Overly ambitious developers, or secret scam artists? Inside the world of crowdfunded MMOs

Crowdfunding has given us many things; from Critical Role’s upcoming animated series, to an Avatar: The Last Airbender tabletop game. Now, it’s giving us MMOs. But are they legit?

Crowdfunding has given us the ability to fund things like Critical Role’s upcoming animated series, or Avatar Legends: The Roleplaying Game. It’s even allowed us to fund games like Pillars of Eternity, which was successful enough to snag enough interest for a second instalment. The recent rise in popularity for the MMORPG genre has only added to the overwhelming mix of projects.

More and more often I see crowdfunded MMO projects popping up on these sites and it makes me wonder: are they legit? Or are these guys way in over their heads? What crazy bastards are trying to topple the best MMOs currently available? After a little investigating, I think I’ve found the answer. Ish.

Chronicles of Elyria / Soulbound Studios
Image: Chronicles of Elyria / Soulbound Studios

For some context, I wanna run a few numbers by you. World of Warcraft cost a reported $64 million to create. If you’re thinking “that’s not fair, it’s one of the most popular MMOs to date”, that’s fair play. But in that case, what about Star Wars: The Old Republic? That one cost $200 million to make. And if that still doesn’t satisfy you, The Elder Scrolls Online is rumoured to have cost around the same.

MMO is shorthand for massively multiplayer online, meaning these kind of games cannot exist without a playerbase to support it. You and five friends could technically play Halo forever with nothing but LAN cables and a few TVs, but a game with its own economy, large-scale player-vs-player battles, ultra-rare items, and more? MMOs need players… but players also need MMOs.

So when you make an MMO, or at least a successful one, obviously you’re gonna need some big funds for all the brains involved. Which brings me back to these crowdfunded MMOs I’ve come across.

The sketchy

Chronicles of Elyria began on Kickstarter in May 2016. Backers pledged just under $1.4 million and when the project was closed, at which point funding just continued on ChroniclesofElyria.com. Which is, admittedly, a little too sketchy for me to participate in. Going through dedicated platforms protected by legally sound agreements is always my go-to.

Described as a “dynamic and immersive MMORPG where your character ages and dies in a fully destructible world with non-repeatable quests”, it sounds great. Initially.

The problem with claims like these is the scope that it promises. Thousands of simultaneous players, all able to destroy and change the environment at any given moment? Unlikely. We simply don’t have the technology for something that complex yet. At the very least, the ageing and dying system for an MMO sounded unique.

The non-repeatable quests are a means for players to “give out tasks” to other players. If you want to play as an alchemist, but need reagents, you could enlist the help of your fellow adventurer. Elyria promised to prevent scamming in these instances by making players sign “in-game contracts” to form binding agreements. Neat, but without normal NPC quests, how do I level? What if there isn’t anyone around who wants to do my quest? What if there are no quest givers?

The game claims more than just these aspects. Survival stats are also meant to be included on top of everything else. Character customisation extends to marriage and then family members who are bound by the laws of genetics. You’re even supposed to be able to inherit titles and lord over your own land as nobility. The list goes on, really.

The game’s initial release was scheduled for the Q4 of 2017, until it was repeatedly delayed. On March 25th of 2020, lead developer Caspian, aka Jeromy Walsh, cited COVID-19 as the predominant reason for funds running out. The announcement was made through the game’s forum site wherein he explained that his entire team had been laid off and Elyria’s development was ground to a halt.

A mere week before this announcement, Elyria held a Dutch Auction event called Settlers of Elyria. Set to run for 45 days starting from March 14th, the community was given the “opportunity to stake a land claim” on one of four available servers. People were buying up virtual tracts of land in order to play as nobility in a game that wasn’t even finished yet.

Worse still, the game stopped being made a week after this event started.

Walsh then snatched up interviews with MassivelyOP and MMORPG.com for some damage control. To make a long story short, Soulbound Studios found itself wrapped up in a class-action lawsuit with a mob of angry backers at their heels. They even went as far as making an official CoE Lawsuit Discord channel to coordinate.

Soulbound Studios has even admitted that Kickstarter was only “seed funding” used to raise money for a prototype to attract investors. They went on to say that $900,000 “isn’t enough” and that it’s “going to require another $2 million more than that” before the game is anywhere near finished. But with no actual investors and now a class-action lawsuit, it’s doubtful that we’ll actually see this game.

