Kickstarter has been a pretty popular source of funding for people ever since it gained traction with the denizens of the internet. This is especially true given that money and dreams (of developing your awesome game, film, or what have you) are involved in the process.
More recently, there have been a couple of attempts to crowdfund online games through the service, and while the concept of a crowdfunded MMO is something I can personally get behind from an emotional standpoint, the devil's advocate in me is not exactly pleased with the idea for a number of reasons.
Now, Sanya Weathers discussed a variety of reasons why you can't always turn to Kickstarter as a solution for MMO funding in her May 4 Developer Perspectives column. It would be great if you could read that as well. I may retread a number of her points, but I'll also bring up a couple of different things that send my mental alarms ringing when I check a Kickstarter page, even if I have the urge to support that very same project.
The Moving Parts Conundrum
Video games, especially those with online components such as MMORPGs, suffer from the problem of having a lot of what I call “moving parts,” created as a result of having multiple technical, logistical, and social hurdles to overcome.
As an oversimplified example, any MMO should have at least four major parts that must work before launch: the ability to connect to the game, the visual aspect of your presentation (including animations), the rules and gameplay mechanics as they manifest in the game space, and the means by which people can give you their money.
If you can't connect to the game, people will make memes about your errors (Diablo 3, anyone?). If your graphics and animations are buggy, immersion is broken and people may walk away. If your mechanics are not working as intended, you will hear about it. If no one can pay for the game they want to play, then the purpose of funding a game is kind of shot to hell.
As Sanya put it in her article, “a no-frills MMO with minimal QA testing and a rough launch will take four years and ten million dollars.” What more for the MMO of your dreams?
A Rather Large Crowd
Suffice it to say that because an MMO has even more moving parts than that, it's going to take an impressive amount of funding, or at least some really dedicated volunteers, to create something that captures the hearts and minds the gaming public.
As such, Kickstarters are usually there to get some additional funding while the developers of an MMO shop around for someone to back them for the amount they really need. Unless you have a rather large crowd of people throwing money at you because your dream is that awesome or you're almost done and you just basically want an extra marketing push, Kickstarter doesn't seem like a really good place to go.
Now, a game with the scope of an MMO needs more than money. It also needs a rather large crowd to want to play it.
Kickstarter projects and media coverage tend to focus on how much money is invested and whether it hits goals set for it rather than how many people are actually supporting your enterprise, which is denoted by the number of backers. Sadly, words are cheap and counting retweets is not as accurate a gauge of support as compared to how many people are ponying up to add to your game's funding goal, so a significant number of backers is usually needed for someone to really take interest in a game and pony up the megabucks needed for full support of it.
Playing With Dreams
One of the reasons the devil's advocate in me had to tackle this particular issue was due to how Kickstarter projects are presented. Kickstarter projects have this tendency to be advertised based on the dream being envisioned rather than what they intend to do with the money you're giving them. As a result, I always have to read a video game (or even pen-and-paper game) Kickstarter page twice just to make sure I know what I'm getting into.
Let us take some examples of existing Kickstarter pages for MMOs. Right now, The Repopulation and Embers of Caerus have Kickstarters up, with Caerus acquiring its funding goal with 14 days to go. As a notice to readers, I'll speak plainly about any reservations for each, but I do want both these MMOs to come out and succeed.
Some of the things I watch out for on funding projects are attempts to play to emotional responses and anything that isn't backed up with a solid foundation. I'm reminded of the Ellwood Bartlett attempt to create his dream MMO through Kickstarter funding, as I'm wary of being used when there's nothing to support the dream you want to build.
Between the two, the Caerus page tries to engage my love for sandbox gaming with its one-dollar pledge to show “support for True Sandbox Games” when, as far as I can tell, they have only an engine test video and a features list. Of course, they need the money to develop the prototype to sell the game to investors, and it does touch upon the issue of increasing the number of backers significantly (there are 260 backers as of this writing), but the wording made me pause. At the same time though, they are upfront with what they intend the money for, stating that the money will be used specifically to “cover software licenses and development costs.”
The Repopulation Kickstarter page is a bit more polished in terms of content, though I'm not sure what the money invested will be used for. Above and Beyond Technologies has mentioned on Kickstarter that they plan on releasing next year and that supporting the Kickstarter project is akin to making a pre-order.
There is more information on their page, though some of it mentions features that don't have proof quite yet. Still, videos of the game actually working are a better (though not 100% definitive of success) indication that their forward momentum is worth supporting. The company also just released an End of May 2012 Update with build notes, which is quite a good sign.
The Final Word
Kickstarter is a pretty awesome place to make dreams come true. It's also a place where dreams can potentially be twisted to get money from unsuspecting people. I can't really tell everyone to stop using Kickstarter, since I know it has a good purpose, and there are some dependable successes that have been made there.
Still, I urge everyone who wants to support their dream project on Kickstarter, MMORPG or not, to do enough preparatory work so that you know what you're getting into. Find out how far along the progress is, gauge support for the game, and research on the entities you're thinking of backing. It's one thing to have a Kickstarter fail, but it's quite another to see someone run away with your money.