Vague Patch Notes: Scammers, grifters, and amateurs in the MMORPG market

    
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Sometimes it's... pretty clear.

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.

Too soon? No.

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.

Let's not ruin this moment with facts.

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.

Nope.

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.

Sometimes you know exactly what’s going on with the MMO genre, and sometimes all you have are Vague Patch Notes informing you that something, somewhere, has probably been changed. Senior Reporter Eliot Lefebvre enjoys analyzing these sorts of notes and also vague elements of the genre as a whole. The potency of this analysis may be adjusted under certain circumstances.

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Mordyjuice
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Mordyjuice

Sorry I saw the title and thought this was the article discussing Fallout 76’s subscription model for a Private Server.

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Armsbend

“Star Citizen is often one of the first one that gets brought up. The thing is that it’s obviously not a scam.”

What about Star Citizen is not a scam? It is because there is a working alpha behind it? That makes it not a scam? Bernie Madoff had a pretty office, lots of paperwork and really cool graphics and charts. He took people to elaborate dinners and early players got payouts. Was that not a scam? Because people showed up to work every day? Because people involved in the ponzi could look up their faked investments?

It is this apologetic attitude that allows scams to persist. It is not murky. They are scamming for your money for their time, lack of work ethic or money laundering. It is as plain as a bright day. Stop giving these sons of bitches the benefit of the doubt. Give the god damned PLAYERS the benefit of the doubt. They are the only ones in this unequal equation who matter. Developers exist by invitation ONLY. They have no meaning outside of providing product to the consumer.

Look back at those old journalism classes and call it out. If you don’t see it – it is there – dig it out. Make a name for yourself in the process.

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Bruno Brito

I agree with the overall sentiment, and i think that SC can be considered a scam simply because it’ll probably shut down before launch. So, it’s a scam because it didn’t provide what it was promised.

That being said, i do believe there IS an underlying intent to deliver a game. I just think that Chris is a fucking idiot who has the same problem i do ( and i’m also a idiot ), where he cannot, for his life, stop shoving features on the stuff he created.

My main character is going through his eight interaction. I gotta stop. Same as CR.

IF SC doesn’t leave the alpha state, it’s a scam. If it does, then it’s a game. I’m that simple.

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Raimo Kangasniemi

‘I’m angry / disappointed towards something, so it must be a scam because I say so!’?

Just because people feel that less bombastic, more fact-based criticism is incapable of conveying fully their negative views of a game and the team behind it, their repetitive shouting of ‘Scam!’ doesn’t turn a game project with development issues into a scam.

Based on all available evidence, Star Citizen is not a scam and no amount of shouting of ‘Scam!’ will turn it into a one.

There are quite sensible reasons, grounded to reality, to criticize the game’s development while not going overboard: Measured criticism about the shifting timetable, ways money is raised to fund the game, and promises made to backers during the development should not be hampered with extravagant ‘Scam!’ allegations.

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Bruno Brito

Based on all available evidence, Star Citizen is not a scam and no amount of shouting of ‘Scam!’ will turn it into a one.

Uh…what? There’s no evidence SC is not a scam. Nor there is any evidence it is. We’ll only know if it’s a scam when it actively closes and leaves the people who backed on the dry.

Here’s the problem tho: SC took the same ammount of time to get into an alpha that MMOs get from inception to launch. It’s the same prayer for like what now, 7 years? And you people are still on 3.7, and let’s not forget, this alpha as a functional cashshop while core systems are still not present in the game.

SoTA has a game. It’s a scam. AA Unchained has a game, and til’ the present moment, it feels like a cash grab. Eternal Crusade had a game. Scam.

Having a game is not grounds for not being a cashgrab.

promises made to backers during the development should not be hampered with extravagant ‘Scam!’ allegations.

Except that every problem you brought up makes us near “Scam!” territory because it delays the full game, and then the backers have a alpha at their hands. When will SC launch? 2050?

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Raimo Kangasniemi

None of those games are scams. Just because a game doesn’t come out in an expected timeframe, and prove successful, doesn’t make it a ‘scam’.

