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Should Players Crowdfund MMOs?

Christopher Coke Posted:
Columns Player Versus Player 0

Welcome back to another edition of Player Versus Player, you weekly delve into the world of MMO debate. The last year has been interesting here at MMORPG. With the rise of Kickstarter and crowdfunding, we have witnessed the birth of a new generation of game funding. We have seen the highs of Pathfinder and the continued impressiveness of Star Citizen. But we have also seen promising titles like Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen fall by the wayside and move to their own websites. We have to ask: is crowdfunding all it’s cracked up to be?

The Issue: Should players crowdfund MMOs?

Now that we know what we’re debating, let’s introduce the ambassadors to each camp.

Chris “Syeric” Coke: Chris has been an MMO fan since the days of MUDs and is sad to see the good ideas of yesterday fade away -- but he’s not ready to open his purse-strings and for good reason.

William “Take My Money” Murphy: Bill has been working in and around the MMO industry for over a decade, and is very happy to see the Indie scene start to make headway into the genre. He thinks if we want change, we should put our money where our mouths are.

Are our professional arguers ready? Shake hands… and… GO!

Chris: Let me start off by saying that crowdfunding is not bad. This is not an argument moralizing about how other players spend their money. So instead of looking at whether players should spend their money, I’m going to look at why they don’t and let our reader’s make the choice.

So with that said, I’m glad you’re investing in something you believe in, but I can’t share that enthusiasm. There are just too many pitfalls for funding any game through Kickstarter, let alone an MMORPG. These are big, complex pieces of software that take millions of dollars and thousands of man hours to create. If any type of game is going to fail, it’s going to be an MMO. We have trouble justifying a $15 subscription fee. Backing a Kickstarted MMO feels like an incredible risk, especially when most of them ask at least $30 to even receive a copy of the game.

Bill: There are definitely pitfalls to backing a game or funding it, and I suppose there are even more for MMORPGs given how difficult it really is to get one out the door. But I maintain that we really can’t ask for change in the genre, and not be ready to put our money behind it happening. We all know that few major publishers will put funds behind anything they think is a “risk”, and lately? Too many MMOs just haven’t done well enough. They’re the most financially risky projects out there, but also... if they succeed and are managed well they can be absolute cash-cows for a decade or more.  So then why should we be the ones to put our hard-earned dollars out on the line? 

Because it’s unlikely that anyone else will.

If we really want those suits behind major publishers to put money behind a risky project, we need to show them we’re willing to pay for it.  That’s what talks to publishers. Not internet forums, not tweets, not Facebook likes... money. If we back something like Camelot Unchained, Repopulation, Novus Aeterno or Shroud of the Avatar and it becomes a success? Then developers will be all the more likely to get funding for bigger projects.  The only real argument is... do all MMOs need to be 100 mln dollar epics?

Chris: Ok, then... Let’s say you do back a game. How long will it be before you actually get to play it? Assuming you didn’t spend $200 on testing “privileges” of course. Two years? Three? I don’t know about you but I just don’t feel drawn to pay for a game three years ahead of time.

I have mentioned this in the past and I always hear one of a few things. One, the We’re Supporting Innovators Who Couldn’t Get a Publisher argument. Two, the Game Development Takes Time argument. And three, the Developers Keep You Updated argument. They have some merit, but none of those overcome that you’re paying for an idea you won’t get to see for months and years after they’ve taken your money.

Bill: I can totally understand this side of your argument. I’m anxiously awaiting several backed projects now from Camelot Unchained to Shroud of the Avatar, Elite: Dangerous, Star Citizen, Pathfinder, and even single-player offerings like Earthlock: Festival of Magic (really, really check that one out).  But my only rebuttal is that we have to be willing to back what we believe in, even if some suit somewhere else doesn’t.  I mean, no one wanted to publish Elite: Dangerous. No one was going to publish Wasteland 2, or Torment, or even Star Citizen. But all of those games, plus CU, Shroud, and more to come have proven that there are players out there for their visions even if no one saw the marketing potential. It’s a brave new world of game development, and I’m all for it. If publisher won’t take a risk on the games I want to play, I’ll gladly do so. I’m only a $20-$50 kind of pledger, but that’s still money that may not pay dividends to my gameplay habits.  But what it does do is show the developers who are out there to try and make a game they want to play, and make a living doing so... that at least some of us believe in them.

Chris:  If you’ve been around MMORPGs for a while, you know these games are works in progress. The development that occurs before a game is released is the time-lapse version of what happens after: iteration after iteration, hoping something fun sticks. When I look at a Kickstarter, filled with all of the hopes and dreams of the developers, I take it all with a grain of salt. All of those system reworked, changed, added onto, and re-developed until they act in unison with every other system the designers have developed. Hopefully they won’t be radically different, but as we’re so often reminded, that’s game development. Things change.

