In a world flooded with indie and AAA titles alike, one gamer seeks to sort out the good from bad. Her paycheck comes bi-weekly, her free hours after work limited. What will she choose to spend her hard-earned money and precious free-time on? A thick cloud of gaming press, trade show news, demos, and trailers all obscure the battleground. There are no clear decisions. The tantalizing hype train invites her for a ride, but at a high cost. Will she buy the one-way ticket? And if she isn’t deposited where they promised, what’s she to do then?

With crowd-funding platforms reaching saturation, early-access close behind, and pre-ordering now common practice for AAA games, telling the good eggs from bad is nigh on Mission Impossible. There are so many different funding models that it can be unclear what you’re paying for. Unlike books, movies, and other traditional media, games do not exist in the same static state in which they are released. The Day One Patch has become best practice rather than an embarrassment, free and paid DLCs expected, and quality of life patches often a must. When the product you pay for has so much potential to change over its lifetime, it’s very important for consumers—because we are now more than gamers, we are consumers of a very big-budget industry—to understand the nuances of what we’re buying.

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I want to break down a few recent examples of gamers being collectively burned by spending money on a game. My hope is that in examining what we believed we were throwing money at compared with the popular trends in each funding model—we can all better understand what it means to buy a game these days.

Ant Simulator

Ant Simulator is a particularly embarrassing and disheartening example of what can go wrong in a crowd-funding campaign. Riding the cultish tidal wave of animal sim games, Ant Simulator was slated to bring gamers exactly what it sounds like, the quirky simulation of life as an ant. Although the game was not truly funded on Kickstarter, the company ran an unrelated Kickstarter campaign for creating game development tutorials. When the news that Ant Simulator would be cancelled dropped, the prior campaign briefly confused coverage on the issue. Development of the game appeared to actually have been funded by the creators’ personal funds and by pre-order sales. Based on how everything went down, I think even the pre-order process sounds more like it would be spent on continued development.

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A semantic difference: pre-ordering is paying for a game prior to release which is already near the end of development and/or already otherwise funded to completion. Crowd-funding is any method of accepting money from consumers to begin or continue development of a product, even if the funders are rewarded with a copy of the game at release time.

The long and short of the story is that Ant Simulator’s main developer was bamboozled by his business partners, who legally protected themselves by being “consultants” on the project and later using their access to funds to pay for partying, alcohol, and entertainment. Needless to say, Ant Simulator was cancelled when the developer found out that the rug had been ripped out from under his feet.

Crowd-funding is a tricky beast, if for no other reason than the extreme variety of projects that get proposed on various platforms. For game projects, more specifically video game projects (as opposed to board and card games), it’s often unclear what you’re actually paying for. There are a lot of expenses that go into the development of a game. What a developer will be using crowd-sourced funds for largely depends on the current stage of the project. Campaign funds could be spent on licenses for professional software, contracting outside artists to produce content for the game, and even keeping a roof over the developer’s head until release. A good project will outline all the expenses for development and how the money is slated to be spent. Despite that, there are always unforeseen challenges in developing a game and even the best of projects likely do not adhere strictly to the original budget.

So what is it that you as a consumer are actually buying? The game isn’t completed yet. There is no distinct product to receive in return. You have an expectation of the final product based on the pitch, concept art, or trailers, but the game itself is fluid and subject to change. The bottom line with Kickstarter, indigogo, and any platforms like them, is that you’re buying hope. Kickstarter provides certain guidelines for campaigns but very little accountability for campaigners or protection for backers. These are platforms where you buy a promise for the future from someone who you believe can carry it out.

H1Z1

H1Z1 is a zombie-apocalypse game with heavy survival elements and a crafting system. When first released to early access, the game was intended to be a server-based survival game with PvP elements. Servers were quickly overrun with bots and clans, forcing Daybreak Studios into a long campaign fighting against illegitimate accounts. Not long after, the Battle Royale game mode was introduced and rose like a phoenix from the ashes of buggy and frustrating server play. Battle Royale, unlike the original game mode is entirely PvP based with most of the survival elements rendered inconsequential. Daybreak continued the façade of supporting both game modes for months, even as Battle Royale eclipsed the popularity of server play entirely, becoming the main draw to the game for many new players.

