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Matt Miller: Crowdfunding

Column By Matthew Miller on June 11, 2013

“May you live in interesting times” the old proverb goes. And I must say, we currently live in very interesting times when it comes to computer game development. With the rise of crowd-source funding sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo, game developers are no longer tied to the whims of their publisher or financial backer in order to make the games that the people want to pay for. They can raise the money themselves, and then make the game promised, delivering it unto the masses who pitched in to help make it happen, and then hopefully a lot more other people as well.

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For the uninitiated, the way Kickstarter works is this: a project goes out and asks for a certain dollar amount in order to achieve a goal. Usually that goal is “deliver the product”, and by pledging (backing) a specific amount, you are usually gifted the product upon release. Higher amount pledges get more “rewards” as well. When the campaign is over (it only runs for a limited time), then your payment method goes through immediately and then Kickstarter takes their cut and delivers the rest of the money to the developer. If the campaign fails to make their funding goal in the time allotted, no one is charged, and the developer gets no money. (Indiegogo operates a little differently from what I understand).

Now let’s look at this modus operandi when it comes to MMOs. A few MMOs have been funded on Kickstarter, but even a record setting Kickstarter campaign won’t be enough to fully fund an MMO. Other money has to come from somewhere, and that somewhere is usually a publisher or other venture capital. Even though the product is essentially crowd funded, the developer will still have major stakeholders who wish to have a larger say in the final product than the dude who pledged $25 to get into the beta.

Pathfinder Online did a Kickstarter with the goal set out of “make a tech demo to show off to potential investors”. While your pledges did get you things like in-game rewards and beta accesses, even if fully funded through Kickstarter there was a chance that the game would never see the light of day if they couldn’t get more money from somewhere else. Understand that Kickstarter is in no way responsible for refunding your money if a product never appears, but many developers will attempt to do that if their product fails post-campaign. (I see those that do are those that ever hope to use crowd funding again in their lifetime.)

Pathfinder did get their funding, and then did another Kickstarter to add features to the final game. It was no surprise that the first question in their FAQ was “Why didn’t you fund the game with your first Kickstarter?” This should reinforce the point: read the fine print carefully. Understand that Kickstarter is not pre-ordering, even if it feels that way. It is not Amazon with really long shipping times.

Also understand that up until the end of the campaign you can always change or even cancel your pledge. You are not charged until the end of the campaign, so if there is a tier of rewards that you want (and can afford on the day the campaign ends) pledge it! If the developers running the Kickstarter start making boneheaded decisions you are fully within your right to remove your funding. The only time you cannot cancel your pledge is if there is less than 24 hours left and your cancellation will take them back under their funding goal.

HEX MMO Trading Card Game just wrapped up it’s funding on Friday, June 7th. They did a lot of things right. The game is very demo-able, so they had plenty of in-game videos for players to get an idea of what the final product will be like. They answered a lot of questions that the players had (and there were a lot of questions to answer). They also did pretty well with the content of their stretch-goals (additional bonuses given to pledges for reaching milestones over the original funding goal). Stretch-goals really put the crowd into crowdsourcing because you want to get your friends involved in a major way so that your reward tier gets more and more stuff.

Now for the things that HEX stumbled on. Their reward structure tried to appeal to everyone, and in the end was very complicated because of that. Very early on they mentioned that players would be able to “combine” reward tiers onto a single account. I think they probably regretted making that decision as Kickstarter has no way of doing that automatically. You needed to make a second Kickstarter account and then deal with the developer and inform them what accounts you want merged. This was already a cause for great confusion in the comments, as eventually rewards were added that “didn’t stack when combined” so they added another layer of complexity to the puzzle.

I’d also like to point out that it seemed that they didn’t have their stretch-goals worked out before the campaign. A well run Kickstarter will put up the next stretch-goal immediately upon making the previous one, but there were a couple moments during the campaign where almost an entire day went by before the next stretch goal was revealed. It was time that they could have had players evangelizing their Kickstarter that was frankly wasted.

HEX had the advantage that the game had 2 years of development under its belt before the Kickstarter began. This was a very smart move, as it proved it was not vapor-ware. While sometimes this will be impossible for MMOs to accomplish, especially the ones that absolutely need the funding from crowdsourcing to even get off the ground, it should be something that more computer game Kickstarters strive for.

My question this week is: What do you think of sites like Kickstarter when it comes to developing MMOs? Is it a good thing or a terrible idea that is going to destroy a lot of people’s faith in computer game development? Would you, or have you, pledged to an MMO Kickstarter? If you haven’t yet, what would get you to pledge? Beta access? Name reservation? Phat L3wt? I’m interested in your thoughts on this.

Matt Miller / Matt Miller is a 22 year veteran of the computer game industry and columnist for MMORPG.com. He was Lead Designer for City of Heroes over five years, and has "seen it all" when it comes to MMOs (but still learns something new every day). You can always reach him on twitter @MMODesigner


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Matt Miller
In this bi-weekly column, Matt "Formerly Known as Positron" Miller of City of Heroes fame seeks to clue MMO gamers in on the minds of developers, their decisions, and what it's like to craft these massive games.
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