Earlier this week we introduced the staggeringly popular Kickstarter campaign for upcoming MMORPG, Ashes of Creation. The project has won the hearts and dollars of over 7K backers. It had already raised roughly $1,296,200 when I wrote this article. If you haven’t checked it out yet, you should because it’s kind of a big deal in the MMO community. That said, there has been some murmurings in the community concerning Intrepid Studios’ marketing approach for the project.
Intrepid Studios started in 2015. Lead by Creative Director, Steven Sharif, the campaign claims the team is made up of MMO industry veterans with over 40 years of experience between them. When a thread was posted on Reddit questioning the teams credentials, Sharif was quick to step in and set the record straight.
Since, by his own admission, Sharif didn’t come from an industry background, the Matlock’s of the internet did some additional digging. On the MMORPG.com forums, user PottedPlant22 revealed that Sharif’s previous work history includes time at a multi-level marketing company, XanGo. MLM companies are historically sketchy for their pyramid scheme business practices. XanGo was no exception with a history of false advertising claims and litigation over its business practices.
Questionable Marketing Tactics
The reason this has raised red flags for some users is because Ashes of Creation offers it’s players access to a referral program. The program earns participants “Intrepid Bucks.” They can use this “currency” to offset subscription costs, purchase in-game cosmetic items, or even have it paid out as “Cash Rewards… redeemed quarterly… after Ashes of Creation has officially launched.”
The program is detailed on the Ashes of Creation webpage. Here, players sign up to become “affiliates” and receive a unique referral code. This code is then used to recruit additional users with the affiliate receiving 15% of not only their own purchases, but also the purchases of everyone who signed up using their unique link. Sound familiar?
Nothing To See Here, Really
Fortunately, the website is quick to point out that this is in no way a pyramid scheme. “Our referral program rewards you for bringing in customers of our product Ashes of Creation, similar to a simple affiliate program, like Amazon. Furthermore, it requires no investment on the part of the referrer to participate. Also, there is no upward flow of rewards. It is quite literally the opposite of a pyramid.”
They aren’t wrong. Players don’t have to pay to join the program. Yet, the whole plan relies on selling players on the idea of earning 15% of “account purchases.” If nobody spends money then nobody can cash in on the rewards. Isn’t it a bit sketchy to promise rewards that you don’t really expect anyone to earn?
The defense that there is no upward flow of rewards is also a bit misleading. Intrepid does benefit from the program through increased advertising and eventually sales. In fact, they may be the only ones who benefit. They make their money directly through the playerbase and not individual referrers. It doesn’t matter to them where players come from as long as they buy the product.
Of course, this is how every developer makes money. Also, unlike in true MLM business practices nobody is going to lose money trying to get their friends to play Ashes of Creation. So, why have a monetary-based referral program anyway?
Incentives For Enthusiasm
“The system is designed to help get the word out for Ashes of Creation, as well as avoid spending the millions that large publishers spend on advertising. We firmly believe that the players are what build a community for MMORPGs, and to us, it only makes sense that players should be rewarded for what they already do!”
Intrepid may be onto something here. Not only was the campaign funded at a blistering pace, but pledges continue to pour in to unlock stretch goals. Referral program or no, fans have definitely been spreading the word about Ashes of Creation. Its reception has been everything any indie developer could ever hope for, especially in the community driven MMO genre.
That’s A Problem For Another Day (Year)
Even so, I’d be curious to see how this system plays out in the long-term. The campaign estimates delivery of the project as early as December 2018. In theory this is when affiliates would begin to earn 15% on account purchases. Factoring in the estimated 30 day fulfillment period for rewards, players may not see any payoffs until at least 2019, if at all.
Ashes of Creation looks like a great game, but its marketing practices raise red flags that backers shouldn’t completely overlook. At the very least, don’t start planning how you’ll spend your Intrepid Bucks just yet.