way to proceed. KS relies on trust between pledgers and devs. Changing the product afterwards, while development has begun, is lying to your supporters and it breaks trust definitely.

Shazanti
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Shazanti

I have backed quite a few things on Kickstarter, the vast majority being video games. I have been quite pleased with most of the things I’ve backed, such as : Wasteland 2, Shadowrun Returns, Project Eternity, Divinity: Original Sin, and I imagine to very soon be in love with Torment: Tides of Numenera. Sure, there’s a few MMOs still cooking that I’m waiting on : The sad situation of Repopulation being one of them, but Camelot Unchained and Star Citizen are also both still in the works. 
I honestly love Kickstarter. Being able to support game devs directly, to show that ‘yes, this is the kind of game I want, please make it’ is a powerful feeling to me. That I haven’t been heartbroken yet helps maintain that feeling, so I’m not complaining.
Plus, I got to support Massively v2.0, which also makes me quite happy.  :)

tominva2012
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tominva2012

TBH, the only KS project I have ever invested in was Massively OP, because I believed so strongly in the people behind it and the cause itself.

Probably the only KS game project I’d be willing to invest in at this point would be a Guild Wars 1 “clone” of some sort, again provided I trusted the people trying to put it together. I surely do miss that game…

wjowski
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wjowski

Armsbend wjowski 
 I see, so he’s worse than I thought.

Foggye
Guest
Foggye

All in all, I believe that actual “kickstarted” MMOs will be very limited going forward.  Doubt, you’ll really see another one whom pitched just the idea of a MMO alone, then some of the already funded ones.  Further, the more appealing prospects going forward may up being little more then pre-sales with perks.  They already got the funding (or most of it) if their showing you a product that has combat animations and art assets; more showcasing rather then trying to sell an idea.  They’ve already been working on it long enough that their either gonna finish, or hit a bump that would require additional funding to continue.  Which may be far more appealing for most backers, because they can see some of the actual product because the game is pretty much halfway done.  So, yeah I believe Kickstarter will be abused more as a marketing strategy rather then an actual necessity.  

The current offerings will dictate the success of “here’s our idea, let’s see how far we can take it” MMO projects like Star Citizen, Camelot Unchained, Shroud and more.  If those are not only successful, but offer something profoundly different from the very trite options in the current market then that opens the door more for more crowd-funded MMOs going forward.  If they all fall flat, then sadly, the shake up we’re all hoping for in the MMO market becomes a less likely reality in the near future, as big boys continue to sell based on established IPs, and safe bets.