Vague Patch Notes: The perpetual MMO crowdfunding engine

This non-game sucks, Beavis.

Do me a favor right now and navigate over to the Star Citizen webpage. It’s possible that this has wildly changed in the time between writing this and when you reading it, but it’s highly unlikely, so I want you to tell me the first thing you see when you go to this page. Well, all right, that’s not true; I want you to make note of the first thing that you see because we’re not having a conversation right now and you can’t tell me anything. But I want you to say what you think you saw.

If you said “a bunch of pre-order packages for sale,” you missed it.

See, that URL there is not titled as “Pre-Order Store” or anything of the sort. The actual address is “pledge.” The title of the page is “pledge.” Right at the top, it says “RSI Pledge Store.” And if you’re not really clear on how this is a meaningful distinction, that’s what we’re here to talk about today – because it is a meaningful distinction and it’s tied into how the game is still knee-deep in crowdfunding even as the initial Kickstarter was more than nine years ago.

Let’s be clear about something first, though. The issue here is not with Star Citizen specifically because basically every crowdfunded game does this with very few exceptions. In fact, some in-development MMOs that never even had a successful Kickstarter do this. All of them pull this same basic trick, and if you ignore the fact that most of them are a confidence game, it’s kind of impressive. Star Citizen is just the unfinished alpha MMO that crows most loudly and attracts the most attention as it reaches ever-higher funding milestones and development drags into its second decade.

But make no mistake, you can see this all over. What’s the first thing basically every crowdfunded MMO does after the successful (or even unsuccessful) initial campaign, from Chronicles of Elyria to Camelot Unchained to TitanReach? They open donation stores on their websites, free from any crowdfunding oversight.

Heck, most of the time it’s phrased like the people making the game are doing you a favor. “If you missed your chance to pledge to the campaign, you can still get rewards by pledging now!” And always it involves a whole lot of weasel words that frame it as if what you’re really doing is just pre-ordering the game and the studio is just running everything from its website for wholly altruistic purposes or whatever.

This is a lie. What is really happening here is that these studios are moving shop from a crowdfunding platform with minimal oversight to a standalone website with no oversight and asking you to again pledge money to development of a game that may, in fact, never exist.

First Refund Guy in the comment agrees to be called a clown for the next month. This is legally binding.

Obviously, this is not our legal column, so I won’t spill an extra thousand words on this, but suffice it to say that companies have a long history, within and without gaming, of taking advantage of “pledge” loopholes that wouldn’t apply to genuine purchases. An example from the Transformers fandom centered around the various Masterpiece toys of Megatron, whose alt mode might qualify him as a firearm replica. The earliest version had some people proposing an age-old end-run around the system. Legally, importers could sell people something else (say, a collector’s coin) and then include the toy as a “free gift,” thus meaning that they weren’t actually selling the toy and therefore were exempt from laws.

Whether or not any retailers actually did this is lost to the sands of time, but the point remains that this is a long-established method of circumventing laws regarding what you can and cannot sell. You might not be able to legally sell something, but you can sell something else at the price of the illegal item and then give that away as a “gift” so that you’re bypassing the transaction rules. And a picture is probably starting to form in your head about what it means that these crowdfunded games are asking for pledges that come with benefits.

If I pre-order a game on Steam, and the game is cancelled before it ever releases, I am entitled to ask for my money back, and Steam will ensure I get it because I submitted money in exchange for goods that were not provided. There are laws in place to ensure that I can take Steam to court to ensure that my money is returned, which is why Valve has rules in place to ensure that it does not get sued. This is also why some pre-orders clarify that you’ll be charged money only when the product is shipping: so that you cannot have an angry altercation over where the money is.

But a pledge? A pledge isn’t a sale or a transfer of goods. I haven’t bought anything. Nothing has been sold to me. I have agreed to give a studio money, and as a sign of appreciation, that studio has promised I will eventually have access to the game said studio is developing. Whether or not I like that final game is irrelevant, but even more importantly, whether or not the game ever actually exists is irrelevant. No actual purchase took place. Consumer protections are looser to nonexistent because you have bypassed the part where you actually purchased something – and this is why lawsuits around crowdfunding are so messy and prone to failure.

This is the core difference between purchasing a pre-release “founder’s pack” for a launching game and pledging for access to a game in development. One of them I can legally ask for refunds on. As much as I dislike Jagex, it’s not like the company kept the money from people who paid into Transformers Universe when the project got cancelled. That would be, you know, illegal.

Shuffling in the dark.

Now, am I saying that every single crowdfunded game is actually a confidence game wherein the studios are actually trying to just bilk people as long as possible until the checks clear and they can flee the country? No. That would be absurd, especially since a lot of those crowdfunded games have actually released. (Many of them have not released to a bright future, but that’s neither here nor there.) My point is that the only difference between projects working in good faith and projects that are confidence games is something that is entirely behind the scenes. From the cheap seats, they look identical.

It’s the thing that makes crowdfunding inherently shady. Don’t get me wrong; MMOs are expensive to make, and even a really good Kickstarter campaign does not actually pull in enough to fund an MMO on its own, and everybody knows it. It’s up to you whether you want to list the Ouya or Shenmue III as the video game project that raised the most on Kickstarter itself, but even if you choose the former, that $8 million is not enough to build a fully functional MMO. You need venture capital and additional funding. That’s not up for debate or discussion.

But by passing everything into this morass of perpetual crowdfunding, studios move the goalposts into a world where they are perpetually glad-handing and promising more while taking your money in something designed to look like pre-orders without actually legally guaranteeing you anything. It’s putting the risk on the consumer instead of on the studio, and unless you’re getting actual equity, you aren’t getting anything from the money you’re putting in – not to mention that if you take a look at how things turned out with Shroud of the Avatar, even actual investment might not be getting you anything, not even basic accountability.

Remember how I’ve said not to pre-order things before? That goes double for a donation that masquerades as a pre-order.

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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