A Critical Look at Brad McQuaids Pantheon
Recently Brad McQuaid formed a new company named Visionary Realms, Inc. For those who played previous games involving McQuaid, the name seems immensely appropriate, because games like EverQuest and Vanguard have been milestones in the MMO genre. Now that visionary of old is working on a new game and once more demonstrating the wild creativity hes become known for.
Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen has just less than a month left in the Kickstarter campaign, and I expect a number of people are debating on whether to contribute or not. I do have a few concerns that Ill go through with you today, but then well also discuss some historical examples that may provide some mitigation. There are also some very strong points for Pantheon and the team behind it that well take a look at, as well.
Danger, Will Robinson!
Ive covered a few Kickstarters over the past few years, and there are some things unique to this funding model that I think need to be considered. Some of them form the reasons for my concerns with the new Pantheon Kickstarter campaign. As I mentioned in another article on how Star Citizen's crowdfunding campaign was changing the funding model for a lot of future games, there are some very specific things to look for which Pantheon has failed to provide.
First on the list is realistic funding goals. McQuaid is calling Pantheon funded at just shy of $1 million, a mere pittance compared to the $20 million that Chris Roberts said hed need to make Star Citizen. Since modern triple-A titles often run closer to $40 million, it doesnt seem feasible on the surface, even for a master of creative-thinking like McQuaid.
Another problem I have with the crowd funding campaign for this game is that theres a distinct lack of alpha footage. There are several screenshots posted, but I dont think that cuts it for a game attempting to take advantage of a Kickstarter campaign. A solid look at alpha gameplay is how we potential backers can determine how feasible a game is. For instance, Chris Roberts and Richard Garriott showed us videos of basic game mechanics already working, where Chris Taylors hand-drawn sketches for the failed Wildman didnt inspire nearly as much confidence.
Theres also the small problem of pace of pledging. If pledging continues at the current rate, Pantheon will miss their funding goal. Theyll fall about 10% short of the $800,000 theyre asking for. Theyve even reported a day of negative pledges according to Kicktraq, a website that tracks statistics for Kickstarter projects.
So what we see with Pantheon is a game that on the surface appears to fail in two major ways. By not showing any alpha gameplay video they leave serious doubts with whether what theyre attempting to do can be done or not. Combine that with the rather measly funding goal that in no way gets them nearly enough cash to fund as many developers as they have, much less what theyd need to build a game the size of what theyre proposing, and you have to have a few concerns.
All component parts are functioning normally, Master.
The news isnt all bad for Pantheon, however. There have been enough recent examples of larger games beginning through a Kickstarter campaign that we can draw a few helpful conclusions. The primary of such is that tracking the pledge trending for this sort of project probably isnt that great of a predictor unless one accounts for a likely spike at the end.
Star Citizen pulled in nearly 25% of their Kickstarter-generated funding within the last few days of the campaign, a pattern that Shroud of the Avatar followed a few months later. I put Brad McQuaid in a similar mold as Richard and Chris. There are devs who are known in the industry to be great, and then there are some like Brad who have transcended that barrier and become sort of an icon in their own right. Based on what weve seen in the past, that tends to translate into a last-minute run at the campaign to get it over the top.
Garriott and Roberts also serve as examples for why the marks against Pantheon may not be as bad as they appear in another way. The campaign for Shroud of the Avatar was funded at $1 million, only $200,000 more than Brads asking for to get Pantheon going. While I dont remember seeing anything official about it, I think we can make a really good guess why its not the problem it seems, and Chris Roberts actually has spoken a number of times about it.
The reason is venture capitalists, those investors looking to expand their portfolios beyond stocks and real-estate. Roberts has remarked more than once on how he had every intention of pulling in VCs for Star Citizen before crowd funding pulled in nearly double the amount he needed for the whole game. I suspect something similar is how Shroud managed with such a low initial goal and how McQuaid expects to fund the rest of Pantheon, and the Kickstarter is as much market study as initial funding.
No disassemble Number Five!
There are the historical examples that mitigate some of the concerns for Pantheon, but there are other things as well. Things that the team itself brings to the table. One thing every successfully crowd-funded AAA title has brought, was a core cadre of experienced developers. This and the access to venture capitalists are the two main things the bigger games have over their more indie cousins.
When a no-name programmer tries to fund a game through Kickstarter, they have an up-hill battle to prove themselves to backers. With teams like the one Brad assembled in Visionary Realms, we have people who have proven that they have the skills and experience to do what they say they can. Innovation without experience in execution can often be deadly.
Pantheon boasts a team of experienced developers who should fill all those gaps an indie developer is missing. The list of current team members is a list of people who understand how to make games, and more importantly they understand the business of making games. Its a team that can hire in new talent once theyve been funded and that has the experience in the relevant tools to train them where needed.
One other obvious indication of their experience is that they already have a public relations manager on the team. Like soundtracks, PR is something often overlooked that can make all the difference between success and failure. Public relations folks tend to get a bad rap, but the truth is that educating the world about what a development team is attempting to do can be a very difficult undertaking.
Its even harder when dealing with creative types like Brad McQuaid because of how easily great ideas can sound untenable if someone isnt paying attention and ensuring everything is explained well. Hiring a specific person to handle those sorts of details shows a great deal of maturity by Visionary Realms. The proof of that smart move is in all the high-profile reviews and news coverage the game has gotten since it was announced.
I'd make a suggestion, but you wouldn't listen.
No one ever does.
So after all that, would I pledge to the project? Yes, I would, but you need to make up your own mind about it. Everything I see suggests that this is a game managed by experienced developers who I have every reason to believe will be capable of producing what they say they can. That said, the lack of early gameplay footage disturbs me more than a little. Also, while its typically a warning sign, I dont think the funding is an issue because I seriously doubt the amount they get from Kickstarter campaign is their sole source of startup capital for this project.
The main reason I personally would support Pantheon is because I think Brad McQuaid is one of those rare individuals who has the creativity to be truly innovative while also possessing the experience to realize his ideas. Supporting cool ideas and having a hand in pushing innovation forward is what Kickstarter is all about, and thats the sort of thing that I enjoy supporting.
I do think that Pantheon faces an uphill battle in much the same way that Shroud of the Avatar does by targeting an already over-saturated market. If they deliver something truly innovative though, perhaps they can turn it into a target-rich environment instead. Its way too early to say for sure, but for a few bucks, Im pretty happy to let them try.