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Independency: Why Do MMO Kickstarters Fail?

Columns By Shannon Doyle on December 30, 2014

Why Do MMO Kickstarters Fail?

While going on my weekly browse through Kickstarter I noticed an area of the video games subdivision that I had never noticed before. A section that boasts there are over 100 games on Steam that were once on Kickstarter. This is a great thing for Kickstarter to brag about! Kickstarter has made some amazing games possible. Of course most of them aren’t MMOs. Kickstarter has been a great platform for non-MMO indie games. But I’d like to take a look at the MMOs on that list and perhaps more specifically, the MMOs that AREN’T on that list.

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Before we dive into the thick of things though I will mention that not all MMOs, or any type of game for that matter, that has been on Kickstarter is also on Steam. Very rarely a game won’t be put on Steam for various reasons and with varying degrees of success. While being on Steam is a great marker of success there are some games, like Elite: Dangerous which you cannot find on Steam and do very well. The point is, while the list on Kickstarter is hardly complete it does give a very good look at what the majority of the market looks like as the majority of games are on Steam these days and many people who go so far as to refuse to play a game if it isn’t on Steam. Though that does bring up the question of if other clients like Perfect World’s Arc or Trion’s Glyph are actually harming their populations more than helping it, but that’s a topic for another article.

On the list there are 135 games. Most of them are single player though so if we take those out of the picture (sorry Octodad) we’re left with only 8 which are strictly MMOs, a handful more that are part of that blurred line between multiplayer, co-op, and MMO. Is this because there are so many more single player games out there than there are MMOs? Yes and no. Yes, there are at any given moment a ton of singleplayer games on Kickstarter looking for funding. Right now in fact there are 119 projects in Video Games, not all of them are actually games though. Of them only a couple are MMOs, and there’s one MOBA hybrid as well. Now, with this being that strange period of time between Christmas and New Years where time stops flowing properly and every day is an effort to reinvent leftovers it is a slow time for gaming. Not to mention that it’s a bad time to be on Kickstarter. Everyone is still broke from Christmas so no one is really looking to throw money at anything. So if you were generous and took out 10 from the list and said they were the non-game projects that still leaves us with 10 singleplayer games for every MMO...at best. Is it always this sort of ratio? I wouldn’t be surprised if it was actually worse on average. So, yes if you were to take the numbers as they look now it would seem that the Steam list isn’t too far off from the average.

But there are also many, many MMOs who aren’t on that list for one of two reasons. The first of course being that they didn’t fund. Game doesn’t fund, so the indie studio has to go elsewhere or do the best they can with what they’ve got. City of Heroes’ spiritual successor Valiance Online is facing that right now. Their Kickstarter campaign failed but they’re currently looking to be Greenlit on Steam. But there is of course another scenario, MMOs that have fully funded, many times gone well over what they were initially asking for that are still stuck in limbo.

Part of the problem is that the funding process is most often VERY early in the development process. Many games have several years from once the Kickstarter ends to when they project it will be complete. Mark Jacobs’ Camelot Unchained had an estimated date of December 2015 when it was on Kickstarter in early 2013. Then there’s the biggest success story of Kickstarter that hasn’t yet come to pass, Star Citizen. They’ve gone on to make millions of dollars with only a module to show for it so far. Star Citizen however, unlike Camelot Unchained may actually be a victim of its own success. With money being thrown at them so fast it would even make Notch jealous Star Citizen may actually be suffering from expectations that are too high and the need to make the game bigger and better. They were initially looking for just $500,000, now that they have more than $60 million they can’t very well just release the game as it was originally intended. Oh no, now they get to make their wildest dreams come true. Unfortunately that means they need more development time.

But as someone who looks at Kickstarter every week obsessively I can tell you that there are hundreds of MMOs every year that start out on Kickstarter, though admittedly they are of variable quality. They don’t hope to be the next Star Citizen, they’re just looking for a little boost to get their game off the ground. These games you’ll never see on Kickstarter’s list of video games on Steam. When a game doesn’t fund it’s a sad day. A sad day for the developers, a sad day for developers to come who won’t have that game as an influence on their game making experiences in the future. But the biggest tragedy is when a game does fund and you’re left waiting. So few MMOs that have gone to Kickstarter have actually released I can’t help but wonder, is crowdfunding the best way to go about making an MMO? For every Guns of Icarus Online and Elite: Dangerous we have dozens of Star Citizens and Novus AEternos, then hundreds of Valiance Onlines and Pantheons.

If Kickstarter isn’t the answer for MMOs then what is the best way to get indie studios they money and attention they need? Sadly I don’t have the answer to that. But I hope that somewhere, someone out there does have the answer. Because it makes me so sad to watch MMO after MMO crash and burn on Kickstarter. Maybe it’s better if the public aren’t involved in the development process. If I had never known about Star Citizen I wouldn’t be here tapping my foot impatiently. But at the same time if no one had ever heard of it until it launched imagine what it wouldn’t have had that it now will thanks to the publicity and millions of dollars pouring in from the fans. I hope 2015 is a good year for MMOs on Kickstarter. We need more success stories to keep the indie movement alive.