Massively Overthinking: What generates trust in MMO crowdfunding for you?

    
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Massively Overthinking: What generates trust in MMO crowdfunding for you?

Last week, an anonymous game developer posted on the MMORPG Reddit about the broader MMO playerbase’s frustrations with crowdfunding. See, this dev says he’s been working on an MMO and his studio was prepping for a Kickstarter campaign, but given the disdain for the platform and recent high-profile disasters, he’s worried about how his game will look.

“The current style of campaigns are generally showing some high quality footage with very little UI & gameplay elements shown. We were never expecting to show our characters walking around beautiful landscapes and just leaving it at that. We have more to offer. However as most campaigns do, they generally use some camera & effects magic to make the game look better than it currently is. It may be some quick scripted animations or scenarios that they may not have at the time, but expect to have in the future. I mean, after all you are trying to sell the game for what it will become, not what it currently is. But really this needs to change and people need to see what you currently have with no bullshit.

“The other problem is budget. Believe it or not, you don’t need millions of dollars to create an indie MMO. Games that run out of millions of dollars and show the equivalent work what a single indie dev can make in 6 months is simply a scam, financial mismanagement, or most likely both. This is another punch to the gut for us, we are seeking an amount of money we expect to get the game released that is barely 6 figures. Is this going to look like a scam all of a sudden?”

I thought this would be a fun topic to bat around, especially since the dev is specifically asking for feedback. What do you need to see in an indie MMORPG crowdfunding campaign to restore your trust in crowdfunding – or generate trust at least in that game specifically?

Andy McAdams: I might have a different set of criteria as delivering software products is literally my day job. As a result, I’ve built up a pretty good intuition of when a project is feasible when given a set of inputs. I wholeheartedly believe that most Kickstarter games fail because of missing, or worse, poor product and project management. When we say something like “financial mismanagement,” what we are really saying is “scope mismanagement” as most of these games generate enough crowdfunded money to produce something. So that most often says either scope of the project ballooned, or the engineers had a persistent case of “OH! Something shiny!” and ended up with a frankensteined conglomeration of really cool features that don’t actually work together.

What I want to see out of a crowdfunded game is a really firm list of Won’t Dos. That’s not to say they won’t ever do those thing but that for what I’m giving them money for, they will not be delivering these things. It shows intelligent product management, a firm commitment and vision to what you are delivering, and it really sets the expectation with the people buying in on what it will be. I want a commitment that the “won’t have” list they won’t deliver no matter how much money they get because a good PM knows that it is human nature to under estimate work and they are going to need that money to deliver their original commitment.

Have I seen this yet in a Kickstarter? No, I have not. Anytime a Kickstarter blows through funding goals they start adding scope aggressively. But past a certain dollar figure, and I can guarantee that point is much lower than you think, throwing money at problems produces diminishing returns.

tl;dr – Telling me what you won’t do is just as important — sometimes more important — than telling me what you will do. And sticking to that commitment.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I’ve been burned by Kickstarters before, though fortunately never for more than a few bucks – I’m not wealthy or a gambler, so I’m careful, but I definitely like to support unique indie titles, especially since MassivelyOP is literally crowdfunded, as have been several games I own and love. I don’t think the problem is the platform (apart from the fact that we need the platform in the first place).

The problem is that accountability for crowdfunding is almost non-existent. Consider Shroud of the Avatar: Nobody with legal power is actually incentivized to hold anyone’s feet to the fire over a couple million bucks. They all got their cut along the way; they don’t really care about the people out cash even through non-Kickstarter equity crowdfunding. And if the accountability is that low for equity crowdfunding, it’s even worse for donation-centric Kickstarters, making them a magnet for scams of all flavors, the types that were always asset-flipping garbage piles all the way up to the big ones that mean well but can’t possibly deliver what they promise on the funding they secure.

The only thing that generates trust for me nowadays is when the developers are known entities in MMOs, when they spend time working with and communicating with the press and community (not just paid influencers) to establish their legitimacy, when the Kickstarter isn’t a grotesque overreach, and when there’s some sort of functional prototype of a game with a design that isn’t just going to be another dumpster fire no matter how much money is poured into it. This is super unfair, of course, since Kickstarter was supposed to “kickstart” games, not finish them off after devs spend a few years toiling unpaid, but that’s just where we are until real, legal accountability (and not just YouTube ranting) wipes out the slime at the bottom of the pool.

