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This MMO that promised an 'infinite open world' has become a giant fiasco

Imagine an MMORPG that rolled every game genre into one incredible universe—a game for the ages that lets you craft, build, farm, fight, play, tame creatures, and do whatever you want. The wildly ambitious promise of the ultimate mixed-genre MMO has been made before, but now we have a new contender that claims to be the "last game you'll ever play"—DreamWorld, an "infinite open world creative MMO" that will, at some point, host millions of players in a single immersive world. 

You don't have to be a game developer to know that this isn't a game you can make today, even with a massive budget. And when you learn that DreamWorld's creators, Garrison Bellack and Zachary Kaplan, have never made a commercial game, it looks like pure fantasy. Yet this fantasy raised almost $65,000 on Kickstarter in March and has the backing of startup investor Y Combinator. As I looked further into this impossibly ambitious project, I found MMO streamers calling DreamWorld and its May 21st alpha release a "fiasco" and a "scam," and that was just the beginning. The allegations against DreamWorld include: 

  • Teens recruited as mods and promised jobs
  • Stolen or improperly credited assets
  • Nepotism at Y Combinator
  • An easily hackable server with poor security
  • A impossible-to-achieve development timeline (and an allegedly fake diamond ring)

On DreamWorld's Discord server, Kaplan said that his claim of "nine years" of game development experience is in personal projects—Flash games, "some work in Unity," and documentation relating to DreamWorld. Kaplan is an entrepreneur and self-described marketer whose startup experience seems to consist of a wearable Bluetooth speaker called Core Aegis. Bellack, the engineer/coder of the pair, has Apple, Facebook, and Google listed on his resume.

DreamWorld's Kickstarter campaign raised $64,706, which the developers acknowledged was only a small portion of its necessary budget. "We know MMOs cannot be built with just $10K," the campaign page reads, referring to the Kickstarter's original goal. "We've secured the majority of our funding from some of the best investors in Silicon Valley." The campaign promises, among other features, "multiplayer with the population density of real cities" and a fully dynamic environment with no fixed interaction points. Each backer is to receive a plot of land commensurate to their backer tier on which they can construct whatever they want. The Kickstarter even claims that players can import 3D models from "anywhere online." If all that were in the game, it would be like Second Life built on next-next-next gen tech.

A press image comparing DreamWorld to Minecraft (left) (Image credit: DreamWorld, Microsoft)

"At a high level, we're very excited to bring players the tools they need to create their own games inside DreamWorld, not unlike the systems represented in Roblox," the developers posted in response to one superbacker's question about how DreamWorld would incorporate multiple game genres. On a press page that's still online but no longer linked on the DreamWorld website, the developers do a side-by-side comparison of their game with Minecraft. Clearly, they have a high bar for their own work.

The concept of pitching a crowdfunded MMO isn't new, but it's also nearly impossible to achieve without millions of dollars. DreamWorld's developers did have more than $65,000 to work with: it's backed by the world's best-known startup accelerator, Y Combinator. Y Combinator has a rigorous vetting process topped off by an exclusive demo day with "selected investors." You might have heard of its alumni: Twitch, Dropbox, Coinbase, Airbnb—tech titans valued at billions of dollars.

There are a handful of smaller companies making games with YC backing and tech startups that cater to gaming infrastructure, but DreamWorld's lofty promises stand out. Based on my investigation into DreamWorld it seems unlikely to ever be the Minecraft- or WoW-killer it aspires to be. 

Bellack and Kaplan now face a plethora of allegations from the YouTube community spearheaded by freelance developer Callum Upton and MMO streamers KiraTV and Josh Strife Hayes. The main accusation is that DreamWorld is a scam: an impossible project helmed by two people who have no idea what they're doing.

Dissecting DreamWorld 

DreamWorld's Kickstarter trailer was methodically dissected by Upton in his first YouTube video on March 23. According to Kira, DreamWorld as shown in the trailer is "a fucking Frankenstein of cut-and-paste code from other people's work." He says the game is a mishmash of Unreal Engine asset packs that have been assembled without any original coding, using the baseline Unreal mannequin in basic default movement mode. Critics in Discord have observed that none of the assets appear to be appropriately credited.

"This is supposed to be a technical demo of what they can do, based on what they have done," says Upton in his video, where he compares DreamWorld's visuals to store bought asset packs, some of which come with built-in code. "90 percent of the [assets] that I found that they've used, which have just been ones I've listed… have been free in the last 8 months."

One backer pointed out in the Kickstarter comments that the Kickstarter only mentions access to the alpha, and not a finished game; their comment was never addressed. On March 12, Kaplan posted that the pre-alpha would only be available to people who invited two friends to pledge, not unlike a multi-level marketing scheme

In April, Massivelyop.com's Bree Royce wrote a summary of the game's many problems, highlighting the absence of technical information about how the developers can make a million-person MMO in a single persistent infinite world.

