The Think Tank: Is Kickstarter a fad or the new standard?

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The funny thing about opinions is that everyone has one. While we celebrate that fact on an individual basis with our wildly popular column The Soapbox, often times the rest of the Massively team wants to weigh in on a particularly hot topic as well.

Think Tank is a new column that will act as a roundtable of opinions from the Massively staff on today's hottest MMO topics. We're all MMO gamers, and we all love to talk about the genre, so this is our place to do it. And as always, you're welcome to share your own opinion and let us know what you think about the topic each week in the comments.

For this inaugural installment, we're going to tackle the question of crowdfunding. Is Kickstarter just a fad, or will it redefine game publishing as we've known it?

Think Tank Is Kickstarter a fad
I don't think crowdfunding will ever replace triple-A publishers, nope (although on a big enough scale, a small crowdfunded company isn't all that different from a large publicly traded company, but /digress). It'd be easy to judge crowdfunding based on the incredible success of something like the Star Citizen campaign, but the reality is that lots of Kickstarter groups, being poor judges of markets and risk, fail hard, and even Star Citizen is relying on secret angel investors, not on crowdfunding alone. Even if Kickstarters meet their monetary goals, there's no assurance of launch or quality (or that the beneficiary will even do as promised with your money -- the scamming potential is extreme). We've already seen several cancelations of Kickstarted games, and I think we'll only see more of that bubble burst, which will further deteriorate trust in crowdfunded indies, at least in the MMO world.

Philosophically, I love the idea of throwing a bunch of ideas at Kickstarter and seeing what sticks, but piles of failed MMO Kickstarters, most of which never had a chance anyway, hurt the industry and allow all the usual suspects to declare MMOs a failed genre.
Think Tank Is Kickstarter a fad
I spotted Kickstarter before the million-dollar projects started popping up, and I didn't think it would really catch on for funding games. I turned out to be sorely mistaken, as it's since funded tons of indie games and showed that it could be a serious contender for the publisher model and the get-into-loads-of-debt model. It'll never replace triple-A publishers as they do most of their work in-house with their own studios now anyway, but it will help struggling indie studios a lot. There are no game publishers in some parts of the world, and most financial institutions still don't understand the games industry, so crowdfunding may be the only option available for an indie startup. I just launched a project on Kickstarter for exactly this reason; there really wasn't any other viable finance option out there.

The problem with Kickstarter is that people will often buy into a good idea that's presented well without knowing whether the project creator is actually qualified and able to deliver it. Plenty of games have been funded at the concept stage without so much as a working gameplay prototype, and the developers themselves might not realise how much work the project will really be. Unless people start putting projects and their creators under heavier scrutiny, I worry that the Kickstarter bubble may burst in 2013 as more funded games fail to deliver. I also think it's fundamentally irresponsible to launch an MMO on Kickstarter without a working prototype of a scalable client and server setup because developing that requires a lot more funding, development time, and expertise than making a single-player game.
Think Tank Is Kickstarter a fad
Giving the people the power to greenlight a project is something that is becoming super mainstream today. Platforms like Steam have been testing the waters pretty heavily with this, and it's not necessarily awesome. Every gamer has an idea for a game, but does that mean it's a good idea? Probably not. Most gamers are awesome at playing games, but unfortunately, 90% of the time this does not mean they are good at making games. On the other hand, Kickstarter gives the little guys a chance to show the world what they have and what they could be bringing to the table. Someone might be sitting on the next great MMO and trying to get it launched using Kickstarter -- I may never know.

And therein lies one of my major problems with crowdfunding: How does word get out? Even if I had money to spare, I am not sure I would float around something like Kickstarter with my paypal account ready to give it all away. MMOs tend to make people second-guess cash. Because there have been so many failed ones, people are wary about throwing extra money into one without extensive research and as much testing as possible. So the question remains, how does the world at large, or at least the people with the extra money to spend, learn about a project? Luckily, this problem occurs on a small scale at the moment. We have triple-A publishers who do this job.
Think Tank Is Kickstarter a fad
I have such strong feelings on this that I should write an article... oh, wait. I did.

Do I really have anything to add? No. We've yet to see one of the MMOs go from "Kickstarted" to "reality" just yet, which means we're still in the phase in which a Kickstarter project seems like a license to print money. Crowdfunding is a great tool, but using it for MMOs as a rule leads to ugliness.
Think Tank Is Kickstarter a fad
I think crowdfunding is a tool, but not a particularly powerful one except under certain conditions. Star Citizen is a perfect case in point. Despite how awesome the gameplay sounds (and in the dictionary next to awesome, it says see Star Citizen), the project would've been extremely fortunate to make a third of its final take without Chris Roberts' name attached.

