What makes a good founder’s program?

The ‘buy your way into beta’ or ‘crowd-funding’ or ‘founders programs’ out there are quickly becoming a norm. For the sake of this post let’s call all of them founders programs.   I have purchased several of them.  Personally, I do not think they are necessarily a bad concept when handled properly.

These founders programs can get expensive.  I’ve paid $10, $20, $40, $50, $100 for them.  I’ve even supported some games as a founder that I think are still three years away, and I supported them over a year ago!  How much is too much?  Realistically, I have yet to see a founders program show me a true return on the investment.  I give the money in exchange for access, which I suppose has a qualitative value.  I give the money to support a team or IP (which I suppose also has an odd sort of value to it).  I give in exchange for trinkets, tchochkes, baubles, etc., that I use for probably 5 minutes in-game then replace or put in my bank because I feel too guilty to delete them.

What games should, realistically, have founders programs?  The business side can argue any of them when players are willing to pay money today for a game tomorrow.  It’s finance 101.  But should they?  The consumer advocate in me wants to say that sometimes it’s not always a good idea to take money from people so quickly.

Let’s look at an example of a good founder’s program.  This has nothing to do with the game itself being good, bad, or the final product being worth the money. I simply like how they handled their program.

Landmark

The founding price was a hefty $100, but let’s look at the process.  The game truly was in development for the entirety of the earlier phase of the program, and still is to this very day.  Many of the core features are still not in the game.  Every week the developers go on camera and discuss how the founders themselves have influenced the direction of development. Players are finding new ways of playing the game that the developers never considered or thought impossible.

Landmark is becoming (hopefully) a better game because the founders were able to participate.  The cost of admission has yielded months of play, tons of insight into the game’s development, and access to a great community.  Those who payed the founding price were sold on the idea of being part of the development process and the devs delivered.

I could go into examples of bad founder’s programs, but I’m not in the mood to knock people down this early in the morning.  I think you guys are smart cookies and can take the above example and weigh it against other programs in the past, present, and future to decide what you feel is ‘good’.  In the end, the topic is highly subjective.

A good founder’s program should:

  • Bring people into the program early and allow them them to influence or truly found the game in some way
  • Not be just about getting access to a highly publicized beta
  • Develop a community around the founders to create that sense of a club, fellowship, or belonging
  • Offer something of value to the founder, but, after the game has released, not create a sense of have and have not between founders and those who would not or could not buy into the program
  • Involve developer participation, open channels of communication, and have a respectable feedback system

I think the next few years are going to see a lot of programs for players to buy in early.  How the developers handle these programs will most definitely leave a lasting mark on their final product.  There’s a huge opportunity for these companies to gain access to funding they need, all the while making their games better as a result.

  • And, ideally, a founders program should not create an entrenched, entitled group of players who end up complaining loudly after launch about how much better things were during beta.

    Not sure that is possible though.

  • @Wilhelm I don’t think that’s necessarily an issue with Founder’s Programs specifically. A good example of something similar without any such program was FFXIV (the first time around). A friend of mine had been giving feedback on the Beta forums, panning the UI and responsiveness, and he was effectively booed out of their by the super fans who thought Square Enix could do no wrong. We all saw how that turned out.

    I think your concern over the entrenched entitled group of players is absolutely real. It happens. I just think that it has little to do with whether you pay for your Beta access or not.

  • The way to avoid beta players complaining that an MMO was better in beta is to launch a game that is better after launch than it was in beta. In my experience this seems to be something beyond most developers. It’s not about entitlement so much as it’s about devs never knowing when to stop sawing the legs off the table.

  • I am very particular about what types of projects I will support in an early access or founders sort of way. For me I want no part of a story driven game until it is polished and the creators think it is ready to be experienced by the players. On the other hand I have no issue with buying in early, especially if it is at a discounted price, to a game that is more of a sandbox or creative experience. Games like Minecraft, 7 Days to Die, Project Zomboid, Landmark… those are games I can drop in and play for a few days at a time when things have progressed then leave and come back a month later and still enjoy myself. The only time I will back a game that is more story driven is when I am very confident that I am going to pull the trigger and buy it at release anyway so I will act to get the discount. Shadowrun Returns, Wasteland 2, Chasm… these are games I am interested enough in and have followed closely enough to know I was going to buy them anyway so I made the purchase.

