Debunked: The strange ride of millionaire game developer Bunky Bartlett

Bunky Bartlett won the lottery. Now he's playing for even longer odds: making a successful MMO.
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Bunky Bartlett can afford to fail as a game designer. He can afford to fail because one day the state of Maryland handed him an oversized foam board check making him $27 million wealthier, after taxes. His share of the 2007 Mega Millions lottery jackpot bought the former accountant something priceless: "Winning the lottery buys you time," he often says.

With that acquired freedom and time, Bunky has indulged a variety of his interests. He likes pizza, so he bought a pizza franchise that would deliver to his sprawling estate. He likes music, so he started a record label. He is a High Priest of the Wiccan faith, so he invested in a New Age learning center and announced plans to found a spirituality center the media dubbed "Hogwarts in Maryland."

Then, in early 2012, Bunky's years spent playing World of Warcraft and Ultima Online codified into a vision for what he felt a good massively multiplayer online game (MMO) should be. Shortly after that, he heard about a website called Kickstarter that let people with ideas raise money to produce them. He set up an account and created the project funding page using his phone because he was away from home when the idea struck him. "It took forever," he admits.

Bunky raised less than two percent of his goal in the 50-day funding period. He doesn't know a single line of code, isn't an artist and doesn't consider himself a great writer. None of this has stopped Bunky Bartlett from developing a wildly ambitious MMO. At least, not yet.

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An idea man

In public exchanges with his detractors, Bunky Bartlett is consistent in his assertion that he is simply "an idea man." He doesn't claim to have expertise in any area related to making games, but he likes putting projects in motion. When his ideas don't pan out, they fall under harsh public scrutiny as byproducts of instant fortune.

The record label, KaBunk Records, floundered after releasing the studio debut of "Rock Star" contestant Dilana. Bunky's "Hogwarts" never materialized, and the New Age learning center closed down. The pizza joint, however, is still alive and well. According to an April 3, 2012 Baltimore Sun report, Bartlett estimates he "still has $15 million to $16 million left in the bank."

Bunky is an unconventional lottery winner in a number of ways. He's likely the most avid MMO player ever to hit it big playing the numbers, and possibly the first person to attribute his lottery success to a Tarot card reading. The most unusual thing about him compared to many who experience such a windfall is how openly he accepts the limelight. While many lottery winners remain shrouded in anonymity, Bunky briefly became a national story and continues to enjoy a level of local celebrity as an investor, pizza proprietor and now video game entrepreneur.

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Do not expect a horse to fly

The project is called Your World because Bunky has set out to make a game that would not only serve a large community of like-minded players, but would employ elements ofSecond Life and allow players to shape the game's world, culture, quests and gameplay.

It's hard for anyone including Bunky to talk in certain terms about the Your World game because it came to the public as a wishlist and a bag of assorted ideas. It's difficult to nail down exactly what Bunky envisions as one reads the 30 updates he posted throughout the Kickstarter campaign. Just when you think you're picturing a fantasy game, you start reading about space travel. Once you think you understand the feel of the universe he's creating, there's a reference to steampunk. It's a game that, on paper, promises to be all things to all people.

Some of his writings read like a Declaration of Independence from Blizzard and EA, denouncing AAA titles' oppressive guild banking system and level discrimination. The standalone website he set up for the project contains an 8,000 word manifesto on the mechanics of the game, from player vs. player combat to divorce proceedings. "Do not expect a horse to fly," he cautions in the section regarding mounts.

Clearly, Bunky was not following standard protocol for getting a video game made, much less a game on the scale he was talking about. He was mired in detail before he had the fundamental work done, and was doing so out in the open, which is simply how Bunky Bartlett does things.

That is not to say that Bunky did not ultimately lay out some plausible and good concepts for a game. The difference with Bunky is that your average game creator puts this stuff in a notebook and cherry picks the parts that will be functional into a design document of some kind. Bunky's project wasn't just going to be crowd funded; it was going to evolve organically based on how the crowd reacted. And did the crowd ever react.
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Massive risk

If Bunky Bartlett happened to love puzzle or fighting games, this would be a completely different story. Nothing sparks debate like an MMO in progress because it's essentially a congress of potential inhabitants telling their deity how to build a world. The medium depends, as the name implies, on a massive amount of people not only liking the game, but playing it as a regular part of their lives.