This is an example of how people misuse and apparently misunderstand the term ‘scam’ – ‘It didn’t reach my expectations so it’s a scam!’

No, almost always it’s just a game with troubled development, and in some cases, becomes a failed game. And games can fail in multiple ways – Shroud of the Avatar and Eternal Crusade have failed in different ways.

SotA has not reached a large audience, which is likely down to it being a very mediocre game, and backers are not getting all they were promised – but as a game it is as complete as a MMO can be; Eternal Crusade, on the other hand, is a pale ghost of the game it was supposed to be, because the studio got cold feet and drastically cut the original vision for the game.

Eternal Crusade is still not a scam. It’s a huge disappointment. It is a game whose original lead developer and plan for the game were ditched, leaving it a small torso of what it was supposed to becomed.

And you can still play Eternal Crusade – looking at the charts, on Steam it had 127 players per hour at best during the last 24 hours. If it would have been a scam, you would not be able to play it – but you can, as disappointing as it is in the state it has been left in.

Andy McAdams
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Andy McAdams

This is an example of how people misuse and apparently misunderstand the term ‘scam’ – ‘It didn’t reach my expectations so it’s a scam!’

Counter point: “Well, the used car salesman sold me a car — he called it something that’s never been attempted before – better than a Maserati. But what I got was a 1989 Pontiac LaMans. Still, clearly not a scam because it was my expectations that were at fault, the car salesman did the absolute best he could and we shouldn’t fault him for that.”

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Raimo Kangasniemi

Scam is when you are buying a Bugatti Type 57, you and the seller have a water-tight agreement on paper saying that, and you end up having a Cadillac Cimarron delivered instead.

Scam is what you can sue people for.

Misleading sales-speak is not a scam, or every single car salesman would have a criminal record.

Same with games. Most games would be scams if every word said about them by the developers and publishers would be taken at face value, if every delay in development, a feature dropped would make the game ‘a scam’.

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Bruno Brito

That’s you just nitpicking for the sake of it.

if every delay in development, a feature dropped would make the game ‘a scam’.

We’re not talking about delays. We’re talking about a product being delivered as promised, after being paid in full.

Misleading sales-speak is not a scam, or every single car salesman would have a criminal record.

Yes. It is. Not everyone has the time, the fortitude and the awareness to go look for a lawyer, sometimes not the money. A lot of people get scammed/duped and have to live with it.

SotA has not reached a large audience, which is likely down to it being a very mediocre game, and backers are not getting all they were promised – but as a game it is as complete as a MMO can be

…I’m going to ignore you now.

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Ashfyn Ninegold

+1

When a guy holds out a cup and asked for money, you don’t give it to him thinking this is going to change his life or that you’ll get something for it. That money is gone and maybe it will do good somewhere down the line and maybe it won’t. Either way, your part is done and your interest in that dollar should be, too.

That’s what kickstarter is.

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Armsbend

That is what it is – but that isn’t what it is sold as.

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Jon Hall

The guy panhandling is going to buy alcohol or tobacco with your $5, that’s not what he advertises either.

There needs to be some kind of regulation for Kickstarter type for profit entities in their fund raising phase. Something like a 501(c) in the US, but tailored for organizations that plan on switching to for profit corporations and fund raising from individuals over the Internet. The goal being to give State Attorney Generals tools to go after the bad actors.

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Reginald Bottomsworth

SotA is noticeably absent. In my view it falls into the category of gross mismanagement seeming like a scam.

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Deadly Habit

Look at the last screenshot’s name ;)
Legends of Aria is another one that fits the gross mismanagement category as well.

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Armsbend

A scam of the highest order. There is no debate. Trading blood, semen or old ponytail juice does not make the transaction legit.

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Reginald Bottomsworth

“Old Ponytail Juice” is my new nickname for Richard Garriott.

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StormKat

It’s everyone elses fault that SOTA is in its current state. Apparently Reddit single-handedly destroyed the game. /s WHY WOULD YOU SAY THAT?