The past few weeks we’ve been following this freakin’ thing because… well, obvious reasons. But that has me thinking about crowdfunding in general, because we’ve gone in an interesting trajectory. Around the time when I was first starting this job, crowdfunded MMOs (or “Kickstarted MMOs” because most of them did use Kickstarter, but I’m being more general) were seen as The Next Big Thing. Now all of these indie studios were going to show big publishers how vital the MMORPG genre could actually be!
You don’t need me to tell you that that didn’t happen. If I accompanied every single successful crowdfunded MMO with another that got canceled before launching and another that launched and failed, I would run out of successes long before I ran out of the latter two categories. What I find far more interesting in this context is why. Why is this a field of gigantic flops or mismanaged projects that seem to be speedrunning Zeno’s Paradox? Why didn’t crowdfunded MMOs save the genre?
There are probably a lot of reasons. But I have my eye on three big ones.
MMOs are really expensive, yo
So it’s hard to be sure exactly how much most game development budgets are actually for because unlike the film industry, the gaming industry does not make this information easy to look up. But by most estimates I’ve seen, Guild Wars 2 cost somewhere in the $100-150 million range. It’s hardly the most expensive MMO I’ve seen, of course, but that’s a lot of money. And unless we’re talking about Star Citizen, most crowdfunding campaigns aren’t raising money in the nine-digit range. Heck, most of them aren’t raising money in the seven-digit range.
This is a bit of a problem because most crowdfunded MMOs are really ambitious. Not all of them, but most of them feature systems that are really involved and difficult to develop at the best of times. And the worst part is that crowdfunding isn’t like regular investment funding. You don’t ask for more money when it becomes clear that you under-budgeted.
I work in a field where a lot of times projects wind up going over budget. The scope increases, or I realize something that I thought would take me a couple hours is actually going to take me all week. And in and of itself, that’s fine. Heck, even here I sometimes start a project that I think will be just a short thing and then I have to tell Bree that it’ll take me a while. But none of these projects are funded by people wanting to treat my initial budget as if it were all the money I would ever need ever for anything.
But it’s not just budget. A lot of crowdfunded games do manage to deliver technically what they promised on release, but there’s a reason I can get cheap laughs just by referencing Crowfall or Shroud of the Avatar. And it’s here that we get into some other fun stuff.
Looking forward by looking backwards
A lot of crowdfunded projects promise to finally bring innovation to the MMO space and bring back the classic feeling of old-school MMOs. This is impossible. I don’t mean that these two premises are necessarily undesirable but that these two positions are inherently contradictory. They cannot both be true at the same time.
It feels so obvious that it seems almost insulting to say it, but in order to innovate, you by definition have to be doing something new. That’s what the word means. You can bring back mandatory open-world PvP in the vein of Ultima Online, but that is not innovation. That’s just doing the same thing that had already been done but now with modern graphics.
Lots of these projects were popping off back when I first started working in this space, no doubt inspired strongly by Star Citizen and a certain amount of discontent with the World of Warcraft-dominated genre at the time. But the thing is that by the time the boom was happening, we were around the corner from most of the games that would make up the current big five. Heck, GW2 released the same year as Star Citizen’s crowdfunding campaign. These games genuinely changed up the environment, brought innovations, and changed things to the point that what was true a decade ago is definitely not true now.
You may not like what innovations those games brought to the table, but they did exist. And yes, all of them were big publisher-driven titles that were not simply trying to emulate WoW but do something new. But something doesn’t become innovative because it’s emulating a different game than WoW. Indeed, the most successful among the crowdfunding games out there were genuinely trying something new, rather than just trying to funnel more money to Richard Garriott or emulating Dark Age of Camelot instead.
You might, of course, point out that many of these games weren’t just trying to emulate old games while claiming innovation. And that’s true, but it leads to my final point.
Ambition is a heck of a drug
I touched on this a couple weeks back when I talked about figuring out where systems break, but it bears repeating: Cool ideas don’t always work. The problem is that crowdfunding does not care. Crowdfunding is a platform where you can ask people to give you money to make a cool idea happen. We assume because of basic human nature that before we are asked for money, smart people have figured out if the cool idea is actually going to work or if it’s even a good idea, but that’s not actually a requirement.
MMO crowdfunding seems to have gone even further in that regard. Star Citizen hasn’t delivered most of what it promised, and it probably never will because at this point “fund the cool idea” has become its business model. Figuring out how to make the cool idea work is someone else’s problem, and if it never works, you just donated instead of buying a game so no take-backsies, anyway bye!
When it comes to game development ideas, you can just lie. It’s not illegal (most of the time). Game development is full of cases where someone had an idea and it got spread around and then the idea never actually showed up in the final product. We expect that to an extent. But the people who make MMO crowdfunding seem to assume that having the idea is the same as making the idea work. On a tiny budget. With no accountability.
Which is, I think, the ultimate fact of the matter. If you are of the mind that the MMORPG genre needed to be saved as of 2013, well… what saved it were actual games, not ideas that might one day be games. And it increasingly became clear that however bright the names attached to these crowdfunding projects, what they were offering for sale was ultimately smoke and mirrors. There is no revolution, just a shorter path between your wallet and the development team with fewer protections for projects that never went anywhere but technically avoided being outright fraudulent.
Hmm. Low protections, no real standards for veracity, people insisting that it’s the future in order to protect something they have material interest in seeing to fruition… I feel like this reminds me of something.