The only MMO I backed last year was Book of Travels, and it fit all of these categories. I knew the devs from their many, many past games. They didn’t ask for too much (or too little). They didn’t overpromise. They communicate with players and media. They had a clear plan for what the game was going to be and what it most definitely was not. And they had a little something to show. Nothing in life is a sure thing, but that’s about as good as it gets for trust these days.

Carlo Lacsina (@UltraMudkipEX): I’ve never backed a project, but I really enjoy the drama that comes from the ones that don’t meet their promises like Mighty Number 9. Kickstarting something is pretty much a gamble, and I’m not a big fan if gambling. (Says the Black Desert Online player.)

Honestly if I were going to invest money in the industry, I’d very much rather invest the money in a publicly traded game company with a proven track record of hitting deadlines and consistently making profits in games. I don’t know if I’m making myself sound like the bad guy here, but to me its a question of investing my hard-earned cash. If I were to choose between investing money in a Kickstarter, which might produce a game, and EA, which can turn a profit despite its reputation among gamers, I’d go for the latter. I don’t play EA games, but if I get a return on my investment, then it’s better in my (financial) books.

Unless I’m putting in money to buy a game a game or to pay a sub, money invested in a game company through stocks is not to play their games, excepting maybe Square-Enix!

Mia DeSanzo (@neschria): I have participated in very few commercial crowdfunding campaigns of any kind. I did a Kickstarter for the DVD release of a short indie film, and in the end, I got my DVD. I have been tempted to get in on some games, but I have just seen too many projects implode to pull the trigger. Similarly, I have preordered two or three games ever. (I preordered New World, but I have seen the tech and I know Amazon doesn’t need my money to finish the project.) I might be slightly more likely to buy into early access than a Kickstarter, but I always know I could be buying a big pile of hot, steaming garbage.

The thing is, I want crowdfunding to work. I want indie games to get made. I think those companies need to have a realistic scope of what they can accomplish and be able to articulate some kind of business plan or strategy. Unfortunately, Kickstarters are funded by fans with stars in their eyes for a promise of the game they have always imagined, and presenting a realistic picture of what can be accomplished in how much time with how much funding just isn’t sexy.

Many crowdfunded MMOs seem to have a lot of feature creep in systems that haven’t even been developed yet. Making more and more promises for things that are very hard for even established companies to accomplish should be a massive red flag, and yet companies keep doing it and people keep buying in.

I am a fan of indie and small MMOs. I want them to do well, even if they aren’t my cup of grog, because someone out there is thirsty for that game. And there are a few stand-out examples of what indie devs can do. Look at the MOP co-winners for the indie category in 2019: Project Gorgon and Villagers & Heroes are games that work with something a little different to offer.

I deeply admire the spirit and idealism of fans and devs who want it to be about the game and not the money. I also want it to be about the best dang virtual world RPG ever and not another shameless cash grab. Unfortunately, if you ever want to flip the switch to turn on your servers, it has to be a little bit about the money too. That is reality. If your fans can and will do that funding, that is fantastic. I just want to suggest that maybe it is tad naive and a smidge unfair to expect fans to be the sole support of a hugely ambitious game. As far as wanting to be independent of investors, consider whether you may have seen games promise more and more to pander to fans and end up with absolutely nothing to show for it. Maybe a gentle investor hand on the shoulder isn’t so bad sometimes.

MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): While I have not backed an MMO, I have backed a handful of Kickstarters. And only one so far has not delivered on its promises. I backed Purple Pillows, a tiny game in a tin, a web comic I love, and Moglin plushies! The only computer game I have backed is the retro game Dungeons & Doomknights from Artix Entertainment, and I have absolutely no doubts this will come to fruition. When I backed, it was for things I had trust in and/or had a proven track record (with the exception of the web comic one and I did that wanting to support whether or not I got my items!). I don’t personally have disposable cash to toss at possible things years down the line, so I won’t likely ever back an MMO Kickstarter. If I ever come into money though, I might revisit that thought. Still, I would likely still back only if I had confidence in the creator or if I felt my money was more of a gift to help along.