"The problem that [the DreamWorld developers] bumped into was they completely underestimated how dedicated the MMORPG fanbase is to research," says MMO streamer Josh Strife Hayes. "MMORPG players will datamine on day zero of a patch." Many players feel that MMOs have also been largely stagnant for years, leaving fans hungry for anything new. "If they'd said they were making Animal Crossing, or Pokémon or anything like that, like making a clone of it, this would have probably flown under the radar and they'd have probably scammed a lot of kids," Upton says.

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On March 26, MMOByte streamer Stix claimed that an unnamed developer reached out about giving positive coverage of their Kickstarter game. In return, he said he was offered "20% of all [their] earnings" if the game's funding increased due to his coverage. Drama ensued as Stix made the offer public, and the developers tried to walk everything back. Finally, in a video entitled "DreamWorld: The Biggest MMO Scam to Ever Get Fully Funded," Stix named the game in question: DreamWorld. Stix has not responded to a request for comment.

The most serious accusation is that DreamWorld only got its Y Combinator backing through nepotism. According to Upton, a senior employee at Y Combinator claims that Bellack has a friend in the accelerator who helped greenlight DreamWorld without the appropriate due diligence. "Originally, I thought this was a bit of a joke, but they called me and validated all their information and their sources. This person is actually higher up than just investing," he says. "[DreamWorld] wasn't vetted. They apparently had nothing to show on demo day, and they were still allowed through." Y Combinator did not respond to a request for comment.

Before covering DreamWorld, Upton wasn't even a streamer—he stumbled across the Kickstarter while doing research on videogame crowdfunding. "My first video was made a month ago on DreamWorld," Upton explains in a Discord call. "That's how big this rabbit hole has got. I started with 50 subscribers one month ago today… a lot of people think that I was the original whistleblower for this, because a lot of people got dodgy vibes about [DreamWorld]." Now he has over 5,000 subscribers and a Discord server chronicling the scandal.

The Discord from hell

The official DreamWorld Discord represents the best and worst of its passionate but volatile community. After skeptics and trolls joined the server, the DreamWorld team implemented a verification system using the AltDentifier bot to keep out banned users. Both Bellack ("Grit") and Kaplan ("Wulf") have set their accounts to private, so no one can directly message them or add them as friends. 

While in the DreamWorld Discord server I watched mildly critical comments disappear and the only adult mod quit. Mods don't have access to the logs, so they can't even see who's been banned. The mood in the Discord oscillates between cult-like enthusiasm, intermittent skepticism, and halfhearted jokes about not being able to voice real concerns without getting banned. There are constant back-and-forths on the integrity of the developers, and pedantic debates on the difference between an alpha and a prototype. The developers themselves seem largely AWOL—their own community jokes about their chronic absence—and occasionally resurface to respond to @s regarding technical issues, make announcements, purge channels, and ban users. "The game in good time will prove [the critical videos] wrong," wrote user MilkyMoobs. "But without [the developers] saying anything will there be a community left by the time the game is even at that point[?]" 

Many seem genuinely excited and dismiss criticisms because the game is still in its infant stages. But some backers simply want a new game, and they see Upton and Kira's call-out efforts as destructive and toxic. "I made a small contribution that doesn't hurt me at all, and I'm watching how this plays out," typed one backer named Zutzut. "No need to keep having random people come in to harp on it. Do something more productive with your life."

Upton says he initially brushed off rumors that the mods were mostly children because it seemed absurd. "They came to me after this rumor was spreading around and they were like, 'No, we're 14 and 16'," he says. He also learned that the DreamWorld team had DM-bombed players in Fortnite and Minecraft servers to promote their game and invite them to the server. "Screenshots started getting dug up of [the team] trying to offer Amazon gift cards and Uber Eats to the moderators as some form of non-payment, because they obviously can't pay them," Upton says. The developers reportedly offered to fly two kids to Redwood City for internships. Jack, a 14-year-old mod who has since left the community, was allegedly promised a full-time job.

After passing my information to Bellack via a mod, he added me and I asked if he was available to talk. "I really appreciate it, but with the team working over 80 hours a week, it's inappropriate for me to do interviews," Bellack replied, before offering to answer a few "quick questions." In response to the allegations of false advertisement, recruiting kids to moderate and potentially work for the company, and nepotism, Bellack said, "Unfortunately these people profit from slander. We mostly ignore it and focus on making DreamWorld as enjoyable as possible for our real players." He also claimed that they'd like to grow the team to 5-7 people by the end of the year. Neither Garrison Bellack or Zachary Kaplan responded to repeated further requests for comment.

"I've been a part of Discord since 2015, and I've never seen game developers hide from the community and ban people from the shadows, then let a 14 and 16-year-old kid take the blame for it," says a former mod who wishes to remain anonymous. "That's pathetic."

All eyes on the Alpha

The plaques meant to honor Kickstarter backers are bare save for the placeholder word, 'large text,' 'medium text,' and 'text.'

On May 20, Skiazos—a DreamWorld backer and YouTuber who posted an interview with the developers—was given early access to the alpha; the alpha files were distributed via Google Drive. Skiazos told me he had been cautiously optimistic, but began leaning away from the game after seeing other creators take it apart. Things really changed after he played the alpha.

