Perfect Ten: Questions to ask before backing an MMO Kickstarter

A journey into complexity.

I am not a big fan of Kickstarter in general, but I like to think that I’m not a big fan for actual reasons rather than spurious ones. Every time I see someone referring to Star Citizen as a scam, I get annoyed; the game is very clearly not a scam. It’s already delivered too much of an actual game to be a scam. A scam is something that’s never going to happen at all; most Kickstarter games are, at the very least, going to provide a good-faith effort to try making a game.

Not that this necessarily works out very well, as evidenced by Pathfinder Online. Intentions and ability to deliver aren’t the same thing at all. So rather than calling out every Kickstarted game a scam simply because it involves still asking for money after the initial funding period (which, again, is not a scam so much as an indication of ballooning needs for money), why not teach ourselves to be better armed before backing a Kickstarter?

Not surprising, still sad.

1. How ambitious is the game?

The funny thing about ambition is that it’s usually what draws us to a Kickstarter. I claim no immunity to this; if a game promised me a fully-featured Transformers MMO, I sure as heck would be throwing money at it. Or lots of other things, really. Tell me “you pilot transforming mecha and advance both them and your character separately in multiple forms of content scaled for the number of players,” and I’m reaching for my wallet.

However, I am also going to temper that reach with a look at your feature list. The more ambitious a feature is, the more likely it is that there’s a reason no one has tried it before. I’m not talking about balance issues or fun or whatever; I’m saying that lots of really ambitious features are, unsurprisingly, very hard to do. If a superhero game promises me City of Heroes but better graphics and more power options, that sounds within the realm of possibility; if it promises me City of Heroes combined with Minecraft combined with No Man’s Sky and a healthy dose of real-time aging, I get a little bit skeptical because that’s a lot.

Ambition isn’t a bad thing, of course. But it’s hard to pull off. Which leads naturally to the next question…

2. How experienced is the team/the big name?

Mark Jacobs knows how to build and produce an MMO. Am I a lifelong fan of the MMOs he designed? Not really, although I respect what they did well. But that doesn’t matter in this case; the point is that the man has a pretty good idea about what he’s promising and how much time and effort it will take to make something happen. By contrast, if Joe Randomington started making promises, I would be just a bit more leery of his Kickstarter, simply because I don’t have much evidence that he knows what he’s doing.

This ties a lot into ambition; it’s easy to assume that something isn’t that hard to do if, in fact, you’ve never done it before. An MMO is a rough project with a lot of moving pieces, and more experienced teams means more people who know how the heck this complicated project is actually supposed to work. An inexperienced team is more likely to promise things that are either extremely difficult but sound easy or things that just aren’t technically possible.

It’s also worth considering what the people are experienced with doing. I wouldn’t trust Shigeru Miyamoto to know the challenges involved with making an MMO, even though the man is a legend.

Seriously, though, the gender-locking is a pile here.

3. How much money is the team asking for?

This is another thing that frequently gets overlooked, but it shouldn’t be. If an MMO Kickstarter is asking for less than a million dollars, I get worried because I’m well aware that these projects are expensive. Crowfall asked for a million, and it also had the team specifically explaining that the game had other investments and that the development team was very carefully adapting to ensure that it could deliver an MMO on such a small budget.

And, you’ll note, even that project kind of had to accelerate and alter its launch plans to start getting some cashflow going.

When I see an MMO Kickstarter that asks for just $300,000, I start wondering where the rest of the money for the game is going to come from because that number isn’t going to make much of a dent on development unless the developers have some sort of dark alchemy going on.

4. What’s on display?

This often ties in with ambition. A lot of MMO Kickstarters launch with wild pie-in-the-sky promises and… concept art. No gameplay footage in an early state. And that, to me, is an enormous warning sign because it indicates that the team has not actually started the hard part of this project (which may be the original intent of Kickstarter, but given the current environment and the complexity of the project, it’s a premature launch). Even if that’s not the case, it looks like a whole lot is being promised without the team actually having started to decipher how hard this can actually be to make work.

