Massively Overthinking: What do you expect from MMO Kickstarters?


I know, I know. People don’t trust Kickstarters anymore. Nor should they, especially now. I think our genre knows this now. For every Wagadu Chronicles, there are a dozen Chronicles of Elyrias. For every Elite Dangerous, there are… OK, actually there’s just one Star Citizen, but it’s taken enough money for a dozen. You get it.

The thing is, games are still coming to Kickstarter, in spite of the problems. It’s still a way to get around publishers. Indies are still going to try it. And… so are the scammers.

So for this week’s Massively Overthinking, I want to talk about this. Say a new MMO that sounds interesting has just launched a Kickstarter and you open it up to have a look. What exactly are you looking for? What does it need to have before you’ll treat it seriously – or even consider putting money into it? What are the red flags that it’s something you should stay far away from – or even that it’s not legitimate at all? What do you expect from MMO Kickstarters?

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): At this point, the only game Kickstarters I’m really going to look at will be for single-player games, and even those mostly won’t get backed until I have a demo in my hands. MMOs are a totally different beast. Having the first level of a single-player game gives me an idea of how the game plays and what it does differently from other games. An MMO demo would need to do the same thing but also be online and hosting lots of different people. I won’t say any specific number, but you know when you’re in a zone and go, “Wow, this place is busy?” I’d need that moment in a demo as well as the feeling that it’s doing something new, and unless the developer already has a big team and deep pockets, that just isn’t going to happen, and if it did, I would ask why publishers aren’t already snapping it up.

Elyria is actually the perfect example of this. No online multiplayer demo and tons of excuses why no one was taking it. It all sounded great and feasible at the start, but as more money poured in, the devs started promising to do things that we had previously seen don’t work, to the point that expectations needed to be tempered and weren’t. I can’t speak for all gamers, but I do feel that most of our readers, especially at this point, are leery of a Kickstarter promising the world of “never-been-done” when we’ve often already seen it a few times in almost the exact fashion it’s being declared “revolutionary.” The moment I see that is often the moment I leave the page or archive the PR email.

Ben Griggs (@braxwolf): I guess the best way to describe my relationship with Kickstarters is that I temper my expectations with game purchases in general, and even more so with anything related to Kickstarter. I think Star Citizen is the only Kickstarted game I’ve participated in, and that was after it had already left Kickstarter. I view anything on that platform with a heavy dose of skepticism. Red flags? The fact that it’s on Kickstarter, for one. Also, anything to do with blockchain or NFTs.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): My colleagues are skeptical. I understand it. None of the MMO projects I’ve backed have launched in a way I personally deem successful or desirable, and I haven’t backed very much. I don’t recommend backing Kickstarters as a general rule, given all the scams we’ve chronicled, and the Kickstarter flip to crypto inspires negative faith in the system, in spite of the fact that this site exists because of Kickstarter.

But let me answer my own question: I need to see a pattern of established successes at something from the group, even if they are small and indie. I need to see respectable works in progress beyond a design doc. I need the devs to be communicating with humility and honesty about the chance of success and how difficult MMOs are to make. I need to see effort at financial planning and a realistic roadmap and clear understanding of achievable scope. I need to see that the devs aren’t promising fundamental game mechanics as marketing stretch goals. If a game has all of this, I’m… still probably not going to back it because if you do have all of those things, you probably also can get a publisher and don’t need donations or nonrefundable preorders from the gaming public. But this is all of the stuff I’m looking for when I sit down to at least cover a Kickstarter. If you don’t have it, I’m going to make sure our readers know.

Incidentally, all of the projects I’ve backed that haven’t been MMOs have been successful and I’m glad I did it. They’re all card games and books. This is not an accident. Kickstarter is generally not the problem; MMOs and Kickstarter just usually don’t mix. And yes I know some have worked out OK. But not most.

Carlo Lacsina (@UltraMudkipEX, YouTube, Twitch): The only thing I’ve ever kickstarted is a car. But when it comes to Kickstarting any projects, I don’t do it. I always thought they were cool, but I never end up really wanting whatever those indie devs were offering. Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever really played any successful Kickstarters either. It’s just something I don’t do.

I don’t think there’s really any sort of project I’d ever want to Kickstart. I don’t get any monetary gain from backing a project. I don’t see Kickstarter as an investment on my end. But it’s fun to watch the drama that unfolds from it!