Unfortunately, new and indie developers aren’t coming into Kickstarter with a track record of making good on promises because this is their first one, and they have to fight against the huge string of empty and broken promises from all their predecessors who blew it. So that is quite an uphill battle, and we already know MMO players can have a very long memory when ti comes to being burned. To generate trust from that pit of distrust already will be a Herculean effort and I do not envy anyone who attempts it.

But if a dev team is up to the challenge, I’d offer these suggestions. Make sure you are a good chunk along in development and ideas; you will need to have concrete stuff to show throughout the campaign and you can’t be trying to create it while managing your Kickstarter. (Trust us, we know this one first-hand!) Make sure the amount you want is a modest one. And please, please, please, do not feature creep yourself into a hole with stretch goals! Personally, I think having a small initial Kickstarter for a smaller-scope game is best to start, then when you are successful with that and now have your positive track record, use another Kickstarter to expand. And please be as realistic in your projections as you can, because delays breed contempt, and declarations of “We didn’t know we’d run into this problem!” are not appreciated. Expect delays, expect troubles, and calculate that into your projections as best you can. Then when something goes smoother and you are early, hurray!

Samon Kashani (@thesamkash): I would also be hesitant in this developer’s shoes. There have been so many Kickstarter games that, even if they didn’t rise to the level of scams, simply failed to deliver the game that was envisioned. I appreciate the stance that they are taking by saying they don’t even need that much money. At the same time, though, what if that is just their naivete? How many Kickstarter games are well past their original cost and release estimate? All of them?

It’s just tough to be in their position. Perhaps in a couple more years, after the full first-wave of core Kickstarter MMOs have actually released (Crowfall, Camelot Unchained, Star Citizen), players will be understanding and open to the Kickstarter game development route again. Right now, when you consider buying into a Kickstarter game, your mind thinks, “I still don’t have the games I backed five years ago. Do I really want to spend money now to wait five years again? ”

Tyler Edwards: I’ve never had much trust in crowdfunding generally. I’ve backed only two Kickstarters in my life, MOP being one of them. I have even less trust in MMO crowdfunding. MMOs are too big, complex, and expensive to trust to people without the support of major investors or publishers. And the history of MMO crowdfunding to date has largely reinforced my negative assumptions. Almost without exception, they seem to either implode or shamble on as endless money pits constantly asking for more cash without delivering anything resembling a finished product.

Mainstream investors are not perfect and do make mistakes, but by and large they know what they’re doing. If they’re not willing to invest in your game — if crowdfunding is your only option — there’s probably a good reason for that. I’m all for developers being more ambitious and taking more chances, but that’s only a virtue if you can actually deliver a playable game.

There is virtually nothing that could convince me to ever back a crowdfunded MMO at this point. On principle, though, I have the most faith in games that are from experienced developers with clear plans. The second part is the really important one; if you promise your game is going to be all things to all people, I know not to trust you. If you’re making plans that are more ambitious than any AAA studio is capable of, I know your crowdfunded effort is doomed to failure. If any crowdfunded games deserve our trust — and that’s a big if at this point — it’s the smaller ones with a clear vision, not those that promise the stars and keep heaping on more and more stretch goals.

I think Book of Travels is a good example of a game that seems to have a clear vision for what it’s trying to achieve. I still think the odds of it actually delivering a good product on time are probably around 50/50 at best, but that is better than I’d rate most crowdfunded titles, and for what it’s worth I hope they succeed. They seem to have some genuinely fresh ideas while still being somewhat realistic about what they want to achieve.

Every week, join the Massively OP staff for Massively Overthinking column, a multi-writer roundtable in which we discuss the MMO industry topics du jour – and then invite you to join the fray in the comments. Overthinking it is literally the whole point. Your turn!

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Joseph Groulx

Effective budgeting. Many projects have been blown off track by the hurricane that is scope alterations. Star Citizen, I’m looking at you.

So, you start a project with goals you can’t hope to feasibly deliver, and you add and you add until people stop buying into your project, you run out of money, and you close. This is the worst-case scenario for CIG, and thankfully we’re not quite there yet. This is what happened to Elyria. This is what happened to a lot of games, they couldn’t deliver on time, investors stopped funding them, and they shut down.