Early footage, even rough early footage, indicates that progress is being made and the developers have at least some concept of the enormous mess they’ve stepped into. Concept art might just indicate that the developers are too early in the process to show anything off… but isn’t that the sort of thing you should sort out before asking for money? Shouldn’t you be sure you can actually make something happen before telling people to give you a million dollars to make it happen?

5. What do the tiers look like?

This is a minor one, but still relevant: The more insane the tiers get at lower levels, the less faith I have in the project as a whole, simply because it’s easy to promise something for money that you may never be able to deliver. If $100 gets you a fully customizable planet complete with your own species of alien, run.

Well, hope springs eternal.

6. How does the team address criticism?

Zealotry is bad. It’s bad enough coming from the fans, but it’s even worse coming from the developers. If a team responds to a critique with a rolling of the eyes and an exasperated sigh (or the implication of same, I should say), they’re probably not going to be more amenable to critique when the game gets further on in development. On the other hand, if the team behind the game is warm, approachable, friendly, and humble, that’s a good sign.

I’ve also found that there’s a reasonable correlation between how much time the team spends tearing down other games and how empty promises tend to be. If a developer spends a whole lot of time speaking about how great this game is going to be and the new experiences to be found within, that’s a good sign. If they spend most of their time talking about how bad other MMOs are, that’s less encouraging.

7. How focused is the game?

A Kickstarted game is not going to be World of Warcraft. It’s not even going to be Riders of Icarus. It’s a small indie affair that can, hopefully, provide an excellent gameplay experience for the people who are interested in that targeted experience. Looking at the games I have the most faith in, I realize that all of them very deliberately targeted a specific audience and are built for that audience, rather than something huge that’s going to Redefine The Genre Forever.

I’m not saying that smaller games are themselves better; I’m saying that you’re more likely to get a great game focused on doing One Thing Well when dealing with a smaller operation. Even beyond the ambition problem, games trying to be everything to everyone are more likely to misunderstand what “everyone” wants.

That’s not to say games can’t get bigger after the fact, but I think Elite: Dangerous knew what it was doing: It promised a game to deliver X, and as its funding grew and its scope expanded a bit, the team delivered X and subsequently worked on expanding the game from there.

Still at a zero for sold ships that aren't actually usable, though.

8. What’s the worst-case scenario?

I backed the first Pathfinder Online Kickstarter. I had some vague interest in the game, but mostly I did so because I also got a book along with it, and my reasoning was that even if the game never actually happened, I’d still have a book. That was my worst-case scenario, or as increasingly seems likely, the final scenario.

This is something to consider, always. What happens if the game never materializes? What do you have to show for all of this? For that matter, how much more money have you sunk into the game since then? How long will the lead time be before you get something to actually show for your donation? Are you all right with that by itself?

You may mock it, but even Revival made a hardcore effort to produce a version of the game in which you could walk around in the house you bought, even if it lacked interaction. I consider that worthwhile.

9. How many campaigns have been run?

I’m leery of backing a game that’s already been on Kickstarter once before because that tends to indicate that the game needs more money but isn’t in a state where people would pay for it if the first one succeeded, or that more unrealistic stuff has been pushed forward to bolster success rates if the first one failed. That’s not to say that it’s never justified, just that I want to know why we got to this state.

On the other hand, I’m a bit more forgiving of games that use some sort of ongoing funding model with more gewgaws being rolled out for money, even though I’m still not tremendously fond of it. Shroud of the Avatar has generally done a good job of it, since most of what you get for backing shows up in the game as promised in short order and without requiring a huge outlay; anything sold on the basis of “it’ll be in the game eventually” gets a side-eye from me.

Our next campaign is for dreams about pipes!

10. How much money are you willing to lose?

When you back a game, you are not buying it ahead of time. If you give a Kickstarter $50 with a promised copy of the game, you haven’t bought the game. You can’t buy the game because it doesn’t exist yet. You’re paying the developers to make it. When it’s made, you’ll be given a copy, but if it never happens, you don’t actually own anything.

Thus, rather simply, you ought never donate money to a Kickstarter that you aren’t prepared to lose. Hopefully, you won’t lose it. But that money is gone once you throw it in the pile. It’s neither an investment nor a purchase; it’s a hope, and there are no two ways around it.

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