Questions I ask myself when crowdfunding an MMO

Crowdfunding an MMO may be the riskiest Kickstarter you could buy into these days. As someone who’s wasted way too much money on Kickstarters, I’ve finally reached the point where I almost always refuse to fund MMOs there. Unless it can answer all of these questions to my satisfaction, I decide to wait it out and pay for the game once it exists in its entirety. Here are the questions I ask myself.

How real is the demo footage being shown?

This is a tough question to answer, since the whole point of posting a video is to show you what gameplay would be like. What you’re trying to look for here is whether you’re being shown a demo of the visuals (i.e. environments, art, and animation) or the key underlying systems.

For a game early enough in development, there likely won’t be any underlying systems yet, so much of what you see will have been faked for the purposes of the demo. And that’s okay! But just be aware that you are, in fact, being shown a tech demo, and not actual gameplay.

These classes look super badass! This is also not a game.

The ultimate “win” here for me is a livestream of the game during the campaign. Even if this reveals some major holes in the game, it shows confidence in your product, and lets people understand the literal current state of the game. No editing around corners, no hiding what is and isn’t there.

Which job roles in the studio are currently missing?

Look at the list of team members for the campaign. A ‘core’ team would probably include artists, animators, designers, programmers, and engineers. A ‘bigger’ team would also have QA, a Community Manager, and hopefully some producers/project managers. If any of those core roles are missing, it makes me extremely nervous. For an MMO, if there is no engineer on the list, that’s a huge red flag. The core of your gameplay relies on solid netcode! If that’s not being worked on as one of the first things in your development cycle, that’s a big warning sign.

It’s fine for a team to limit their hires until after the crowdfunding, and obviously that makes sense, but if their pre-crowdfunding team is made up solely of artists, you should be extremely cautious. This means there isn’t anyone on the team qualified to verify their designs and plans, and they haven’t had an engineer take a look at their systems and go, “We can’t build that with the tech you’re using.” or “We could do that, but it’d probably take an extra year.”

Are the stretch goals’ additional funding equivalent to the amount of work being added to the schedule?

If a stretch goal requires $10,000 more and adds 8 new playable classes to the game, one of two things is happening. Either they’ve already budgeted the time to build those classes (in which case they’ll probably include them regardless), or they haven’t budgeted that time. In the former case, there’s no need to pay extra, since you’ll get them anyway. In the latter case, this is going to actively harm their development cycle, because $10,000 covers about a month of a single developer’s time and that’s it. You can’t create 8 (good) classes in a month, I don’t care how good your tools are.

On the other hand, if the goal is $50,000 for 3 new tables for your personal housing: this is costing the studio almost nothing to create. I consider this to be a good thing, though you may disagree. This type of goal has effectively increased their budget, while barely touching their scope of work. This allows more flexibility in future changes to the game and its design, while adding a few days’ work to an artist’s schedule.

Who is the leading the team? Do they have game development experience, and more importantly, do they defer to the experts on their team for decision-making?

You can say many things about certain studios/projects (38 Studios and Red 5 immediately come to mind), but the most common issue many of them had was someone in charge who could not let anyone else make a decision and/or constantly demanded changes or additions on a whim.

Take this quote from Steven Sharif (of Ashes of Creation) on Massively:

All of the design decisions are made by myself. Before it becomes a decision, however, I ask my pros if it can be done, and done right with a reasonable cost.

The quote’s both reasonable and unreasonable. Design decisions should not be made by a single person, especially one with no game development experience. However, the idea that he then goes to his team with the concept and gets feedback, asks for timelines and estimates, etc, shows some excellent awareness of these pitfalls.

I love the excitement and passion of MMO communities, and I love that people are willing to put up money for new ideas and new risks. MMOs are inherently a risky world, and if publishers/investors are scared to fund them, it makes me happy to see players who are willing to self-fund interesting ideas. But given that an MMO can take years to finally release, it’s more important than ever to hold developers responsible for their game’s outcome, and one of the best ways to do that is to hold onto your money until they can prove that they’re able to fulfill their promises. As much as Kickstarter wants you to believe that there’s an urgency and a feeling of being ‘left behind’ if you don’t crowdfund something as quickly and early as possible, the truth is: If the game turns out to be good, you’ll have missed out on nothing by waiting. I will be so, so excited to pour money into Star Citizen, Crowfall, and Ashes of Creation when they release. But not before.