I’ve come to view ambitions projects with skepticism because for many years now we’ve seen the next promising big thing after the next promising big thing get shut down over budget constraints and failure to achieve deliverables in a timely manner.

MMOs are a dime a dozen anymore, and only a small handful of the older ones are even moderately successful. The rest of them cease major updates, go free-to-play, adopt a cash shop, and sell out until the publisher can’t make money off of them any longer.

So, what can your Kickstarter project offer me that I’m going to be interested in?

Honestly, unless your team includes an experienced world builder who can deliver something Tolkien-esque in terms of lore, unless you know what makes a fun and exciting combat system, unless you have a plan for development that doesn’t include “hit max level and make raid content until players get bored” don’t even bother. These types of games aren’t attractive anymore outside of WoW Classic.

Ask yourselves, why would anyone play this game? Is it fun to make a new character and spend time leveling it? Can you deliver any replay value? Can I change what I’m doing and level a different way? Is there a lot of customization for characters? These are the features that make MMOs fun.

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Nick Smith

Previous, completed, mmo projects. If the team is made up of industry vets…. then I will trust them.

The Weeb formerly known as Sray
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The Weeb formerly known as Sray

This is what makes me trust/contribute to video game crowdfunding: a team with a track record, and a realistic ask where the game can be fully funded by the campaign. I’m not going to kick in money for attracting outside investment; and I’m not going to hand money over to a project that isn’t headed up by someone who’s been in a senior lead position on other shipped products. All of the projects that I’ve ever backed/considered were headed up by experienced professionals who put their resumes right at the top of the campaign, and were asking for realistic amounts (not too much, not too little) with flexible, yet very doable, solid(ish) deadlines.

_____________________
Separate, but related thought here:

I know that there’s a lot of people who seem to be comfortable with using Kickstarter to attract the real investors, but anyone who’s asking for too little to actually finish the project that they’re making is already in violation of Kickstarter’s guidelines. The guidelines are quite clear on this: there is no issue with accepting outside investment, but you should be able to complete the project solely based on the funds that are acquired through Kickstarter. That means anyone who’s running a crowdfunding campaign knowing that the campaign won’t generate the funds needed to complete the project is running a fraudulent campaign. They might be very open about it using it to attract investment, and Amazon certainly isn’t cracking down on these campaigns, but they are definitely fraudulent within the context of Kickstarter’s guidelines.

oldandgrumpy
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oldandgrumpy

Oh dear another Developer with excessive optimism about game development time. Hire a good project manager or go and do a project management course first. Next discover that a game is more than just code.

Oh and no money from me. Chris took all mine :)

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Lethality

@Andy – All video games are software, but not all software is a video game. Different beasts. :)

Anyway. I just put my money where my mouth is. If someone is trying to make something I want and I believe needs to be made, I back them. I guess I make a general gut assessment on the people, to some extent, but generally if they’re trying, I’m going to try and help.

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Utakata

Like Revival? They where the proto-Chronicles of Elyria you know. o.O

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Armsbend

When they finally admit they were a scam from the onset.

PlasmaJohn
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PlasmaJohn

Pfft. My rule of thumb is not to spend money on MMO’s that haven’t proved their operational capability regardless of funding model. The absolute minimum is not until after the first post-launch content patch and only if everything has gone perfect up until that point.

I have yet to see an MMO failure that couldn’t be directly tied back to either poor development practices or management incompetence. Often it’s both. Another excellent measure of longevity is how well they manage Customer Service. Are they hostile? Move along.

I almost responded to that reddit post. It was very clear they had put zero thought into the operational (post-launch) side of the house. Ultimately I decided it wasn’t worth the effort.

The Weeb formerly known as Sray
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The Weeb formerly known as Sray

It seems to me that most of the indies going for MMO crowdfunding somehow believe that they’ll magically launch their games and they’ll be instantly profitable. The fact that 99% of video games aren’t profitable for years, if ever, and anyone seeking funding for a live service game (like an MMORPG) needs to be securing the funding to run the game for at least 12 to 18 months after launch while they’re getting the money to build the damn thing.