Take the Banner Saga, for example. A great game, no doubt, but how do you suppose their backers felt when they changed their plans and released multiplayer first, shunting single-player off to the side? Backers are offered guarantees. And if you don’t like a change, sorry. Your money has been spent.

Bill: That’s nothing more than a buyer’s beware though. The same could be said of a larger publisher-backed game. I mean, jeeze... look at Star Wars Galaxies, am I right? No matter what game you’re playing in the MMO industry, indie or AAA - you’re bound to see it become something you might not like one day. What I’m paying for with a crowdfunding pledge is the belief that these guys who want to make a game are speaking to my inner-geek and I want to help them achieve their goals because it’s good for a.) the industry and b.) my gaming habits.

Chris: When you crowdfund a game, you’re not a backer, not an investor. That’s an important distinction because we often hear supporters referring to themselves if they were investors. Nothing could be further from the truth. True investment means accountability. The developers have to explain themselves to you. They have to listen to your ideas and react when you disapprove of a decision they’ve made. That is not the case with crowdfunded MMOs.

In the world of Kickstarter, you’re lucky to get regular updates. If the company goes another direction from their original pitch, sorry you’re out of luck. If they’re designing a system, they might ask for your feedback but, just as Brad McQuaid recently shared about the Pantheon team, it’s generally in the small things that have already been built. There is no accountability in Kickstarter. No profit sharing. No changing of ideas unless the developers already wanted them changed. In short, your donation is a whole lot like giving the developers an early Christmas present.

Bill: This is true. It’s not without risks, that’s for sure. But as much as I wanted Pantheon to succeed, I knew it was going to have a good time because of both its planned feature-set for the amount desired and also Brad’s history in the genre. MMO fans don’t like to give developers second chances.  People still hate on Smedley, even if he’s “seen the light” of sandbox player-driven gaming these days. My only advice on this issue is to pledge carefully.  Pledge to those studios you’re confident in. You wouldn’t usually buy a car from a maker that has a notorious history, and the same could be said of developers.  Me? I believe Brad and his team have a perfectly niche game idea, and I gladly backed it despite not having much interest in playing it personally.  But I understand why others might not feel that way.

Chris: To end this argument, Bill, I would like to remind our readers of something important: it is not our responsibility to save the gaming industry. We can invest in the ideas and games we believe in and feel good about it, but let’s not forget that the industry has gotten itself here. The gaming industry is renowned for milking good ideas dry. That’s why we have so many similar games. That’s why there’s an aversion to risk-taking. If you choose to crowdfund, you have my support and thanks for every good game that comes out. But if you’re trying to send a message to the publishers, remember that we’re not waves trying to push big ships back onto course. Some of them need to be lost at sea.

To that end, I return to the start. If you believe in what you’re backing, you’re not wrong. Enjoy it. I’ll be over here keeping an eye on the waters a bit longer.

Bill: You say it’s not our job to save the industry. I would disagree. We are as much responsible for the games we get as the publishers and developers.  If we keep only funding the same ol’ crap, that’s what we’re going to get. This year is home to some fantastically divergent MMO releases, and even has a few sandboxes thrown in there!  Do you know why that is? It’s because we’ve been demanding it. We’ve stopped whole-hog buying into games that chase WoW, at least to the point where the industry finally realizes Blizzard’s game was a shot in the dark. AAA publishers are putting money and investing thousands of manhours into new and unique experiences.  We could wait until something like it comes along and changes “the ship’s direction”. But with crowdfunding? We have a chance to man that ship, to steer it, or at least play Queequeg while we chase down the white whale.

Good round, gentleman, but now it’s your turn. What say you, ardent MMO fans -- have you invested in a crowdfunded MMO? How did it work out? If you haven’t, why not? Let us know in the comments below!

Christopher Coke / Chris has been an MMO player since the days of MUDs. He currently writes two columns for MMORPG.com, Player Versus Player and Tripping the Rift, and hosts the official podcast with his co-host, Jessica. Follow him on Twitter: @GameByNight

Bill Murphy / Bill is the Managing Editor of MMORPG.com, loves his PC, but isn’t shy about enjoying his PS4 and Vita too. He’s not a carebear, but he does prefer his PVP grief-free. Find him on Twitter @TheBillMurphy.

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Christopher Coke

Chris cut his teeth on MMOs in the late 90s with text-based MUDs. He’s written about video games for many different sites but has made MMORPG his home since 2013. Today, he acts as Hardware and Technology Editor, lead tech reviewer, and continues to love and write about games every chance he gets. Follow him on Twitter: @GameByNight