Creating and maintaining massive virtual worlds is also not cheap. In some ways, Bunky's ambitions echo those of another MMO enthusiast who famously wanted to leave his mark by making his own game. Curt Schilling racked up three World Series victories as a big league pitcher, but also shared Bartlett's proclivity for marathon EverQuest sessions. While Schilling was collecting over $100 million in salary during his 18-year baseball career, Bunky was investing his millions in real estate and pizza.

While Bunky was at home dreaming up the Your World project, Curt Schilling's employees at 38 Studios were toiling away on an MMO dubbed "Project Copernicus." Some of them were working at Big Huge Games, a subsidiary of 38 Studios, under an hour's drive from Bartlett's expansive property in rural Maryland. On the other side of the country at Electronic Arts, the blockbuster MMO Star Wars: The Old Republic reported a loss of almost a quarter of its 1.7 million subscribers. It was an eventful spring for new MMOs, to say the least.

Meanwhile, as Bartlett's Kickstarter funding cycle was drawing to a close, 38 Studios was not making payroll and in danger of defaulting on a loan from the state of Rhode Island. A couple weeks later, 38 Studios and Big Huge Games abruptly laid off all employees and shuttered their doors. By the end of May, Bunky Bartlett was making an MMORPG and Curt Schilling effectively was not. The comparisons are not lost on Bunky who, like many gamers, followed along as 38 Studios publicly unraveled. "Sure, you can run some parallels as far as [our] back story goes. But we're gonna do this gradually. I'm not a dumb guy when it comes to money and finances. My background is in accounting. I know how this works."

WHILE CURT SCHILLING WAS COLLECTING OVER $100 MILLION PLAYING BASEBALL ...

... BUNKY WAS INVESTING HIS MILLIONS IN REAL ESTATE AND PIZZA.

Coincidentally, the designer who could have been working on "Project Copernicus" ended up instead working on Your World. Ben Walsh worked at Big Huge Games and Bethesda Softworks before eventually founding Pure Bang Games, which Bunky has hired to start developing Your World. Walsh followed 38 Studios' development, its move from Massachusetts to Rhode Island, and its ill-fated attempt to create a competitor to World of Warcraft.

Walsh explains that "they just took too long, spent too much money. [Schilling] was big fan of EverQuest. He wanted to makeEverQuest. Well, EverQuest didn't take six years to make. So I don't know what he ended up trying to make, but it wasn't his original vision. I have a feeling that, like so many other companies, they got wrapped up in trying to make a WoW killer, which is like a nuclear arms race. Nobody wins, except for Blizzard." Both Bunky and Walsh are quick to point out that they aren't trying to make a WoW killer, either. Just a playable, sustainable game. Their current plans are to be free-to-play from day one, and build revenue through in-game purchases.

Put in Schilling's shoes, they are both also in agreement they wouldn't accept a $75 million dollar loan like the one 38 Studios accepted from Rhode Island. "You cannot support a team of 450 and another team of 100 with no revenue. It was a just a bad deal. It wasn't a deal that he should've taken and it wasn't a deal Rhode Island should have offered. You don't give somebody $75 million when they have no revenue," says Walsh.

The downfall of 38 Studios may serve as a cautionary tale to the next state government looking to finance a video game company, but it also says something about the nature of the game Schilling set out to make. MMOs cost exorbitant amounts of money to develop and need miracles in order to be sustainable once they're finished. Either 38 Studios didn't ask for enough money to begin with (something Bunky has been accused of), or they fantastically mismanaged the money they had (something Bunky has been accused of). Perhaps Rhode Island would've been better off just writing Curt Schilling a giant novelty-sized check like Maryland did for Bunky. Ultimately, both states have, in a roundabout way, financed as-yet-unfinished MMOs, one through a loan and one through a lottery payout.