  • I am in the minority opinion on this one. I have never participated in a Beta and will definitely never pay $ to participate in a Beta. I have two reasons for this. If it is a game that I know I want, I want to have that first day excitement. When everyone is logging in and trying to figure out the game. I want to be surprised. The second reason is that you are doing the programmer’s job. They are asking you do find the bugs and errors and report it into them. I get the idea that because of the numbers needed to really test a game, the programmer’s/developers can not do it all themselves. I really feel they should be rewarding you in some way for helping them out rather than have the balls to actually charge you to do it. To me, it is perfect example of double dipping. We are not going to hire anyone to do it and we are going to charge the public to do it for us.

    Topauz

  • I disagree with the landmark model being good simply because the game itself is going to be free yet they asked such a high price to alpha it, the only reason it did so well was because of the minecraft-style hype/lack of other things on the market

    I personally am not a big fan of indie or even small but professional dev’s doing a buy in early access because it dose feel a lot of times that they just get the money and run, which makes sense since most people who would buy the game seem to buy it in early access, so the dev’s can get their money without the work

    Unfortunately, the big ragefest at blizzard for not giving everyone beta keys for hearthstone (people were screaming blue murder and flooding every form of comment and posting available on the internet) and other people selling keys for HUGE sums has clearly shown that pay to test is going to be the new normal.

    Thanks blizz.. gawd
    😉

  • Landmark is a good example of an exploitive founder’s program, but then again if a consumer doesn’t feel exploited by it, have they been exploited? One’s perception is their personal reality.

    Why do I consider Landmark exploitive? SOE’s Landmark founder’s program is a conglomeration of a variety of monetization tactics that may hold validity in certain scenarios but in their context is a disingenuous cash grab.

    First and foremost we cannot lose sight that this is not a small indie developer whose next paycheck is dependent upon the progress of kickstart monies. The concept of asking the most fervent of the game’s early adopters to pay real money to further the progress of a AAA game preys upon their genuine excitement and willingness to improve the game through early play testing. It is at this point one should ask why it is necessary to pay to playtest a AAA developer’s product, couldn’t I help out without getting charged for my efforts? The answer is yes, and the reason is that they are exploiting the opportunity to monetize your heightened enthusiasm level. Here is where SOE purposely blurs the lines between established indie monetization methods that we accept out of necessity on a semi-charitable, feel good basis, and misapply it to a mega-corporation as if they need grassroots bake sales to further development. The bottom line answer to the question why am I paying money to SOE to help alpha test their game is because they know they can monetize my enthusiasm, no other reason.

    A second related question is why am I paying money to the SOE corporation to playtest a free to play game that will have a free beta? Charging someone for something that will be free is a priori exploitive, no further analysis is needed.

    A third point again blurring the lines between acceptable and exploitive monetization is the amount charged for alpha access. Even though I still think SOE is being exploitive for charging anything for alpha access for reasons described previously, they could have snuck under the radar by charging a nominal fee, say $20; instead they pushed the limits and had their most dedicated fans pay $60 – $100, ridiculous amounts for a free to play game with a free to play beta.

    A fourth issue is what one is getting out of the $60 – $100 early entrance fee. SOE could have justifiably charged premium rates for early access to a free to play game if they had these fees be credited toward future purchases in the cash shop. After all it isn’t that they would have to order more virtual items from a virtual sweatshop in virtual SE Asia. A $100 credit to be used in their cash shop plus a few bonus founder items for early adoption would have made the whole process reasonable for everyone concerned. Why didn’t they do this, because that would be less money that they could extract from the early adopters later in the process.

    Accepting such exploitive practices by AAA corporations sets precedents for future game development and as such should not be supported.

  • I think a lot depends on what you like. I just spent $150 to become a Master Founder on Orcs Must Die Unchained. Why?

    1. An Orcs Must Die MOBA has been something I have wanted a LONG time. Mix in Hearthstone Card collecting…Oh My Hell Yes!
    2. I felt the value was good. Yes it was $150, but I receive $200 in game currency when it’s released, Extra Heroes, Skins, plus a lot of Steam codes for their other games and other stuff.
    3. It’s been a ton of fun helping to contribute to a game that I already enjoy the hell out of. The developers are always talking with us in game and in forums. It’s just fun being in the community with folks that all love the game and want to see it succeed.
    4. Because I love Robot and I love the games they make and I want to support it. Same reason why I have donated here on a few occasions.

