There are two apparent truisms about scams in the MMO marketplace. The first is that players are quick to call anything that vaguely stinks of a scam as such. The second is that somehow, it never seems to be targeted at the stuff that actually is a scam.
This is glossing a bit; there’s lots of stuff that doesn’t meet the legal criteria of a scam that still winds up feeling more like a scam, or at least a case of rent-seeking or grift. Cons, if you will. Ways to get your money without actually providing anything in exchange. Even if you weren’t great at identifying these things ahead of time, it’s still a familiar concept.
What complicates the discussion is the fact that some outfits really aren’t grifters but are just so ponderously bad at managing money that a crowdfunded game sure turns into what seems to be a scam. And then there are times when something starts out as a good-faith effort but morphs into rent-seeking over time – because when you’re already halfway there, you may as well go all-in. So let’s talk about all of this in the context of MMORPGs.
First and foremost, I wish to stress that this is not about the legal status of grifting, meeting the required barrier for prosecution, or any of that. What we’re talking about here is the more conversational definition, so we’re using “grifter” to cover any situation wherein your money is being taken with no intent of ever providing what you spent that money on.
The key takeaway there is that grifting is thus not actually about tricking you into believing me once I have your money. If I can get more money from you, so much the better, but my real trick is in getting you to buy in from the start for something I have no interest in providing. It’s the sort of accusation being levied at Oath right now, that money was taken but no game was ever realistically in development. (Of course, the response to that has been that the company behind the development is too producing something! The claim that it isn’t is just false. You can’t call it grift if it’s just being bad at things.)
Was TUG meant to be a scam? It certainly started out producing a game, and there was a playable (albeit not good) version of the game available at one point. Clearly, development was happening. It seems less that the game was always a way to extract money from those with more dollars than sense and more that it was started with a genuine drive to make this video game that conflicted with the team’s actual ability to deliver on somewhat lofty goals. It certainly doesn’t seem fair to say that the game was always a scam.
At the same time, it certainly does seem like that’s what it morphed into over time because it definitely never reached any sort of finished launch state if there was ever a launch version people would have enjoyed playing, and now it’s vanished into the ether along with the devs and the money.
And therein lies a further wrinkle: It’s kind of easy to slide into rent-seeking when you have an engine for taking more money and it doesn’t seem to be intrinsically tied to how much actual work is produced.
When games are getting called to the mat for being “scams,” Star Citizen is often one of the first one that gets brought up. The thing is that it’s obviously not a scam. The game is clearly still in development, there’s a lot shared about development constantly, there are huge chunks of information disseminated… the game is clearly being worked on. It isn’t a scam.
At the same time, it’s also a game that long ago pivoted to a position that certainly feels like rent-seeking based on the way that concept ship production and pre-sales definitely seem to be provided faster than actual playable portions of the game. It’s here where the “scam” feelings come into play. While the game is obviously not a con, people are aware that CIG is willing to take a lot of money for things that are promised to eventually be in the game, even while promising that people who drop a couple thousand dollars on ships won’t really have advantages when everything shakes out.
Hey, making games is expensive and slow – we all know that. You have to get the money while you’re developing something somehow, and by definition that money can’t come from sales of the game itself. But it feels like rent-seeking, which trips that “this is a scam” sensor in our heads; we’re left with the feeling that the request is to keep paying in while little additional value is being provided along the way.
Kickstarter is not the origin of grifting in MMOs and the MMO space, of course. There was a long period of time when free-to-play was essentially the domain of grifters, as studios requested money past a certain point else you were effectively locked out of progression. (The MMO landscape has changed a lot in the past decade.) But it does effectively provide a new haven for projects that have essentially no future, either because the initial ask is far too small to build even a tech demo or because the people running the show have no idea what making an MMO actually entails.
It also creates a compounded version of the sunk cost fallacy. There’s always a certain amount of this in play with any game that holds you hostage past a certain point (“oh no, I can’t keep playing without a purchase, but I’ve already sunk time in, so not purchasing would mean it was all wasted…”), but having a Kickstarted game threaten to go belly-up without more cash creates a sensation that the money you already spent is at risk of becoming worthless.
That leads to the sort of perpetual crowdfunding push that a lot of these games use now, a continual roll of “support the game” being sold to the people who are already the most committed to the game. And while that doesn’t make the game itself a scam, it sure is… well, if not grifting, at least grift-adjacent.
So what can you do on the player end? Well, being aware of how the sunk cost fallacy works and acting ahead of that definitely helps. (Remember, the money you spent on a Kickstarter isn’t coming back no matter what; sinking more money into keeping something afloat just means losing more money in the end.) But I think more of it is just addressed by being a harder target to grift.
Getting taken in by that sort of philosophy requires not gullibility but rather a certain mindset. You can’t be tricked into paying if you don’t actually think you’ll get something for nothing, for example. If you think that something sounds too good to be true, it probably is, and if you seem to be getting an awful lot for very little, there are probably either hidden costs or a project that’s never going to be fully realized.
In short, being a little more cynical makes it harder to be taken in by people who would take advantage of your good faith. Which, oddly, works pretty well with people who want to con you and people who mean well but have bigger dreams than the ability to fulfill them.