Eternal Sunlessness of the Crowdsourced Founder

As the gaming industry lurches through the strange new landscape of crowdfunding, early access, paid betas and the like, progress isn’t always smooth, the recent kerfuffle over Peter Molyneux’s Godus being a particularly noteworthy case in point. Going through a bit of a gaming lull, with nothing immediately flinging itself from the ever-lengthening Steam library as a must play, I thought I’d take a bit of a look at a couple of projects I’d backed on Kickstarter that had come to fruition while I was distracted with other stuff.

Sunless Sea from Failbetter Games was released a couple of weeks ago, and has had some glowing reviews; I’ve only set out on the briefest of voyages so far, but it looks very nice, combining the quirky setting of the Fallen London browser game with sort-of-Rogue-ish-with-a-bit-of-Elite-and-other-stuff sailing around. I did enjoy Fallen London for a while, but never found the underlying mechanics of the game as compelling as the setting and writing, so I’m looking forward to some more exploration of the Unterzee. With all the problems elsewhere, it’s nice to see a successful Kickstarter project meeting or even exceeding expectations.

I also got around to installing Jagged Alliance: Flashback. I missed out on the original Jagged Alliance games, but being a big fan of UFO: Enemy Unknown and Silent Storm I thought I’d give Flashback a try. After backing projects I don’t tend to follow them particularly closely, but flipping back through previous Kickstarter updates while installing the game it seems the launch back in October may have been a touch rocky, with the disappointment of some fans reflected in numerous negative Steam reviews. Again I’ve only played a couple of missions so far, it seems solid enough without being exceptional, worthy enough of spending a bit more time with at least; from a brief glance at the comments in Steam a frequent complaint seemed to be that it didn’t feel like a Jagged Alliance game, so perhaps not having those expectations gives a slightly different perspective on things. I gather there’s also been an update or two since launch, which may have helped.

Elsewhere, over on Massively Overpowered (itself a crowdfunded reboot from the ashes of Massively), I spotted a piece about Warhammer 40,000: Eternal Crusade planning on launching early access this Autumn to paid founders. I vaguely remember talk of a 40k MMO years back, I’m not sure if Eternal Crusade is the same project after numerous iterations or something entirely unrelated, but the pitch is a massive online third-person shooter with guns n’ swords n’ tanks n’ stuff. Sounds like fun, and I do have a soft spot for the old Warty Thou universe. The business model is a mix of money and points and packs and items and this and that; standard, isn’t it? Isn’t it though. Slightly more unusual is the idea of “Free to WAAAGH!”; you can pay to unlock Space Marines, Chaos Marines or Eldar, or play Orks for free. Seems like a nice way of representing the “quantity has a quality all of its own” spirit of Ork armies, if the balancing works out. Founders Packs are on sale, starting at a fairly pricey $40 and going up to obligatory eye-watering levels like the $450 (with 15% saving!!1!) Xenos Pack. The lowest price pack comes with 40,000 points (some sort of space currency, I gather), which sounds like a lot, but as Eddie Izzard observed of food labels, really needs a frame of reference (“I see this has 0.02 milligrams of sodium… is that a lot? Too much? Not enough? Am I going to explode in water?”) Talking to Melmoth, I worried that things were headed for the MMO version of Weimar Hyperinflation, where you pitch up to a virtual vendor with an online wheelbarrow loaded with digital banknotes, and, as he put it:
“I’ve got 20 million flingy-bongs, what can I get?!”
“Half an eyepatch.”
“Half an eyepatch?”
“This bit of string here. There you go. Save up, and one day you might be able to afford a gun, yours for only 10.9e1000e000 thrumpty-bings[1]!”
[1] 1 thrumpty-bing = 10e189 flingy-bongs

Anyway, debates over the merits and ethics of pre-orders and founders offers and what-not will doubtless continue to rage as bitterly as ever; there are strong arguments for waiting for official release and reviews (and indeed giving a game a few months after that for the worst of the launch bugs to be patched out; Van Hemlock’s three month rule, as mentioned on some of the earliest posts here from 2008, still holds as true as ever). There are also compelling arguments in favour of early access, when done well (just as with business models, nuclear physics, and so much else, they can be used for both good and evil). With all sorts of tempting booty in pre-launch/Kickstarter packs, from a discounted price to exclusive items, it’s essentially a gamble: for a pre-order/Kickstarter pledge of £x, will you get £x-worth of fun out of a game (itself rather a hard thing to measure, even using the Sherbet Dip-Dab scale)? If “yes”, and said amount of fun would have cost £y (where y>x) or not been possible at all without the pre-order, you win! If “no” (or “yes” where y<x), better luck next time. I don’t usually go in for betting, even random real-money lockboxes in other games, but if a game looks promising I don’t mind taking a punt and rolling the dice of pre-order, so come on Eternal Crusade, come up sixes!