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Hookerbots

Bartlett's inescapable fault in the public's eye as a game designer, restaurateur and businessman is that one day, in September 2007 he became an instant multi-millionaire. Everything he does for the rest of his life will be viewed through the lens of "that guy won the lottery."

Asking for the sum of $1.1 million in funding to make a beta version of his envisioned game, Bunky entered into a maelstrom of criticism, encouragement, loathing, infamy and jealousy. Within the first day of his Kickstarter page going live, Kotaku had picked up the story, pondering the question of why a man who won $27 million dollars needed another million of other people's money to fund his half-formed MMO idea.

Unsurprisingly, the internet was not kind to Bunky Bartlett. One commenter on the Kotaku post simply stated, "I'm not a violent person at all, but I have never wanted to punch anyone in the face more than I want to punch this man in the face." That was one of the nicer things the commentariat had to say about Bunky.

Shortly after that, people began to troll the Kickstarter page itself, "donating" a dollar just for the right to comment (a Kickstarter rule) knowing full well they'd never have to make good on the money because the project had almost zero chance of making its goal. "If this project gets $1.1 million in 50 days, my level 1 mount will eat my avatar's hat," a Kickstarter commenter named Ryan Telford announced. A couple weeks later, the Giant Bomb podcast caught wind of the story and spent a good five minutes riffing at Bunky's expense. "How do you take money away from Kickstarters that you don't believe in?" one of the hosts mused.

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"I HAVE NEVER WANTED TO PUNCH ANYONE IN THE FACE ...

Bunky did not waver in the face of malice and criticism. He answered questions sincerely, and true to character, he addressed his financial situation with openness. He explained that yes, he would be investing. "No businessman invests one hundred percent," he says. "It's important that I have a financial stake in the project." Early in the campaign, a $10,000 donation appeared and then disappeared, only to reappear a few days later.

"... MORE THAN I WANT TO PUNCH THIS MAN IN THE FACE."
Bunkyspool_300 Bartlett's custom-built swimming pool

The Kotaku article and the initial wave of trolls and detractors did not dissuade Bunky from soldiering on, in part because he has gone through this before. Ever since winning the lottery, Bunky seems to generate vitriol for toward his very existence. One web site dubbed him its "Stupid Asshole of the Week" and his pizza parlor's Google Maps entryis littered with obvious troll reviews. "My experience has been that because I ‘won money,' everyone feels like they're somehow entitled to a part of it," he says.

What is ironic about the amount of backlash Bartlett has received is that the central thesis of Your World is a game that is ambitiously democratic. As the name implies, he is eager to allow the eventual players of his game to shape the lore, quests and environment to their hearts' content. His most popular game concept so far, adult entertainers in the game dubbed "hookerbots," came from a random commenter on Kickstarter. "Anything where I reference the hookerbots, or the YouTube video where I talk about hookerbots, that gets more hits than anything," Bunky proudly confirms.

However, not everyone piled on simply to poke fun at a man's ideas. Kickstarter is an active community of creative types who, in this case, sincerely seemed to want to steer Bunky in a better direction than where he was headed. A couple were game designers themselves. Unlike much of the Kotaku community, they weren't upset because he had millions and was asking for more; they were upset because he wasn't asking for enough.

Many of Bunky's exchanges were with a game designer who wished to be identified only by his first name, Mark. Over the course of the 50 days, Mark and other developers traded comments with Bunky pleading with him to engage with an experienced design team and think about how little game $1.1 million would really get him.

"What he described was Second Life mixed with game-making software mixed with ‘WoW' mixed with hookerbots. His idea was just that: an idea," Mark says, weeks after the campaign. Surprisingly, he is not willing to completely discount Bunky's chances of making the game. "100% it could happen. I might be giving him the benefit of the doubt a bit much. I like the underdogs ... when they don't bite back and listen to people that know a little about the game industry."

Pure-bang_910jpgPure Bang's Yuzun Kang and Ben Walsh (from left) with Bartlett

Pure Bang theory

Bunky Bartlett was indeed willing to listen to somebody. While publicly a fair amount of people were vocally dismissing his ideas, Bunky was getting calls and emails from developers, artists and other people who wanted to help make the game a reality.

