Looking strictly at the dollars per day it’s taken in so far, the Kickstarter for the new Brad McQuaid project Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen isn’t going to reach its funding goal of $800K. Which wouldn’t neccessarily mean the end of the project, but it would surely be a setback. On the other hand, pledging tends to increase as the end of a well-managed campaign approaches, and Pantheon’s at least pushing out lots of information. Whether the Kickstarter succeeds or not I expect that crowdfunding for the project will continue after it’s over, as is being done with Star Citizen and Shroud of the Avatar. The latter recently hit $3 million in crowdfunding, which seems like chump change compared to many MMO budgets. It’s not unreasonable to suppose that Pantheon might pull in a similar amount.

This is the sound of the drum I (and others) have been beating for a long time: nobody needs $100 million to develop a virtual world. All of the classic pre-WoW MMORPGs were developed on budgets at least an order of magnitude less than that, and they brought more innovation and novelty and immersion to the table than any of the sterile commercial properties of the last few years. Developing on $3 million is damned tight, but today there are middleware tools that a team can leverage to vastly streamline the creative process. The big one is the Unity engine: Pantheon, Shroud of the Avatar, Pathfinder Online and Project: Gorgon are all being developed on that platform.

All four are interesting projects and all are MMOs at least by the current overbroad definition. Shroud of the Avatar is the one with the closest kinship with Pantheon and is relatively far along. It and Star Citizen (also fairly far along) are promising something interesting: the ability to host the game yourself. Pantheon is also making noise in this direction; its final stretch goal, which it seems unlikely to hit even if the Kickstarter funds, includes this capability. I’d expect this kind of feature to be rather less functional than running a full-fledged MMO server from your basement workbench. But even if it has limitations more severe than I expect, something very important is brought to the table. Or perhaps more accurately taken off the table: the ability of some faceless suit to take those worlds away, forever, with the flip of a switch. The willingness of these three projects to offer that, even potentially, is very brave.

This isn’t something Pathfinder Online is promising. Which is interesting, because one of the people behind it is Ryan Dancey. In addition to a stint with CCP Dancey was the guy behind the Open Game License, which did something similar to D&D: it insulated the game from the decisions of any one corporate entity. The fruits of that are evident now; in most areas D&D’s 4th edition is considered a misfire by most and Pathfinder, essentially a refitted D&D3.5, has surpassed it in sales and visibility. Once released into the wild, the game mechanics can never be caged again, and some have taken advatage of that to use the tools provided under the PGL to build emulators of older versions of D&D. In a very real way the D&D rules are now the property of the community rather than of the company the published them.

Of course, if D&D were to go away as a living product line it would be harmful to the hobby but the immediate impact might not be much felt by individual gaming groups. Their adventures and manuals would not suddenly dissolve into dust beucaes the publisher went under or decided to cancel the line. Their campaigns might go on for years, even decades, with no new official materials. There are examples of RPGs whose communities have done exactly that.

MMORPGs are not like that. Once the provider shuts them down, that’s it — barring a laborious player effort to reverse engineer enough serverside code to run a private server of questionable legality. This has occasionally yielded something playable, but in the case of Vanguard I doubt it will happen (I’d be delighted to be proven wrong.)

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