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.