Pure Bang Games is a Baltimore-based studio known mainly for casual, social games found either on Facebook or mobile devices. Its biggest hit so far is the Facebook version of "My Pet Rock." However Walsh, its founder and CEO, loves fantasy and has always wanted to make an MMO. A producer and designer who worked at Bethesda Softworks before founding Pure Bang, Walsh was eager to help Bunky bring some structure to his mixed bag of ideas.

"Bunky's an inventor. He comes up with ideas and some of them are ... pretty different. We take these ideas and innovate on them and turn it into an executable product," Walsh says. Since Pure Bang has taken on the project, Bunky has gotten a crash course in what goes into actually making a game, rather than an idea for one. Since coming on the project in May, Walsh and his team have "been spending time just doing some more careful budgeting and planning. We're also looking at features that are must-have, what's nice to have and what we're not going to have when we launch." In other words, everything his critics were telling him was true, but Bunky showed he was willing to listen to someone with expertise.

Even as the creator of Your World, Bunky has been willing to surrender parts of his brainchild to Walsh's team, going so far as to bring the entire crew out to his remote property for a pool party. "I've tried to give [Pure Bang] as much artistic license as possible. Everyone at the company are gamers, and I want them to feel like they're making a game that they'd want to play," Bunky says.

Kang_555Yuzun Kang, designer

One of those gamers is Pure Bang designer Yuzun Kang, who notes that everyone was "pretty much immediately on board" with the idea of making Bunky's MMO even though the company usually focuses on games of a different scope and scale. Pure Bang also appears to be at ease with Bunky's status as a lottery winner and a neophyte when it comes to game design. "It's OK to be lucky," Kang says. "It's always a great thing when luck and circumstance can accommodate your endeavours."

Since linking up with Pure Bang, it appears that Bunky has brought his grandiose vision down to a malleable and reasonably-sized plan for actually getting a game made. The website (complete with hookerbot t-shirts for sale) still remains with Bunky's manifesto. Behind the scenes however, it's clear that Walsh and his team have been able to help Bunky manage expectations about what is realistic. They've sat down to address which, if any of Bunky's original claims about the project or its features will ultimately hold up.

Walsh stresses that they don't yet know what the game truly is, what it's ultimately going to cost or when it could be finished. "Minecraft has gone through stages," he says. "[Minecraft creator Markus Persson] released it as an early alpha. People played it and people gave feedback, and the game has evolved. We're going to do something similar. We'll work with the community to build up that game and that vision." The funding plan is more of the same. They continue to seek investors to fund iterative chunks of the process, though they also haven't ruled out another Kickstarter campaign if they decide it makes sense.

The wisdom of crowds

As of July 5, 2012 there have been 2,393 games-related projects launched on Kickstarter. About 33 percent of those have met their funding goal, which probably sound like pretty fair odds to an aspiring developer. Of course, those odds decline significantly when you ask for $1.1 million as Bunky did. While three of the seven successful million dollar-plus Kickstarter campaigns have been in the realm of video games, Bunky's project realistically stood no chance of being funded, which he now admits. "The million dollars was put out there because I knew I would never get it. The page wasn't there to actually make the project happen. That may be an abuse of Kickstarter, knowing that it wasn't going to happen," he confesses. "I did it just to throw it out there and see what came back."

What came back were 109 backers and $21,345, which though far short of the initial goal is much better than other MMOs with far more groundwork have fared in the crowdfunding cycle. "Clan of Danu," "Shatter of Stars," "The 5th Realm," "Aethro Prelude," "Remnants of Chaos" and "Hostile Shores" all came to Kickstarter as MMO projects with as much or more groundwork done than Your World. Even if you credit one of those $10,000 donations to Bunky Your World has done surprisingly well, by comparison.

Recently though, there have been two independent MMO projects that are among the first of their kind to have made their funding goals, "The Repopulation" and "Embers of Caerus." Both are being made by independent game studios, had extensive progress before the campaigns went live, and both asked for $25,000 and got almost double their money. These are the exception for MMOs on Kickstarter, not the rule.

