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The Soapbox: The trouble with Kickstarter

Eliot Lefebvre

Disclaimer: The Soapbox column is entirely the opinion of this week's writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of Massively as a whole. If you're afraid of opinions other than your own, you might want to skip this column.

It was right around the time that the Shadowrun Online Kickstarter went live that I started to wonder whether Kickstarter was doing some nasty things to the development practices of MMOs.

This isn't a commentary on Shadowrun Online itself, exactly. The game asked for players to put up $500,000 to fund development, and while that's an awful lot of money to ask from the pockets of fans, it still doesn't qualify as being high-budget by the standards of the industry. But in some ways, it's the apotheosis of something that started with several other games being funded on Kickstarter -- this sense that Kickstarter is the path of the future, that it's the ultimate litmus test of whether or not your MMO is worth developing and a great way to draw in venture capitalists for more funding.

I'm not convinced that this is a good thing for the health of MMO development. You can look at it as a way for strange niche titles to get their funding without convincing outside sources that it's worth the effort, but as we're ramping up to seeing the fruits of these projects (or lack thereof), I'm wondering whether it just allows ideas to get further along before they self-destruct.

It's not that this is bad prototype modeling for Pathfinder Online, it's that this is as close as the game has come to existing at the moment.Having backers is not having customers

A backer on Kickstarter is not your customer. He's not buying anything. He's donating money on the promise of eventually being able to buy something or play something or whatever. Speaking as someone who's backed several projects, I think this totally works out great... but it's a worrisome trend when it comes to MMOs.

Let's say you have your $500,000 goal. If 10,000 people chip in $50 each, hey, great! You made your goal! Now you already have 10,000 people in your corner, right?

Nope, you don't. You have 10,000 people willing to pay the price of a new boxed game on the promise that you'll develop a product they want to pay for over the long run. And MMOs are more of a marathon than a sprint. Getting 10,000 people to stay subscribed is a much bigger challenge than getting them to chip in once. They're willing to support the development of the title when it's still a name and a lot of promises, but what happens when you make a choice those players disagree with? Are they still going to speak with their wallets to pay a subscription or make regular cash shop purchases?

It's really easy to satisfy someone with a Kickstarter pitch. You don't need to have a single thing in place other than some ideas that sound wonderful and maybe a few mocked-up art assets. I dropped money on The Banner Saga because it looks like I'm going to enjoy the heck out of it, but I'm also aware that I didn't back a game; I backed an idea I have yet to see in implementation. Sometimes ideas pan out into beautiful realities. Other times, you wind up with Warhammer Online or The Matrix Online or several other ideas that sounded great on paper but didn't turn out to deliver what was promised.

You've got a lot of possible customers, sure, but possible doesn't always translate nicely into actual, especially in an environment where your competition for someone's gaming time is literally everything.

I feel it's necessary to note that The Repopulation certainly looks pretty darn cool.The people closest to the games are poor judges of marketing

Backers aren't customers, but they also don't provide the numerous important functions that venture capitalists do -- namely, the function of looking at your product, determining whether it's financially viable, and then giving you money based upon that.

If we need to learn any lessons from what happened to 38 Studios -- and we do -- one of the lessons could be framed as simply as "there's a reason investors don't greenlight everything." 38 Studios bypassed a lot of that by just getting a whole lot of state money without ever having to justify where all that money was going. Several months down the line, surprise! Turns out that the whole operation wasn't as viable as the management initially thought, and all that money never got a spot check under the harsh light of reality.

This is a gross oversimplification, yes. But it's also something very important to note. Money was spent without anyone asking what happened when the money ran out.

When you're making games, you need someone who can be a complete jerk, and if necessary, tell you that you aren't getting any more money because you're going to just waste it. You need someone whose only interest is making money because like it or not, no game company runs off of unicorn farts and faerie giggles. You make no money, your programmers make no money, and things get bad quickly. Funding a project entirely via hope and good will results in a project that is woefully unprepared for selling itself.

But hey, if you make a good game, people will play it, right? Sure, probably, some people will. People will also play bad games, something that Zynga has proven repeatedly. A thin veneer of a game with a crispy center of paying money makes as much money as a truly magnificent game sometimes. And if you think that just trying really hard will result in a game good enough for everyone to enjoy, you might want to hunt down some former employees of Ion Storm or Realtime Worlds. Maybe the programmers for Tabula Rasa or classic Hellgate: London. See how they feel about the hard work they put into just making a good game.

Face it -- you need to actually have a plan for making money. And you need to have a plan for marketing to people other than just the folks who happened across your Kickstarter project. Your backers might tell their friends, sure, but that might be the thing they mention between the video of a cat dancing and the time for next week's game of Summoner Wars. Gambling on word-of-mouth to market is a really bad strategy except for a very few lucky occasions.

Embers of Caerus currently has my vote for most sensibly-dressed woman in concept art.Budgets spin out of control pretty easily

Marketing brings up another important point: the fact that games in general and MMOs in specific are very good at taking a certain amount of money that should be more than enough and suddenly making it seem very small. You know, like the first time you boot up the first stable build of the game and it turns out that your network code doesn't work unless you reset your router every five minutes, and after three days of works it turns out you're going to need to re-code the whole thing from scratch.