The claims originally made regarding the game’s scope were too wide, and the legal issues are off-putting. Toss in Walsh’s lack of experience creating games, let alone something as complex as an MMO, and I can safely say I’m avoiding this one.

The ambitious

Ashes of Creation from Intrepid Studios, meanwhile, is another upcoming MMO who found its beginnings on Kickstarter. The project ran in 2017 and exceeded its initial goal of $750,000, racking up a total of just under $3.3 million.

Ashes has a similar description to Elyria, claiming that “everything is permanently impacted by your actions” and you can explore, trade, build, and let the world take form”. Its key features include massive PvP content like sieges, PvE, trade caravans, crafting, the capacity to become royalty, and more. A lot of this is pretty standard for MMO games – it’s the permanent impacts to the environment that, again, catch my eye.

Evidently, Ashes of Creation has actually taken the time to work out how to implement this system. Although it won’t be fully destructible and changeable like Elyria claimed, they’ve chosen to create and implement a pretty complex ‘Node’ system. It’s not exactly groundbreaking stuff, considering Black Desert Online has a similar one, but the team at Ashes appears to be taking things one step further.

To give you the quick and dirty version, players will be able to influence the zones they quest in. Completing a quest where you wipe out a bunch of skeletons might allow NPCs to move into an area and set up a small camp. Helping them with more quests might mean that camp becomes a village, which then becomes a town, and so on.

It also means that players from another zone could lug their siege weapons over and lay waste to your chosen city, or take it over. Which sounds… amazing?

The man behind the MMO, this time, is Steven Sharif. Reportedly, it’s Sharif’s first time creating a video game in general and he’s funding it himself. As a wealthy entrepreneur who made his fortune selling nutritional drinks, Sharif apparently has the means to employ the right people for this immense job.

So why did he bother with crowdfunding, you may ask? On the game’s campaign page, they mention that “crowdfunding also allows us to connect directly with the players most invested in our success”. Basically, it’s a smart advertising move.

But Ashes hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows either. Many voiced their suspicions when Intrepid Studios implemented something that seemed a lot like a pyramid scheme referral program. Sharif openly refuted and addressed this claim on Reddit, explaining that their system is “only a single level” and is “the opposite of a pyramid”.

Others voiced concerns with Sharif’s background in multi-level marketing, to which he insisted that he “was lucky to find a good one that had great products”.

Knowing that this MMO was privately funded and had a few red flags here or there definitely had me steering clear for the most part. But as the months and years have rolled by, I can definitely say that my interest is piqued.

Progress has been openly shown by the developers on a regular basis through forum posts, streams, and video updates. Likewise, the Kickstarter page lists the team members helping create the game pretty clearly, and it’s obvious that Sharif has taken their advice and expertise into account.

Even better, Intrepid Studios has been listening to the feedback they’ve received from those playing their Alphas, and perhaps more critically, implementing it into later versions. If “open and transparent development” is something you’re after, we’re getting lots of it with Ashes of Creation.

Personally though? I’m still waiting to see the game come out before I drop any money it. But for those interested, there are Pre-Order Packs that let you play the future Beta or Alpha tests (depending on what you purchase). They range from $75 USD to $375 USD.

So are they scams or not?

I can’t tell you definitively whether or not a project like one of these ones either is, or isn’t, a scam. What I can tell you is how to spot one that looks sketchy. The scope of a game’s claims, the lack of transparency from potential developers, and greedy cash grabs are all pretty big warning signs. So is a lack of experience! Not everyone will employ the right people, or listen to them even if they do.

That’s not to say that every MMO, or every game, on a crowdfunding site is out to snatch up your money and run off with it. There are ambitious would-be developers, advertising their potential games and being passionate about their creations. It’s simply harder sometimes to separate them from the people that just want to capitalise on a growing interest in the genre.

My advice? Do a little research if you can. Learn about the people behind the games themselves and whether or not they’re experienced in this field. If you’re not keen on going to that much trouble, then just remember never to invest more than you can afford to lose. And that’s exactly what you should be treating these projects as – an investment.

Just remember that sometimes, investments fail.