Monday, March 9, 2015

A Murder of Crows, Part I - Kickstarter and Early Access

2015 has been a year of firsts for me. It is the first time I have paid money for an incomplete game, which is what I did when I plonked down $20 to enter the H1Z1 alpha. Early access is fast becoming a dirty word amongst bloggers, but its ubiquity suggests that this disdain is not shared by the masses who flock to early access titles in their droves. Not yet, anyway. I have to confess that I felt foolish after spending my money and then finding myself not being able to log into H1Z1 for the first few days of early access. When I mentioned I was in early alpha my WoW team mate Rykester said "What's that?" My gaming circle is delightfully naïve in many ways - they don't read blogs, they don't follow MMO websites or keep up with the latest trends in gaming - in fact for most of them the only game they play is WoW, and/or whatever game I manage to convince them all to play. So when Rykester asked me what early access was I replied to the effect that it was like a form of game testing, in which the general public were asked to play the game and give feedback based on their experiences. Rykester then said, "Nice! Do you get paid for doing that?" After a few seconds I had to reply no, and then added "Erm, I actually paid them to get in."

"Didn't you say this zombie game was going to be free?"

"Umm...yeah."

"So you paid $20 for a free game which isn't even finished? Why?"

I felt like an idiot.

I don't know when the paradigm shift kicked in, and it became acceptable for consumers to pay money in order to play a game in the early stages of development. Nonetheless it's here and apparently here to stay. Steam has an entire section on games in early alpha, and I have became one of many damned fools who have fallen hook, line and sinker for promises and potential rather than actual concrete product.

H1Z1

Fast forward a month later, and now I find myself again forking money over for a game which has not yet been completed. Crowfall is in an even earlier stage of development than H1Z1 - it's in Kickstarter, which means that we're really only at the concept stage of the game, despite assurances from the developers that the core modules are mostly completed. I forked over money for a concept of game and became a backer, all without even seeing how the game plays. So what's up? Am I just being a sucker again?

There is a difference here, but I'm finding it hard to articulate why I regret my H1Z1 Early Access purchase, but feel proud to be in on the ground floor of the Crowfall hype train. In the first case it felt like a lapse of will - I was always going to buy the game given my love for things zombie-related, and I guess I just lacked the self-discipline to wait until the game was released. There were less selfish reasons to buy the game, too. As I said, I rope my gaming circle into games I'd like to play, and I had told them about this really cool FPS style zombie game in which we could emulate the exploits of Rick Grimes and company in The Walking Dead. I cajoled the guys into playing TESO without really knowing it well enough, and every bug, every broken quest, every crash and everything that was wrong with that game in the first month of its release felt like a betrayal of the group's trust in me. This time around I was going to do my due diligence in H1Z1 before I made any kind of recommendation, and this, I thought, was sufficient cause to drop $20 on the title. I still regret it, however, because I would have been better served waiting until the game went live and testing it on live servers rather than rushing headlong into early access where none of the features have been finalised anyway. Paying money to test a F2P game in alpha is plainly ridiculous, and I don't know when my common sense understanding of this was subverted by having my head too deep into the gaming/blogging meta.

Crowfall

In the case of Crowfall however, it felt like I was doing something positive by supporting developers get the game off the ground. Unlike H1Z1, which was a guaranteed title in production and the only thing up in the air was the release date, Crowfall is explicitly asking for backers for a crowd funding project. Nothing particularly novel about this, except for the fact that after perusing their "prospectus" I was completely sold on their vision and concept of the game. I am squarely in Crowfall's target demographic - I like MMORPG's, strategy games, and open world PvP. You can't get any more specific than that in terms of target audience. I've become a bloody MMO tourist, and it's all because of this blog and being a part of a blogsphere that writes about MMOs. How can you write with any authenticity on MMOs if you don't play them? In the same vein I don't feel like you can advocate a specific style of MMO without putting your money where your mouth is when the opportunity presents itself. Anyone who knows me would immediately realise that the gameplay concepts used to describe Crowfall would appeal to my particular tastes. If I was ever going to back a Kickstarter it would be to back a game much like Crowfall.

The crucial difference between H1Z1 and Crowfall, for me at least, is that I bought H1Z1 hoping for a finished game because I didn't have the patience to wait for it. I fell for the hype, ignored the alpha disclaimers plastered all over Steam and the H1Z1 home page, and jumped in hoping for an immersive survival experience right off the bat. That I was disappointed is totally on me. I invested in Crowfall, however, because I want this game to be made, and if my support helps it get over the line, then it will have been worth it. Small differences to be sure, but it is on these small differences that ideologies are split and battle lines drawn. Just ask Protestants and Catholics, or orthodox and secular Jews, hell, ask the Australian Labor and Liberal parties - I can no longer tell the differences between their political stances nowadays. In the same way I believe that my motivations for H1Z1 and Crowfall are starkly different, and despite being outwardly similar - i.e. forking over money for an incomplete game - they constitute two different cases as to whether it was a good decision to invest or not. One was in pursuit of instant gratification. The other was to help developers create a game that, on paper, would be fun for me to play.

Even then this explanation is unsatisfactory to me, because Camelot Unchained pushes all the same buttons as Crowfall for me as a player, yet I did not give them a single dime. So why back Crowfall and not Camelot Unchained? I fully intend to give Camelot Unchained a shot when it is released, but if I'm supposedly supporting MMOs that espouse a playstyle which appeals to me then why didn't I back it at the beginning? Doesn't that contradict all that high minded rhetoric I just spouted in the previous two paragraphs? More importantly, am I obligated to support every OWPvP game that comes out because I have argued in favour of OWPvP both here and in other sites? 
 