It’s that particular thing that makes me look at some of the bigger crowdfunded games out there and think this: yeah, they’re going to have a pretty cool game, whenever they finally launch; but how’s that game going to keep going when undoubtedly a huge number of the guys who kicked in during the development are going to close their wallets after the launch and say “I’ve done my part, no more money from me.”

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Anstalt

As I have yet to spend money on a crowd-funding initiative, I guess you could say there is nothing that generates trust in the business model for me.

I have no idea what would build trust.

I currently hold to the belief that crowd-funding is a fundamentally flawed mechanism. I cannot stop myself from thinking “why would I give away money for this game when the professional investment world has already judged it non-viable?” I don’t know how I overturn that belief.

In addition, when it comes to MMOs, none of them are asking for realistic money, which just makes them look like scams.

The Weeb formerly known as Sray
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The Weeb formerly known as Sray

If a project is small and in enough a niche that it would never be commercially viable, I think that is actually a good place to start looking for projects to back. Does it really matter if a crowdfunded game goes on to be a big success as long as you got what you were promised for your money? Does it really matter to anyone, even the creator?

Well, yes if the creator was expecting to make a livable income off their oddity of a game. But if the creator is making a living through successive crowdfunded campaigns where their personal income is factored into the cost of crowdfunding, then larger commercial success, the type that would attract traditional investors, isn’t needed. That’s essentially how Patreon works, and it’s a form of crowdfunding that just seems inherently more trustworthy because when the creator doesn’t deliver, you don’t pay. Admittedly it doesn’t seem to work as well for video games (although there are some that do try).

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Toy Clown

I’ve only been burned by one kickstarter in the past, which was Everquest Next. I’ve never dumped money into another MMO kickstarter after that. Would I going forward, even if I believed in an MMO’s vision? I came close with Ashes of Creation, but held off, especially when they opened up the changing package sales and costly cosmetics that go with them every month. It seemed scammy to me, especially when we didn’t have visual representation of what these cosmetics would look like in the game. I backed off when communications all but ceased and when I realized their staff didn’t have much diversity, putting women in roles of “customer service”.

Those are the things I look at when I’m curious about an MMO:

1. Is the team diverse?
2. Are they communicating well?
3. Are they pushing cosmetic cash shop items before we know what characters and housing looks like?

Right now? I hold onto my money until a product is released, then I’ll support it if I find it engaging and fun.

The Weeb formerly known as Sray
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The Weeb formerly known as Sray

Everquest Next wasn’t a Kickstarter. It wasn’t crowdfunded. It was never available to buy. No consumer was ever able to spend a dime on Everquest Next. You never spent a dime on EQN. No one did because it was never a released commercial product.

At best/worst you were burned by SOE/Daybreak selling a peripheral product that was supposed to contribute to the game’s development. And the fact is that we’ll never actually know just how much from Landmark went into EQN. Quite possibly Landmark did do everything for EQN that they said it would, but it just turned out that they didn’t have a game worth pushing forward with in EQN regardless of Landmark’s contributions. You can fill football stadium with what we’ll never know about EQN’s development.

Complaints about EQN fall more under the category of “early access disasters”; and while that category shares some common ground with crowdfunding disasters, they’re still two distinctly different beasts.

Vaeris
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Vaeris

Nothing. Having been around since the start of the whole mmo crowd funding and seeing what I have as far as how things played out…there isn’t anything now that could get me to fund one. The turn around time for a MMORPG game to be “done” and launched is too long for my tastes now (I’m older) topped with the fact they just don’t want to make the kind of MMORPG (not a freaking MMO) that I’d put advanced faith in. Pantheon is the closest (about 90%) of the type game I want and I haven’t sent money their way. They have my best wishes and a day 1 purchase (no Early Access nonsense either…day 1 launch).

Now, I will certainly back single player games of interest as I’ve had quite a few good experiences with Harebrained Schemes (Shadowrun (3 of them) and Battletech games), Owlcat Games (Pathfinder Kingmaker – I’ved backed the next Pathfinder game they are making), inXile (Wasteland 2 – missed backing Wasteland 3, but will buy day 1), and Obsidian Entertainment (both Pillars of Eternity games).

Companies making single-player games seem to have their stuff together. I know the development processes are different, but the fact remains there are more single player successes and thus more trust.