Friday, January 24, 2014

Disclaimers and Crowd Funding

We are a highly experienced team of AAA developers and that's what we aim to deliver. So far the project has been funded solely from our own pockets and that is why we are reaching out to you now. With enough support we feel we can provide a AAA experience, but without the proper funding, some of that experience may be limited at launch.
- The entire Kickstarter-required "risks and challenges section" from Pantheon's $800,000 campaign page
I will leave the in-depth coverage of the MMO Kickstarter du jour to people who are actually following it, such as Wilhelm.  Personally, my exposure to the project is limited primarily to articles like this one at Massively, which discusses one of the game's planned classes as described in a Kickstarter update.  If I didn't already know that this is a game that may launch in 2017 if it can raise another $600,000 in the next month and if its creators can actually implement the promised product for that much money, I would not have known that this wasn't a new patch for a game that I can download and play today.  

(Not to pick on Syp in particular here, it's just the most recent post about this particular game on Massively at this particular moment, and he's much more famous than me so I think he can handle the abuse, such that it is.  Camelot Unchained got similar coverage during its campaign.) 

Unsubject has published detailed analysis of video game Kickstarter campaigns that ended between 2009-2012 and concluded that less than half of these projects have delivered even partially on their promises.  The harsh reality is that multi-million-dollar projects by major publishers who fund games for a living - Titan and EQ Next along with countless unnamed canceled titles by studios like EA - fail to reach the finish line for any number of reasons.  I wouldn't expect a five-sentence short post about the game to dwell on this fact.  But what is the appropriate level of caution? 

My concern is that the incentives of Kickstarter inherently put both creators and especially backers in a bad position.  The game doesn't get funded at all unless people get really excited about it, so the creators have to promise the Best Game Ever.  More to the point, they have to promise something that is so much better than real products developed with significantly larger budgets that potential customers will be motivated to pay now for something they might get in the future instead of something real that they can have today. 

Everything about the system encourages the creator to over-promise in a way that will actually make the already-tough job of doing a difficult project on a tight budget even more difficult.  Kickstarter certainly isn't going to object - they get their cut if the project is funded and get nothing if the project is not, and thus you're free to ask for the better part of a million dollars and say that the only risk whatsoever to your project is that it might be "limited" "at launch" compared to AAA titles.  If the project doesn't launch at all or isn't worth playing due to untenable scope, there's no one looking out for the people who paid hundreds of dollars two or more years in advance for unrealistic promises and hype. 

Thus, a question: To what extent should discussions of MMO's that are in the process of seeking crowd funding include a disclaimer about the odds that the product actually delivers? 


Wilhelm Arcturus said...

I think it is one of those things where you have to know who you are dealing with. As it turns out, Kickstarters for games that I have back, and which have funded, have all delivered at least close to on time. But I figured the people at Hidden Path Entertainment or Days of Wonder had reputations they wished to protect.

Likewise, Mark Jacobs and Richard Garriott are probably going to deliver something. Will it be exactly as promised or right on time? Probably not. Rare is the software project that hits those two goals.

I am a little less sure about Brad McQuaid. We shall see. Or maybe we won't. Pantheon seems to be running out of steam on the funding front and is only at the 25% mark.

Bhagpuss said...

Vanguard was "limited at launch". And how! Yet it was still one of the best MMOs I'd ever played then and it remains one of the best I've ever played now.

If I decide to pledge to Pantheon I will be 100% happy with it being as "limited" at launch as Vanguard. To be honest, for the $45 pledge that I would pick I'd feel I'd had more than my money's worth if I got a few months enjoyable alpha and beta play and it never got as far as launch.

How the people throwing in the thousand dollar pledges would feel about that I wouldn't like to say.

Psychochild said...

The flipside is that without crowdfunding, the near future of MMO development is looking bleak. It's not exactly a secret that MMOs are no longer the bright and shiny thing they were a decade ago, for various reasons. I wouldn't be surprised if we see some MMO companies no longer focus entirely (if even at all) on MMOs in the coming years.

So, that leaves MMO developers in a bind. We can't just go get investors to write big checks because they're not investing in MMOs. You can't pitch a project to the usual publishers, because they're growing rarer and more conservative anymore. That leaves going directly to the players to raise money, which is where crowdfunding comes in.

But, of course, crowdfunding puts the risk on the users, which was never a problem previously. As Green Armadillo writes in the post, a lot of projects just don't finish even in the traditional development system. Publishers bore the risk of a failed project, which is part of the reason they got paid so well from the profits when there were some.

I think crowdfunding can work, but there needs to be a few shifts in thinking. On the developer side, we need people who are better at managing projects. The Broken Age game from Double Fine showed that some developers were still in the publisher mindset for crowdfunding, and even if they got a huge amount of support (and money), they might still not quite release their envisioned product. On the player side, money contributed to a campaign needs to be seen as a contribution rather than a pre-order. Currently, the most successful projects are ones with big name recognition or ones that are essentially pre-orders for something predictable.

For MMO crowdfunding, that means that developers need to be more honest and detailed with their plans. They need to stop promising the impossible. But, players need to accept this honesty and not get sucked into the hype of another project. In addition, the money needs to be seen as an investment that may not pay off, rather than the traditional scenario of "I pay you money and I expect a product soon after." This isn't to say that player should give money blindly without doing their own due diligence, however.

I'm not sure these changes in thinking will happen. So, I'm growing more concerned with the near future of MMOs.