I can see Kickstarters or crowd-funded projects featuring certain devs doing pretty well in the near future, and maybe people like Raph Koster and/or Richard Garriot will come down off their mountains of crazy and do something worthwhile as Roberts is doing. Maybe Notch does something similar for his space game or whatever. But a replacement for publishers? Nah. I would love that, but unfortunately no.
The Think Tank Is Kickstarter a fad
I think Kickstarter will evolve further into a powerful tool, but big-budget publishers will find a way to use it. Hollywood was once afraid of the VCR, but it adapted. Big game publishers will find a way to utilize the tool and perhaps use it as a testing ground, to double-up on free advertising or even testing perk reward reception. There are many ways a big publisher could go, some I certainly couldn't think of. I think the little guy will still have a place, but the gaming industry is still very nebulous and shifting.
Think Tank Is Kickstarter a fad
I am leery of crowdfunding for MMOs for several reasons. The first is that it seems to feed into MMO gamers' natural weakness for hype and expectations without proof of deliverable results. It's one thing to anticipate a game based on the words of devs, but it's another to invest money into a game that may not happen, and if it does, it probably won't be exactly as you hoped when you deposited your support. My other concern is that the MMOs being made (or finished) with crowdsourcing are still at the "very small budget" end of the scale. MMOs are expensive, far more than most Kickstarter indie game projects, and even Chris Roberts' $6.2 million haul doesn't hold a candle to World of Warcraft's initial budget (which was about 10 times that). So you can make smaller MMOs that may or may not be what the investors anticipated... but will that translate into long-term success?

So I remain leery because we haven't seen results yet, just promises. Promises with dollar signs attached. I anticipate some very ugly confrontations between players and these studios down the road, but I do hope that we get a few great MMOs out of them as well. Ultimately, I don't think crowdsourcing will replace traditional funding, but perhaps it will expand the market and allow garage software developers a way back into the industry.
Think Tank Is Kickstarter a fad
Crowdfunding is incredible as a concept but has some serious problems in execution. For starters, we haven't yet seen any of these super projects ($2 million plus) come anywhere near fruition. Star Citizen, which is the current flavor of the month, won't even have an alpha until late 2013. Until we actually play a triple-A quality game -- a good one -- that was built by crowdfunding, I'm hesitant to jump on the bandwagon. Time will tell.

The second major issue is that publishers aren't stupid. Obsidian already reported that one publisher tried to Kickstart a game through it, using its name and reputation to build funds without having to actually invest in development. I'm sure this isn't an isolated incident, and as the pot grows, publishers will certainly find a way to demand relevance. Don't be surprised if you see EA's or Activision's name on Kickstarter sooner rather than later (EA is already courting crowdfunded games by offering three months of Origin distribution).
Think Tank Is Kickstarter a fad
I like crowdfunding, but not for MMOs. MMOs are living entities that change dramatically, especially during internal testing before the game launches. You have to alter design a lot because of the nature of human interaction, and this can often lead to a game that doesn't match up with the game that you advertised on Kickstarter. I'll believe crowdfunding can make a good MMO when I see it, which hasn't happened yet.

I'm all for crowdfunding for other games, both single and multiplayer. MMOs are just too big and expansive and demand a lot more just because of the unique social structures MMOs create. I'm not saying it can't happen, but even in the best case that you do get a playable game that you like, the game might not be the game you like a year down the road.
The Think Tank Is Kickstarter a fad
I don't think crowdfunding will replace publishers in the video game industry, but if these projects are successful, it could become a viable alternative. I share the growing concern, however, that projects funded in this manner are risky. Many of these projects receive oodles of money for doing little more than coming up with an interesting idea and crafting a high-quality video to accompany it. Many of these projects are backed by a team of talented people with an ample amount of industry experience, but if complications, delays, or other problems rear their head during production, the crowdfunded projects could find themselves skating on thin ice. Even Star Citizen (the largest crowdfunded project to date) has supplementary financial backing from independent investors.

I'm just hoping that in a year or two, we look back fondly at 2012 as the dawn of crowdfunding rather than an embarrassing mistake that we whisper about in dark corners.
Think Tank Is Kickstarter a fad
I think crowdfunding can offer a wake-up call to large publishers, but I don't think it will ever completely replace game (or music or movie, etc.) publishers. This service has been around for a long time, and Kickstarter has strangely put it on the map in a big way, especially for game designers. Publishing entertainment is a needed service that has strayed from its original purpose in the last few decades, but I'm hoping that Kickstarter, ArtistShare, Fundable, and the dozens of other crowdfunding services help the process evolve in a good way. I also hope that this explosion in popularity helps creative people discover that Kickstarter isn't the only site out there to help them with funding.

What do you get when you throw the Massively writers' opinions together in one big pot to stew? You get The Think Tank, a column dedicated to ruminating on the MMO genre. We range from hardcore PvPers to sandbox lovers to the carest of the carebears, so expect some disagreement! Join Senior Editor Shawn Schuster and the team for a new edition right here every other Thursday.
This article was originally published on Massively.