Sunday, May 2, 2021

Truth In Advertising

Four years ago to this very day, the Ashes of Creation Kickstarter campaign began. Within twenty-four hours it had fully funded. A month later it came to a highly successful conclusion. Having asked for three-quarters of a million dollars to "expand our scope and give our team flexibility and room to breathe" (they already had "private backing that will allow us to produce a core viable product"), Intrepid Studios pulled in more than $3m from nearly twenty thousand backers.

I was one of them. I paid $40 each for two Settler packages, one for me and one for Mrs Bhagpuss. I know I paid forty dollars because I still have the email with the virtual receipt. 

I must have been the earliest of birds because the historic Kickstarter page shows the actual "Early Bird" Settler pack going for $45. When the first thousand of those were gone, the price went up to $50, whereupon more than two and half thousand people piled on before the shutters came down.

You have to be fast with these things, apparently. You can't afford to hang around. Well, I guess you could. There are always those catch-up promotions some Kickstarted projects run, repeatedly, after the official campaign closes. Just don't rely on getting the same value for money. ("Value for money" does not imply actual value. Although it does imply actual money.)

Both my decision to back the game and my choice of pledge were pragmatic. I don't regret either. Based on the people involved and the game they proposed to make, I knew I'd certainly want to play it when it launched. I also like to play games in mid-to-late beta, when there's a game there to play but things are still in some state of flux, so it made sense to buy in when that was an option.

Kickstarter called it a pledge but in my mind it was a pre-order. For slightly less than the anticipated cost of the full game on release I'd get a copy of the game itself, an extra months' subscription time (two months altogether) and a few in-game perks. It seemed a reasonable deal.


Had I been both wildly optimistic about the game and desperate to play it at the earliest possible opportunity, I could have gone for the $500 "Braver of Worlds" package (only $485 if I'd snatched the Early Bird deal). That came with not only a guaranteed invite to Alpha 1 ("Earliest Access to Ashes!") and a ton of in-game exclusives but most importantly a Lifetime Subscription.

Lifetime Subs have acquired something of a mixed reputation over the years. If the stars align they can be very worthwhile. So long as you remain interested in playing a game for long enough and the servers stay up and the company behind it doesn't decide to change the payment model, you could end up saving (or at least not spending) hundreds, even thousands of dollars.

On the other hand, if you lose interest after a few months or it converts to free-to-play or even sunsets after a year or two, you could end up out of pocket and out of sorts, angry with the bastards who ripped you off or, worse, angry with yourself for being such a dingus.

Still, $500 for a lifetime subscription to a game that's presumably going to charge at least a hundred dollars a year for the cheapest membership package isn't crazy. I pay around a hundred dollars a year for my Daybreak All Access sub and I've been doing it for easily a decade and a half. A five hundred dollar lump sum in 2004 would have saved me a small fortune.

Would you still pay that $500 for something like the Braver of Worlds package if it didn't include a lifetime sub, though? That's not a rhetorical question. If you feel you'd like to stump up half a grand to see Ashes of Creation in its earliest publicly-available build, well you can.

The full details of the buy-in are due to be released tomorrow but if you want to hear the basics, Community Marketing Lead Margaret Krohn and head honcho (okay, "Creative Director") Steven Sharif talk about it briefly from around 4.35 in this YouTube edit of the Twitch livestream:

Sharif  goes out of his way to make the point that "this is a true developmental alpha". He doubles down on that, saying "Do not purchase this package if you are looking to play a game. If you are looking to play Ashes of Creation you should not be purchasing an alpha one package". He then goes on to explain, in some detail, the expected role of a volunteer tester. And he's quite strict about it. He actually calls it a "stern warning" and it kind of is.

What's even more surprising is the interruption from Margaret Krohn, who cuts Sharif off at one point to embark on a mini-rant about how people shouldn't even buy the regular cosmetic packages "if you're not sure and you're not interested". She explains at some length that the cosmetic items people are paying for are the same ones already being developed as part of the normal process of making the game and that they'll be used on NPCs all over the world.

"Don't buy the packages!" she says, with some animation, waving her hand in a way that clearly indicates forbiddance. It's strange to watch. At one point Sharif laughs out loud, saying "I know it's weird. You've probably never heard a company tell you not to do this." It's as though he's just realised what he's saying and can hardly believe it himself.

He's right. It is weird. But then, the whole thing's weird, the whole bizarre development and funding process we've all come to expect and accept, however grudgingly, these last few years. Sharif is as clear as he can be that all of this is what companies have to do to raise money to make games. Not the only thing, but one of the significant and important ones.

The MassivelyOP thread is typically conflicted. Some commenters think people should be allowed to spend their money however they like. Some think the whole thing stinks. I dropped in to comment that I can't see what's new about any of it. And I can't. Which isn't to say I'm comfortable with it. I just know I've seen it all before.

I remember back in the eighties sitting in pubs chatting to friends who were thinking of paying significant sums to go on "holiday" to farms where they'd do all the regular chores for a couple of weeks. They'd effectively live the life of a farm laborer and pay the owner of the farm for the privilege. I've also known people sign on to act as crew on sailing yachts in the Mediterranean - not as paid employees but as paying guests... guests who do most of the work.

I've always found this sort of thing a peculiar choice. It wouldn't be mine. Even so, I don't have any trouble seeing why and how these kinds of activities can be something that both sides find acceptable. 

There are plenty of socio-political arguments to be had concerning the implications and effects of such arrangements, how they affect the economic viability of third parties who might otherwise rely on the work now being done by affluent volunteers, how it changes the understanding of the concept of paid labor within society, all that fun stuff. Those, by and large, aren't the arguments I'm seeing on forums when this kind of thing crops up.

Mostly it's a stand off between those who feel they have the right to spend their money how they damn well please and those who have their hackles up because someone's getting scammed. Who, exactly, is getting scammed is never quite clear. Certainly, the people complaining about it aren't. They're the last ones likely to be paying anyone anything.

The big fish in this pond is Star Citizen, of course. My not-so-very considered take on SC is that the pre-game there is the game. People are effectively buying and collecting virtual toys. Whether there's ever a virtual playground to play with them in doesn't really come into it.

In the case of Ashes of Creation, it's pretty plain that no-one's getting conned. When the guy selling you snake oil says "Don't buy this jar of snake oil unless you want some snake oil" you can hardly come back later and complain "Hey! You sold me snake oil!". At this point in development everyone on both sides seems determined to make it all absolutely clear. The terms and conditions are laid out for everyone to see.

It's a pity the same didn't apply to  the original Kickstarter campaign. Or, indeed, any Kickstarter campaign.

My credit card was charged $40 for my pledge in June 2017. My virtual receipt clearly states: "Estimated Delivery: Dec 2018". Soon, maybe tomorrow, for $500 you'll be able to buy in to the first public alpha of the game that was estimated to launch (or at least go into late beta) more than two years ago . Maybe you'll even get an estimated delivery date. I wouldn't book any time off work.

I still don't regret backing Ashes of Creation. I'm still interested in playing it, just not as interested as I was four years ago when I thought I'd be playing it in a year and half. Not that I really thought that. I know how long AAA mmorpgs take to build and it's not any eighteen months.

What I don't get is why developers can't just say that. If my pledge had come with an Estimated Delivery of December 2021 or even December 2022, I'd still have signed up. I can wait. I can deal with deferred gratification. I'm not a child.

So why treat me like one?

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