I'm overthinking this, and I'm also holding myself to a ridiculously high standard of behaviour, especially since we are talking games here. In the final analysis it may be as simple as just being convinced by the pitch put forward by Walton and Coleman on their website. There's also that psychological hurdle of never having paid money into an early access or Kickstarter scheme before. Given my background as a gamer I was an ideal candidate to be a Crowfall backer, and the quality of the pitch tipped me over the edge. Not the marketing rhetoric which Bhagpuss and Syl seemed to have taken so much offense to - i.e. "Something deeper than a virtual amusement park. More impactful than a virtual sandbox." - but rather the enthusiasm of Walton and Coleman, the transparency of their funding model, and most importantly, the concept of their game. I find it interesting that Bhagpuss, who I consider to be one of the most level-headed of all bloggers, really seems offended by Crowfall's opening taglines. I react to them the same way I do to Saul Goodman's jingle on Breaking Bad - "Better call Saul!" - tacky and tawdry but essentially harmless. Offensive? I personally find nothing wrong - they seem to be on par with TESO's "Live Another Life" and Wildstar's "MMO's with attitude!" Then again I am already pre-disposed to these types of games. If you don't like the core game then no amount of spin is going to endear you to a title, and may in fact, push you the other way.
 
Great Expectations?
 
I'm not saying that the game is going to be good. I'm hoping it will be, but as the saying goes, there's many a slip twixt cup and a lip. Multa cadunt inter calcium supremaque labra. Unlike Scree, who is already making plans for his new Crowfall guild, I am trying to maintain some perspective on this one. That's a turn up for the books, by the way, the fact that Scree and I are backers and fervent supporters of this game after our difference in opinion regarding TESO. I'm sure we're both very happy that they have reached their funding goal, but there are still a plethora of things that can still go wrong. Let's have a look at them in no particular order:

i) The game developers, concerned at the excess number of titles containing the word "fall" (i.e. Darkfall, Firefall, Titanfall, now Crowfall) decide to change the name of the game to something more original and less derivative. They rename it the Game of Crows.
 
ii) A late flurry of support balloons Kickstarter contributions to over $50 million, and thus encouraged, Warcraft...erm, Artcraft decides to implement a plethora of stretch goals, including dinner with the developer's second cousins, new spaceships, and space combat. When asked about the relevance of space combat to fantasy worlds, the developers simply reply, "Believe." They rename the game "Starfall Citizen" but are immediately hit with a "cease and desist" injunction by Chris Roberts' lawyers.
 
iii) Peter Molyneux takes over the project and promises the winner of the first campaign perpetual sovereignty over Great Britain and the title "King of Kings."

iv) Walton rips off his face like Nicolas Cage in Face Off, revealing that he is in fact Brad McQuaid in disguise. McQuaid promptly changes the name of the game to Pantheon: Rise of the FALLen, and says mockingly, "You should have known you fools! BWAHAHAHAHAHAHA!"
 
Lame jokes aside, the possibility of Crowfall not fulfilling the promise laid out in its conceptual pitch is very real, and it's a risk I am willing to take as a backer. Maybe it's going to be a turkey, with sluggish combat and lag spikes up the wazoo. Maybe the project will be hit by interminable delays. Worst case scenario, the game doesn't get made, but here my time in EVE has helped me. Don't fly it if you can't afford to lose it. I've already written off my own modest contribution and am trying to simply forget about Crowfall until I get a message in my in-box giving me access to alpha testing. But for better or worse I've chosen to back it, and so I'm in its corner, willing it to do well and succeed.

I don't know if I'll pay for another early access or help crowd fund another Kickstarter. Never say never, I guess. Unlike J3w3l, however, I have not sworn off early access or crowd funding just yet. I am not completely convinced that either are inherently bad. I am also in the unique position of not having been burnt yet, unlike those poor bastards with Godus. H1Z1 didn't burn me, because they delivered exactly what they promised - an incomplete game replete with bugs, crashes and game-breaking issues. It's not their fault I expected something different. Crowfall could burn me - but for now, I am willing to make a leap of faith and put some trust in the developers. What they do with that, and with the trust reposed in them from the thousands of others like me - well, that's completely on them.

3 comments:

  1. I can't really explain my unusually intense reaction to what was really a fairly routine and rather mild bit of tub-thumping on the part of some developers trying to drum up interest in their new game. It did rub me up the wrong way at the time but there wasn't any reason to start taking it personally. These things are rarely rational though. The last time I took against a game for no reason it was Glitch and it would be hard to think of two MMOs with less in common than that one and Crowfall.

    I'm over it now, anyway. I like the art design a lot, the gameplay is potentially interesting and they've dialed back on the God-game rhetoric so I'm keeping a casual eye on development. I'm pretty sure it will use the kind of ActionRPG controls and UI that I don't enjoy so the chances of me playing it are slim but it's F2P so I'll probably at least take a look when it finally launches. That's still a long way off though. Who knows what else may have popped up by then?

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    1. Yeah, I am with you. I think there's a lot to be excited about, and I anticipate trying it as soon as I can, but I am also prepared to not like it. I am happy that I haven't given into backing it too. Like Duke, I feel the pangs of wanting to make something happen, but I've also come to terms with Kickstarter not exactly being the 'make some developer's dream come true' simulator it so often tries to appear as.

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    2. Fingers crossed that it will be a good 'un.

      So many games coming out with a PvP slant - Shroud of the Avatar, Albion Online, Pathfinder Online, Camelot Unchained, now Crowfall. Everyone's in a race to make the first truly successful fantasy EVE, because WoW and FFXIV have the theme park crowd on lockdown. Not all of them are going to be successful, especially given that OWPvP games are a niche market. The glut of these games might actually be disastrous, because diluting an already small demographic might not leave any single one of these games with a viable population.

      A game's going to have to be good to stand out in this market. Whether Crowfall will be is something that remains to be seen.

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