Path Finding and Kick Starting

As previously discussed, I’m fairly cynical of Kickstarter for video game development. Backers see it as supporting something they are interested in; I see it as companies leveraging off their previous reputation and gamer hope to get money gifted to them. Because that’s what the money is: a gift. Once the pledge target is met and the collection period ends, the money leaves the backers and goes into the studio’s bank accounts and then it is up to the devs what the money is spent on.

Order of the Stick, who recently had a very successful Kickstarter to reprint hard copies of their books

I’m less negative about Kickstarters that don’t relate to video games and where the person actually has something ready (or almost ready) to sell. If you need $500k before you can even start pre-production, fuggedaboutit.

Sure, if you back a project you will also receive backer rewards to a certain value, but backer gifts cost money too. As an example (and taking it straight from Odious Repeater’s Kickstarter post):

“First up we have the Star Command project, and it’s probably the best place to start because of how far they’ve gotten in administrating their costs and how open they’ve been with their financing situation. Looking at their numbers, things start out pretty nicely; they had hoped for 20 000 USD, but ended up with a sum total of 36,967 in pledges – so far so great, that’s almost twice what they had hoped for.

Sadly, it all goes downhill from there. They lost almost 2000 bucks from people who’d pledged but didn’t come through. Amazon and Kickstarter payments brought them down to 32 000, and then there was the “prize fulfilment” bit which took another 10 grand out of their coffers. Quite quickly, they’d lost almost all of their surplus funding and were down to their original goal.”

So sending out those gifts can actually hurt a studio in the middle of fundraising if someone doesn’t do the maths correctly. They’ll think they are getting one amount and then – 5% Kickstarter fees, other financial fees, undelivered pledges, gifting costs – find out what they are getting is a lot less.

Yet we are meant to trust what can be delivered based on a page of text and a short video. Sorry, I’m not buying and Kickstarter for video games – which already require sums at the high end of Kickstarter’s pledge targets where only 3% of projects asked for US$25 000 or more as of July 2011 – is yet to be proven, despite all the positive press it has received.

Which brings us to Goblinworks and its Pathfinder Online Technology Demo Kickstarter.

No Problemo, Just Play Your Demo

It took less than a day for the Pathfinder O (let’s call it PathO for short) demo to hit it’s pledge target, so it’s already successful from Goblinworks’ point of view. Again, selling hope based on a popular nerd IP made a Kickstarter easier, the word “sandbox” was thrown around quite a bit as a dogwhistle, plus the time is ripe as Kickstarting something is a popular gamer idea right now. But it raises a lot of issues to me (even leaving aside the issue of whether $50k is enough to truly fund tech demo development).

A visual representation of risk using the board game Risk. I'm so creative.

Spending someone else’s money on developing the basics lowers this. And possibly shows that no-one else was interested and / or you don’t have faith in your own product.

Starting with: funding a demo. Requiring a Kickstarter to fund a tech demo that will be used to attract investors / publishers tells me a lot about Goblinworks’ approach to this title. I’ve read their explanation about using Kickstarter, that it funds both the team and middleware for the development of the tech demo… which tells me that they don’t have the team or middleware licences in place yet.

Sure, they may have been organised, but the whole point of the Kickstarter is to actually pay for them and that money isn’t available for 30 days. A month is long enough for any one of their prospective team to be offered a full-time job somewhere else over this short-term demo project, which will leave a hole that will burn time (and cash) to fill.

If Goblinworks couldn’t find $50k to develop their own Tech Demo, then forget about PathO – the title should be considered the walking dead already. After developing the Tech Demo comes the period of time shopping it around to potential investors and publishers. The team pulled in to work on the Tech Demo will either need to be let go or continue being on payroll during this period and both options effects PathO’s resources moving forward. Publishers / investors will want time to consider their options. Time will burn money. So, again, if Goblinworks couldn’t afford $50k now for a pre-pre-pre-alpha build, PathO is already on the edge of a cliff.

Goblinworks is saying this about their Tech Demo:

“The Technology Demo will be fully playable, integrating account management, character creation, a virtual world server, multiple simultaneously connected clients, middleware used for rendering landscapes and characters, basic game mechanics, and player communications.”

Neverwinter Nights cover art.

Pathfinder Online’s tech demo features done a decade ago. I’m sure it would cost less than $50k to pick up a copy of this and modify it.

Perhaps I’m missing something there, but it appears that the Tech Demo isn’t offering anything more interesting than was available in BioWare’s 2002 title Neverwinter Nights. Maybe the “basic game mechanics” will be a bit different, but that term is so vague as to be meaningless. It’s unlikely that a $50k budget is going to show off any real sandbox potential, despite ‘sandbox’ being a key feature that PathO is trying to stand out on. Even linear theme park MMOs look sandbox-ish if there are only 5 people in-game.

On top of this, any content developed for the Tech Demo is likely to be completely re-written at least once before (and if) PathO actually launches. As an example off the top of my head, below is the public demo video that introduced Halo to the world as a third-person action title. By the time it launched – and influenced by its publisher – it was a very different game even if it superficially looked the same.

A tech demo is a fairly basic offering from a game studio to show some kind of proof-of-concept about the game. It’s a rough-and-ready example to show that the background ideas work well enough that development should continue. It’s something that potential investors wanted to see; as Goblinworks themselves write, “we’re hearing from many potential partners that they love our vision and want to participate—they just don’t want to jump into the deal until we have more concrete work to show them”. This shouldn’t surprise anyone with the level of experience that Goblinworks says it has; that they apparently don’t have a working tech demo says volumes to me.

