Working As Intended: There is no good reason for MMO gamers to fund Dreamworld

    
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Not quite a month ago, we covered the Kickstarter for a wildly ambitious MMORPG, Dreamworld. We were, uh, pretty skeptical about the game’s chances. As we noted, the game’s 2.5 developers demonstrated no outreach in the MMORPG industry, no MMO dev pedigree or experience, and no understanding of modern Kickstarter failures. The website and Kickstarter were thin, and the video showed many stock assets, and yet the promises made by this tiny novice team with only eight months of development under its belt were extravagant: an “infinite open world MMO” with “millions of players” in “one single world” made up of “thousands of unique biomes” developed to be a playable alpha in just a few more months.

In other words, they’re pitching a game with the scale and breadth that wealthy and experienced and connected MMORPG industry vets have struggled to produce with full dev teams and unlimited funds for over two decades. They even bracketed it all with a tear-jerker of an origin story and named the game DreamWorld, inviting obvious jokes and causing the likes of GreedMonger to blush and our legions of commenters to grumble.

In spite of the fact that we suggested players wait and see what happens before shelling out, gamers are poised to give them their $10,000 and then some anyway, a sum that is merely the cherry on top of outside investment (which is presumably where they got their Facebook ad spend, targeting the exact demographic most likely to hand over money). The game is now just a day away from funding at over six times its original ask, and since this is Kickstarter, they get all of it whether there’s ever a playable game or not. Clearly, we need to be far less subtle. Noted.

Today’s update from the team declares that it “met [its] seed fundraising goals through the YCombinator network of venture capital investors.” It does not say there how much money that is or who is investing (more on this later). The missive also promises a merch store as its next stretch goal (…), and the comment section is filled with people deleting their pledges, complaining about Discord moderation, and declaring the game a scam. One backer actually posted a massive list of questions for the developers, which were answered… but not fully. The developers bob and weave their way through direct questions about game copies, a release window, AI development, player limits, griefing, and stress test concurrency, all while repeatedly directing questioners into their dev-friendly home turf on Discord.

(Those follow-up questions have yet to be answered.)

Bizarrely (and to their credit?), the two core devs also sat for an interview on a teeny-tiny YouTube channel, where they come off as affable and genuine. There are some puff questions in there, but most are perfectly on point. For example, the YouTuber, Skiazos, carefully inquires about the UE store assets, which the devs laugh off, saying they are wisely focusing their efforts on custom gameplay instead of reinventing the wheel. He then asks how the team will manage to actually get millions of people into the game technically without ridiculous latency. The answer? Put as much as possible in the client to reduce latency, which runs contrary to pretty much every major online game (because cheating). Skiazos immediately calls them on this.

“This is actually a very common networking problem,” the engineer in the duo replies. “The current way this is solved is that you cryptographically sign the code in the application that’s being run, and then there’s a certificate that the clients have that’s a public and private key pair. Since we both send out the clients and we have the server, we can kind of embed these certificates on both sides, and the server and client doublechecks.”

Skiazos pointedly asks about the game’s finances; I was surprised to see the studio reps claim they have $650,000 raised from outside investors so far (that was March 22nd, mind you). YCombinator (the investment platform) apparently invested 7% ($125K) itself, followed by the current seed round referred to today, but the devs won’t namedrop any specific other investors who anted up, just saying that they have a Twitch co-founder, Google senior VP, family members, and YCombinator investors on board. Obviously, no evidence is offered for this funding claim, except for the fact that this team actually is listed on YCombinator. It’s not clear why these details were disclosed on a YouTube channel with a few dozen subscribers and not in the Kickstarter itself, but then again the devs make clear that the Kickstarter exists more for exposure than for funding, which isn’t atypical.

Look fam. We’ve been covering crowdfunded MMORPGs since the days of Old Massively in our Make My MMO column, since the days when Kickstarter first began, and we know how Kickstarter works first-hand since we ourselves were Kickstarted. Last weekend, we went through our entire list of crowdfunded MMOs and categorized the 100 or so of them by status. There are a lot of winners – more than you’d think, honestly. Kickstarter does work, sometimes. It has its place.

But there are just as many scams. Active, outright, overt scams. Nobody will ever be legally accountable. That money is gone. MMOs were not saved. The genre was only made more cynical because most of the large-scale crowdfunded core MMOs have yet to release. I mean, damn, this is an industry where the multi-millionaire who literally invented the word “MMORPG” 24 years ago can’t even be held properly accountable to actual EC investors and the government for his last flopped game, never mind to mere Kickstarter donors. It’s just not always obvious which ones are scams from the start or just hopeless delusion. To quote MOP’s Eliot,

“[S]ome 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.”

I can’t say for sure which one this one is either, frankly. The Kickstarter reads like a scam, but the video sounds like a pair of kids with the impossible dream.

But for the sake of argument, let’s assume it’s completely, 100% legitimate and that the engineers are brilliant once-in-a-generation prodigies who can actually pull this off: There’s still no reason you should gamble on yet another distant MMO or engage in a Kickstarter marketing stunt when rich people – who actually stand to profit, unlike you – are willing to fund it. The only way you can ever be sure you can’t lose is to never throw money at it in the first place. If it’s going to succeed, great, awesome, welcome to the genre – but you can just buy it if and when it does.

The MMORPG genre might be “working as intended,” but it can be so much more. Join Massively Overpowered Editor-in-Chief Bree Royce in her Working As Intended column for editorials about and meanderings through MMO design, ancient history, and wishful thinking. Armchair not included.
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