In fact, it's a little hazy whether an MMO even falls under Kickstarter's acceptable guidelines, which state that "Kickstarter is for projects that can be completed, not things that require maintenance to exist." Certainly a massive game running off of live servers requires maintenance, so if the project is to fund a complete playable version of the game, it would seem like for now Kickstarter is looking the other way. Kickstarter politely declined to comment on this story.

"I KNEW I WOULD NEVER GET THE MILLION DOLLARS."
"THAT MAY BE AN ABUSE OF KICKSTARTER."

Bunky also says that felt unjustly attacked by the people who donated a dollar just to abuse him and that it took "repeated requests to Kickstarter customer service" to get them removed. The Kickstarter community guidelines do indeed clearly state "If you don't like a project, don't back it. No need to be a jerk." Bunky notes that is "part of the problem with crowdfunding. Everybody thinks they're now an investor." However, his old friend Mark, the game designer he traded written blows with, sees things differently.

"The best way to look at Kickstarter is the way that the lottery works," Mark explains. When the prize is a low amount of money, which is what Kickstarter was in its infancy, nobody pays attention to it. It's a child's game and a stupid idea. You wouldn't waste a buck on it. However, change the prize a little, now the lotto is worth $200 million dollars and people will throw a buck just for the hell of it. Kickstarter has gone that way. There is a large amount of money that is being thrown around on crowdfunding platforms. The problem is the market is getting flooded with too many ideas."

Mark is not the first person in this story who suggested people like Bunky are trying to cash in on the heels of Kickstarter successes like the Double Fine Adventure project, which had raised over $3 million by the day that Your World launched.

Depending on whether you think Bunky believed that raising $1.1 million was possible, he either intentionally or inadvertently exposed a clever workaround in the Kickstarter system. By getting a project through that wasn't much more than idea, and drawing eyeballs and discussion, he put his project in a position to get noticed. As Mark and others pointed out, Bunky couldn't have made his game or anything close to it for a million dollars. He didn't need a million dollars, though. What he needed were designers and artists, and he got them through the exposure from Kickstarter without having to spend a nickel.

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Crazy

Ours is not an age rife with earnestness. Bunky Bartlett, however, is completely earnest about his desire to create an MMO that's to his liking. He posts videos of himself talking about different aspects of the game and agrees to interviews knowing full well how harsh some of the comments will be. Online communities, especially gamers and MMO players, are not particularly known for their track record in coping with sincerity. Everything is viewed through the translucent shield of irony, and most honest sentiment is kept at arm's length or turned into a meme. Just look at what they did to Bunky and his hookerbots.

"You have to tackle a project like this with earnestness. There's no ironic distance in any endeavour," Kang insists when talking about designing Bunky's MMO. Pure Bang likes working with Bunky because he's enthusiastic about his ideas. Bunky likes working with Pure Bang because they, unlike a lot of people on the internet, don't call him names and they take his ideas seriously. Their partnership is very real, and just by being in a room with people who make games for a living, Bunky is a lot further along than his critics would've guessed back in March.

The truth is that anyone who has played a game has had at least a minute thought about how to improve a game they like or make a new game they might like even better. These notions often die in the harsh light of reality when we reach the limitations of our resources. Bunky is in the unique position that he doesn't have to be stopped short because, relative to most humans, his resources are pretty limitless. Though when asked if it's important to his personal legacy that the game gets made, Bunky shrugs and offers a simple "nah," like a person does when you ask them if they want a glass of water.

"Really I just want a game that I can enjoy playing. I know that sounds crazy, but that's why I started this." He smiles, and for a moment he can see everything he's put down on his makeshift website and every idea he's put in a frantic email to Walsh at 2 a.m. His world, Your World, with its three suns, hookerbots, steampunks and dragon girls, are all incredibly clear to him. "I want a game that I can play, and just be happy with." Maybe that does sound crazy, but once you win the lottery, crazy probably seems completely possible.

Image credits

Your World, Inc.

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