Chris Neal (@wolfyseyes, blog): I used to be a pretty big proponent of crowdfunding in general, but after the past few times of seeing the kinds of products that come out of this sort of venture – if they come out at all – I’ve pretty much closed the door entirely on the matter to the point that any game that begins crowdfunding is not getting my support of its crowdfunding drive. I didn’t even put money into Wagadu Chronicles’ crowdfunding drive, and I want Wagadu Chronicles to be a thing.

Perhaps I’m being a bit too alarmist here, but the Kickstarter platform overall being a petri dish for scammers and now moving over to crypto pretty much means it should be lit on fire or regulated into obsolescence. Ideally, both.

Colin Henry (@ChaosConstant): Crowdfunding is a perfectly acceptable way to get a lot of things funded. Card, board, and other tabletop games, for instance. They’re easy to prototype using standard printer paper but expensive to produce because they generally have to be printed in bulk. The developer can show off more-or-less finished products, so backers know exactly what they’re getting, and unless something goes horribly awry in production, they don’t have to wait years for their pledge to bear fruit.

But for MMOs, Kickstarters are preorders, not funding. It costs way more to make an MMO than a crowdfunding campaign is ever reasonably going to raise. The game is going to need real investment, probably from a publisher, and if you already have a publisher lined up, or worse, don’t have one lined up but are banking on one showing up with bags of money halfway through development, then why am I giving you my money? Worse still, as we’ve seen in the years since crowdfunding gave rise to the idea of “transparent development,” most MMOs change a lot over the course of development, both for better and for worse. The thing backers like about a super early demo or pitch isn’t necessarily going to make it into the finished product. Sorry, but I don’t think there’s anything that will get me to back an MMO crowdfunding campaign at this point. Wake me up when your game launches and I’ll look into it then.

Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): If a new MMO sounds interesting and has just launched a Kickstarter, it no longer sounds interesting. I do not back video game Kickstarters and doubly do not back MMO Kickstarters. This policy has worked out great for me.

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): I’ve backed just three Kickstarters in my life, and honestly, I probably won’t ever back any more. Book of Travels was a bust for me, and Project Gorgon and Ashes of Creation have taken forever coming to fruition. So that’s not been a great return for my investment.

Even if the end product ends up being fantastic — and that’s a big if — it’s still dumping perfectly good money now for a risky chance that something you like will be produced later. I sympathize with the difficulty of funding indie projects, but I’m not someone else’s piggy bank. If they manage to fund and produce their product, then and only then will I consider if I’ll be spending money (and time) partaking in it.

Mia DeSanzo (@neschria): I am cautious about Kickstarter on general. I have backed a few things (not MMOs), but only things where I knew a product or a working prototype existed and had been demonstrated to the public. Bring it to a trade show if you want my money.

My red flags are (a) having no demo whatsoever, (b) having no team or a team consisting entirely of people who have never made any kind of game, (c) an impossible feature list that keeps growing, and (d) no outside investment or prospective publisher.

Part of the problem is that people have long feature wishlists and long laundry lists of things they didn’t like in previous games, so when a game appears and says it will grant all your wishes and solve all your problems, people want to believe that. The old saying about things that are too good to be true should be a mandatory banner at the top of every MMO Kickstarter.

Or, you know, people could try common sense. It’s free.

I suspect another problem is wannabe indie devs not really grasping the scope or expense of the project they are proposing. As a rule of thumb, every project takes longer and costs more than you think it will. The question with some of the games that didn’t or haven’t made it out of the gate is where all the money went and how were those decisions made.

Sam Kash (@thesamkash): I’ve always been skeptical about Kickstarter games. I just can’t bring myself to trust the sell. I still remember where I was when Star Citizen was first placed on there. I had a coworker that went red in the face explaining to me all the amazing things this game was going to do. I suggested he wait a bit and see if anything actually materializes before buying in. Within the day he had already backed it. That was so many years ago. I’ve changed jobs, gotten married, moved cities, made friends, lost friends, and turned into a grownup. And the game still isn’t out.

So basically nothing can turn me on to buying in like that. The only MMO I did back was Crowfall, but that was after a few years of existing and then showing off and having a bit of the gameplay loop intact. Even then I bought it through the site, not Kickstarter, with immediate access to the early access servers – not to some theoretical time in the future that the game might be playable.

Maybe that does answer the question, though. I might buy into a game if it already had an early access, partly intact gameplay loop. I’d need to feel not like I’m giving someone money in hopes that I can somebody get a game to play; I want to consider it as if I’m buying a game I can play now but that will continue to add in features for free.

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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