A salesman yelling, "Buy!"

I’m actually pro-marketing, provided it is done without being deceptive or dishonest. If Goblinworks had done a Kickstarter with pledges ranging from $1 to $15 and on the grounds they they just wanted a large number of backers – not a Tech Demo – I’d be a lot less critical of it. But then it wouldn’t have been a Kickstarter.

What this Kickstarter is really about is marketing. Getting a tech demo developed on-the-cheap is a bonus, but the real focus is on showing publishers that there is a potential market for PathO. As Goblinworks says, “Funding this demo will also signal to potential partners that Pathfinder Online has an audience that’s large enough and dedicated enough to allow the long-term success of the MMO. Nothing speaks louder than a ton of people putting up money to show their support of a new concept[.]”

So, assuming that Goblinworks has the money to build the Tech Demo, the reason behind the Kickstarter is to be able to point at the number of people willing to pledge money to the project. Goblinworks want to show publishers / investors that 87 142 backers or 14 952 backers got behind their project. The pitch will go, “Why, 1217 backers pledged an average of $63 just to get the Tech Demo developed! Just imagine how many will pay to play the full game! We exceeded our funding target by 152%” (using PathO’s Kickstarter figures from right now).

(Sidenote: I’m not entirely convinced on the above argument that a successful Kickstarter shows that an audience is “large enough and dedicated enough to allow long-term success” for a MMO. I’ve followed too many titles that start off with a loud and engaged player base only for that base to splinter when it comes down to the specifics of how systems work and how those ambitious ideas are executed during real-time play. Especially for sandbox titles, especially especially for PVP.

Even the middleware behind a game can turn players off, given how quickly players latch onto the “the Cryptic Engine sucks!”, “SpeedTree makes all games look the same” or “the Hero Engine sucks!” meme. I’m guessing that’s one of the reasons that the actual middleware that Goblinworks plans to use wasn’t mentioned – it could turn off potential backers.)

Cheerleaders at work

Above: the current role of the gaming press in evaluating Kickstarter video game projects. After all, it’s easy content to write and an underdog story all in one.

Having a successful Kickstarter is also a free media event, where the company gets game site coverage at the Kickstarter launch, point of hitting the target, day that the Kickstarter closes and then when the demo material hits YouTube.

What is being paid for by pledgers is material that Goblinworks can use to help pitch their title to publishers. To be fair, Goblinworks has said this if you read carefully, but that doesn’t ease my feeling about how off this approach is. It sets a bad precedent in my eyes when a game development company puts their hand out to develop what can be considered basic materials within an industry, but get the money due to pie-in-the-sky goals and because they’ve got the right IP behind them.

And, again, building a Tech Demo is only the first step in a very long road to developing a game. Should we expect to see Kickstarters every time Goblinworks needs something? Goblinworks Maya Licence Renewal Kickstarter? Goblinworks Server Upgrade Kickstarter? Goblinworks PvP Revamp and Costume Enhancement Kickstarter?

Oh Look, You’ve Added A Stretch Goal… For Your Demo

While I was writing this, Goblinworks added a stretch goal to their Kickstarter – if they get over 2000 backers, they’ll add an extra level to the Thornkeep dungeon. The metric they are using here supports everything I’ve previously written – Goblinworks is less interested in dollars than they are in higher backer numbers.

Stretch Armstrong, doing a very wide star jump

Stretch Armstrong frowns on the misuse of the word “stretch”.

And again, THIS IS A DEMO. You want this to help you get the millions required to develop PathO into a proper MMO. You should be adding as many extras as you can possibly afford to encourage investors / publishers that there is something worth putting money into. Increasing the attractiveness of your Tech Demo is NOT A STRETCH GOAL.

Plus “adding an extra level to a dungeon” means nearly nothing when you don’t know how big the dungeon was intended to be and what adding a level (that only the select few will play according to what’s been said) actually means in development terms.

UPDATE: I missed that the ‘extra level’ for Thornkeep would just be part of the .pdf material sent to backers who pledge $15 or more. So it’s a bonus to the rewards, not something to be included in the Tech Demo. I’m not sure that really qualifies as a “stretch goal” instead of a “bonus offer”, but there you go.

But, as I said before, Goblinworks has already been successful in their Kickstarter to fund a Tech Demo. All that’s left is to see how many pledgers sign up and what they actually deliver on moving forward.

Who’s Buying?

This post is already long enough, but the other question that was raised in my mind by this approach is who would actually be willing to invest the big development dollars in this title. EA probably won’t. Blizzard Activision could but it seems unlikely. THQ has its own problems. Ubisoft is a very soft maybe. Perhaps an Asian MMO publisher could get interested, but that’s not a given. As for investors, they’ll be watching how Star Wars: The Old Republic goes, thinking, “If a huge IP and budget fails for that game, why would I want to invest any money in a tiny IP and a small budget? The returns just aren’t there.”

And if you were an investor looking to pour millions into a sandbox MMO, the recently cancelled Dominus project would seem to be much further along – they at least have a working alpha.

So even if / when this Tech Demo is developed, who is out there to buy it?

9 thoughts on “Path Finding and Kick Starting

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  3. Regarding “A Stretch Goal… For Your Demo”: The post announcing the stretch goal says that “This extra dungeon level won’t be part of the Technology Demo”. It’ll appear only in the backer PDF.

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