Venture capitalists have a procedure for this, although not having made an MMO, I'm not sure of exactly what that procedure is. (I imagine it involves wearing a hat and doing a "we're out of money" dance.) Kickstarter does not have that procedure. Kickstarter says that you run this project, then you send out rewards, and then you're all done and never need any more funding ever again.

If you do run out of money, boy, you're going to be facing some angry backers.

To the credit of the companies running Kickstarter projects, most of them seem to understand most of this. The Pathfinder Online Kickstarter mentioned several dozen times that this was funding for a tech demo to secure some venture capital, not for full production of the game. But I'm willing to bet that not all of the backers necessarily see this or acknowledge that the money tossed out is essentially a gamble. After all, that tech demo might secure no capital or too little capital, and then all you have is a nice book for your donation.

Or you have developers asking you for more money all over again. Even if you supported the initial run of donations to Pathfinder Online, are you going to drop another $50 for the game? How about $100? If the drive comes around again and again, will you just keep putting down money? Or will you reach the point at which you just don't have the money or want to spend it on a project that keeps not actually happening?

Sometimes, yeah, budgets go nuts because people don't plan. But even if you do plan carefully, things can go badly haywire. And there's no real safety net in place with Kickstarter for when that occurs. Developers are left to just beg upon your goodwill once again.

I really want Panzer Pets to happen.  I now very much doubt that it will.Small numbers and high stakes

The one theoretical saving grace to all of this is that Kickstarter can theoretically give life to games that otherwise would never exist. There are strange niche projects that look horrible on the surface, stuff that would never get financed right away, stuff that needs the voice of a crowd to prove that there's a demand. That almost makes up for all of those nasty real-world concerns -- that chance for games that would never get funded otherwise to have a go at the marketplace.

But for these games, success or failure is a much bigger deal. Remember how Embers of Caerus basically dared sandbox fans to speak in support of the genre? A single dollar for your support after the game hit its goal. This isn't just a chance to fund a sandbox title; it's a chance to shoot a warning shot across the bow of big gaming companies and show them that there's a sizable population interested in these sorts of games!

The game's project ended with 434 backers.

Don't get me wrong; the project hit nearly double its funding goal, and one cannot fault the design staff with lack of ambition. But 434 potential players does not exactly send a message to gaming companies. Just to put that in contrast, the critically acclaimed commercial flop Psychonauts sold marginally less than 100,000 copies.

This isn't unique to Embers of Caerus. Pathfinder Online ended with around 4,250 backers. Shadowrun Online got a hair over 6,000. The Repopulation hit 739. But when you're specifically backing your game by claiming that this is hitching your horse to Team Sandbox, it's actually worse for Team Sandbox when your warning shot looks pretty tiny.

Part of this is the fact that some of these projects are really intentional throwbacks to an older style of game. But they're also immensely ambitious, and if they fail, it means a lot for the future of the industry as a whole. If a game that claims to be the embodiment of sandbox principles fails due to archaic design decision, the net effect will be that companies are less likely to ever fund that sort of project in the future. After all, the last time a bunch of people took a chance on it, how did that go over?

On second thought, scratch that. If a Kickstarter game fails after securing funding, that alone makes venture capitalists more leery of supporting one. What you might see is an indie project that was never going to be a huge hit; what they see is a project that had the express backing of the target audience that still didn't make it big.

You can argue that all of this is because, well, these are small projects in a corner of the internet that not everyone saw. And that's entirely true. But that brings us right back to all of the issues from before -- issues of budget, of marketing, of gaining and retaining customers. These are the uncomfortable questions that need to be asked and answered because failure looks very ugly.

You may want a smock, Mr. Emperor, sir

All of these issues have the same uncomfortable scent of not being a real problem if you look at them correctly. They are real problems, and they need to be addressed, but it's easy to sort of sigh and think that you could just have all the funding you need for this ambitious project just by asking your fans. And I say this as a fan of crowdsourced projects. I've donated money to several gaming drives, including one of the games that I've listed above as a Kickstarter baby.

I'm not saying that Kickstarter can't work for funding MMOs or getting them off of the ground. I'm saying that seeing it as a freedom from the current methodology of the industry is naive, and I'm saying that developers should really think twice before relying on it for providing that initial push. I'm saying that as crazy and messed-up as the system currently is, bypassing it all for a round in the Kickstarter pool might result in something even worse in the long run.

There's great stuff to be found on Kickstarter, wonderful projects that can be funded only through that method, and there's a lot to like about finding a new way to fund ambitious projects that don't have normal channels to go through. But we need to think a bit more before throwing open the doors and declaring this to be the wave of the future and the best way to fund everything ever. It's a tool, one suited for certain projects in certain situations.

It's something to keep in mind before you drop $300 for the special in-game "Pimpmaster" reward when (if) the game goes live.

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!

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