    If a company offers something that you like and you feel like it’s worth what they are asking, I don’t see any reason for not supporting them.

  • @Gankatron
    I was recently at a panel at PAX East where some MMO folks were talking about the future of MMOs, including Dave Georgeson, the Director of Development for Landmark. (http://talarian.blogspot.com/2014/04/pax-east-2014-next-generation-mmo.html)

    The concept of the Founder’s Packs came up, and he made it clear that the Founder’s Packs were nowhere near the level of funding required to make a dent in the development costs.

    According to Mr. Georgeson, the idea behind a prohibitive cost was a barrier to trolls. The only people who are going to pay $100 to get into an alpha are the folks who are really excited about the game, and want to actually contribute and provide feedback to the developers. They’re effectively buying in to help shape the game. By providing things like cash shop incentives down the road, it would actually *weaken* this particular point, as then you’re just investing early.

  • Then perhaps the Sony Corporation will give it back after the alpha is over? 😉

    Thanks for the link and providing the Devil’s advocate position. Please realize that all following sarcasm is not directed to you the messenger but to the guys in the SOE marketing, PR, and higher administrative departments for their intellectually demeaning spin on their monetization tactics.

    The argument that charging a prohibitively large amount of money from an individual’s perspective as a punitive disincentive somehow doesn’t make me look at the act more favorably, even less so if the developer says that amount of cash doesn’t matter to their corporation.

    Every bit of money earned is important to a corporation if it comes with no strings attached.

    That argument is fallacious until they make a big post-alpha announcement that they are refunding the cost back to all founder’s; when they do this then Mr. Georgeson will have made a valid point.

    After all if the money taken in is trifling from SOE’s perspective and their supposed goal of screening out all but the most enthusiastic players has been achieved, what better way to reward their playtesters?

    Let us wait and see if this occurs. My guess is that money will be absorbed into their corporation never to be seen again.

    Moreover if that is true why then 2 levels of founder packs, $60 and $100? Perhaps to run metrics on the very serious versus semi-seriously invested playtesters? Yes, more sarcasm…

    No, I imagine the marketing team gathered around and thought realistically how much can we charge for this alpha considering it is for a F2P game, came up with a standard box price of $60, and decided to add an additional level to hook whales who would be willing to go even higher.

    These kind of corporate ‘living the lie’ PR events disgust me as they play on the naivety of their consumer base. A corporation tells players that the money from the alpha doesn’t matter to them, but they felt obliged to charge it (at multiple founder cost levels) for the betterment of the community of testers. Hold on for a second please, I have to wipe away the tears of bittersweet joy from my eyes as I know how difficult a decision this must have been for them…

    OK I’m back.

    Please don’t fall for this, and please in the future don’t support such money grabbing tactics unless that is the monetized dystopian future of gaming you wish to help (de-)construct.

    “Corporation, n. An ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility.” ― Ambrose Bierce

  • “I work for the company. But don’t let that fool you, I’m really an okay guy.” -Carter Burke, Aliens.

    It really is not relevant aside from mention of a corporation and profit… and I love Aliens

  • “sigh” founder’s programs.

    They can be a good deal or they can be a pitfall.
    Yet you never know in advance.

    My pitfall has been mechwarrior online.
    The beta was actually more fun then where the game is at right now.
    After every update it just got worse of a game.

    My top picks of founder programs I have bought into would be world of tanks (aww man you can almost smell the envy when I ride around in my A32 light scout tank. People in chat: What is an A32? Or it has been a long time I seen it.)
    And smite also felt like a really good deal.

    I am still open to founder packs, but I am skeptical these days.
    If the offering is sweet (recently founder packs of games have been bare minimal)
    And I have full confidence that the game would be fun and stays fun for quite some time.

    As a last point I would like to tell that the kind of early access pay for beta deals are NOT founder’s packs.
    A founder’s pack might have beta access included, but should always be a sweet deal for those that buy it. Those customers give the game developers their trust and that should be rewarded.

    Oh and Keen. I think i remember you bought into the marvel heroes game.
    I tried it recently again. It has improved quite some.
    There is still something missing for me, but its a better experience then back when it launched.

  • Yeah I did buy into Marvel. It was such a letdown at launch. People keep telling me it has improved so much. I’m definitely going to revisit it.

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