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In February 2016, Daybreak made the controversial announcement that they would be separating the two modes into different games, H1Z1: Just Survive and H1Z1: King of the Kill. Players who owned the original game would be given automatic access to both, while new players would have to buy each separately. Although Just Survive has a dedicated team within Daybreak, it’s clear that the survival game mode is being quietly excommunicated from the family as if it were KotK’s deadbeat older brother. You’ll notice if you go to https://www.h1z1.com it redirects to https://www.h1z1.com/king-of-the-kill/home. The proof is in the pudding, as they say. It comes as no surprise that players who bought into the game initially with interest in the survival aspect of the game were disappointed, if not irate.

Early access programs, unlike crowd-funding, actually involve the exchange of money for an existing product. The product may be as little as a demo, or as much as the beta version of a game. Again, there’s a difference between what your money buys and what you’re actually paying for. In early access, your money buys you a copy of a game or a game account, for a currently existing product. Once again, the product is certain to change from the point at which you bought it to its final form. The state of the game is not what you’re paying for, although hopefully the state it’s in is entertaining enough to justify the purchase. In early access, what you’re paying for is a voice.

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Almost all games with early access programs claim to have done so because they want community involvement in development. For the developer it means an existing audience for the game even before its final release, along with an infusion of cash to continue development. For a player, it means not twiddling your thumbs until the stone is rolled away from the tomb. Ideally, you have a way to express your thoughts to the developers via forums, trello board, or other tool in order to influence the future of the game. Early access means that the developer wants your opinions. What you’re paying for is the expectation that they’ll be heard. As proven with H1Z1, having a voice is no guarantee that it will be influential. You will still be one among many. Your vision for the future of the game, no matter how objectively valid, can very well be steamrolled if your opinions are not those of the majority.

No Man’s Sky

No Man’s Sky is just the latest in high-profile examples of players being let down by pre-order promises. Hello Games found themselves in the unfortunate position of being supported and marketed by Sony. Sounds like a good deal—until it isn’t. Marketing is one of the hardest parts of releasing a game for a small indie studio. Getting a boost from a distributor or publisher can be a real leg up in development by removing the business headaches from the team’s schedule. The problem comes when the company marketing the game has a much larger name than a small studio can realistically live up to. Worse yet, when that company runs a marketing campaign the scale of which a game cannot hope to match. The unfortunate reality is that regardless of what features No Man’s Sky did or didn’t include, whether they were spot on to their trailer or no, they were destined to be the martyr for Sony’s indie-loving PR initiative.

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Although Hello Games is but a small indie shop being supported by a larger name, I think what you’re paying for vs what you’re really buying are similar to pre-ordering a AAA title. Although the scope of development is entirely different, the funding structure is largely the same. The game is announced, followed by much ooing and ahhing, the game is marketed heavily, and pre-orders are accepted for the game based on what players believe they will be getting at launch. When you pre-order a game, big budget or no, you are not exchanging money for the immediate return of an existing product. Rather, you are paying for the privilege of skipping the line on release day.

That’s what your money grants you, but what are you really buying? A pedigree and a promise. When you pre-order a game, you are paying for the promise that the end product will match what was marketed, along with the faith that the name behind the development is capable of fulfilling that promise.

#TLDR:

If this all sounds a little victim blame-y, I apologize. While fault should not fall squarely on the shoulders of gamers for being overzealous and susceptible to hype, we do have to accept a bit of responsibility. Not all developers are out to fleece consumers for their money. In fact, I’d argue that most are not. Most developers, and even the corporate suits in large studios, love gaming as much as the rest of us. These development scandals, and many other like them, are largely the product of miscommunication and changing conditions during development.

Not every project will be a winner. Not every team will be destined to succeed. There’s a statistic out there about the number of game projects which ultimately fail before fruition. I’d quote it, but I suspect it’s largely outdated. Consumers are not to blame for the failures of developers, but we do share some culpability. The more willing we are to throw cash at a fun idea without really scrutinizing the road map to release day, the more half-baked games crop up, looking to take a ride on our dime.

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The unfortunate reality is that the onus falls on us to research and vet the games we buy into these days. With so many purchasing platforms, branded launchers, crowd-funding solutions, and other tools in the market, it behooves a player to know what it is they’re really paying for. Buying a game which has already been released is exchanging money for a product. Any other transaction involving a game release is something entirely different. Buyer beware.