The only discernible difference between the pre-alpha and alpha, as Skiazos observed in a livestream, is that the developers have added grass to the game. A flat white fog pervades the horizon, giving the impression of infinite distance, but it becomes apparent that the objects behind the fog have already been pre-rendered. At a certain point, the map just ends—you can fall off the edge. Further examination of the game files shows that the alpha still contains copyrighted music that Upton unearthed in a previous video. Upton reached out to the music publisher to verify if DreamWorld had licensed the song, which it had not. The alpha also allegedly contains a file for a song from the 1993 film The Nightmare Before Christmas, which doesn't actually play in the game but is still being distributed.

DreamWorld's main city consists of buildings scattered around an expanse of dirt. With the exception of the pantheon, the buildings have no colliders—you can run right through them. Enormous white cubes sit around the landscape as mysterious placeholders. Other players appear as nameless orbs with the default Unreal mannequin texture—there's no way to tell who it is or how they're armed if you fight them in the PVP area.

The plaques meant to honor Kickstarter backers are bare save for the placeholder word, "large text," "medium text," and "text." 

On May 21, Upton livestreamed the alpha and discovered that it was possible to hack the game, speed up the server's day and night cycle, and give himself unlimited resources by sending packets to the server, because nothing was being authenticated or validated. "You can literally tell the server you've done whatever you want," he says in the Discord stream while producing a series of comically large tables and oversized stone peppers. "I'm telling the server that I am the server." In another stream, Upton added a weather system, spawned thousands of clouds, and crashed the game. "The damage you could do with this to somebody else's computer… is bad," he says in a later video

Upton, who works as a freelance bot developer, first started messing with game networks as a kid, which he says is largely something that you learn by doing. In Minecraft, he explains that when you try to mine a block, the server usually performs checks on your player identity, if you have the right tool, and if you're even near a block. According to Upton, DreamWorld's server isn't making any checks at all, which allowed him to trick the server on livestream. "Along with this, there is the potential to have code run remotely on other users' machines through this. It's harder than the above example, but a lot easier [if] they don't make these initial checks," he says. 

Stress-testing and bug-testing is a standard part of MMO development even after a game's release—players will always try to test the limits of the game and see what's actually possible. Some DreamWorld Discord members decry this as toxic and inappropriate for a game that's still in alpha, even though the alpha doesn't come with any terms of service or use. Skiazos tried to stress-test the alpha, too, by placing thousands of peppers around his assigned plot. Upton created a 1,000-foot tall battleaxe, well beyond the size cap, and planted it in the middle of the snow biome. Bellack later posted in Discord asking who created the "massive scale bug" so that he could credit them in the patch notes. 

(Image credit: KiraTV)

I don't think [the] game's developers have the actual intention to not deliver, I just think they're living in a dream world themselves

KiraTV

In the wake of all this public criticism, Kaplan's ex-fiancee Aislinn Evans posted a video challenging the narrative presented in DreamWorld's main Kickstarter video, which inexplicably mentions their breakup. Kaplan presents a sad "origin" story for the game, detailing his struggle with unemployment and the loss of a promising job due to COVID. "My fiancée left me soon after," he says, a phrase that has become a relentless meme in the DreamWorld skeptics community. 

"Apparently… the idea for this game came out of the sadness of losing all of that and everything falling apart," says a visibly exasperated Evans in her tell-all video. "No! He was literally already multiple months into developing [DreamWorld] before I broke up with him… the fact that he's using [our breakup] to leverage his Kickstarter video in this way, it just feels like straight-up emotional manip... sorry, emotional marketing," she says. "It's not the honest story, timeline, or motive." Kaplan also proposed to her at a red carpet event with an enormous diamond ring that she claims turned out to be fake, and that he then proceeded to lie about the ring's authenticity for ten months.

DreamWorld detractors see Evans' video as clear proof of Kaplan's dishonesty. DreamWorld fans have called it a sad chapter in Kaplan's life that has little bearing on the project. 

Evans closes out her video by vouching for Kaplan and Bellack's integrity. "I can guarantee that these boys are not trying (emphasis hers) to scam anyone," she says. "They truly believe that they are going to deliver on everything they have promised… however, whether they can deliver on it or not, again, I can't speak to that, and I'm not going to, because I don't have that gaming development technical background or knowledge."

I ask streamer Kira what the difference is between what's happening with DreamWorld and what happened with Chronicles of Elyria, another wildly ambitious Kickstarter MMO that raised $1.4 million but eventually saw its studio collapse (and angry backers filing complaints with the state of Washington's attorney general).

"I think we use the word scam as a colloquial term mostly and there's some nuance to this," he says. "I don't think either game's developers have the actual intention to not deliver, I just think they're living in a dream world themselves... I think for me, the base intent matters very little when the end result is the same and you've lied to everyone throughout. I think most of us could forgive and forget if people were just honest and said, we thought we could do this but we couldn't. I know the world isn't that easy."

Despite Kaplan stating that development will take years, and that their "alpha development phase" will take over a year with rolling updates every week, DreamWorld isn't anywhere near what they promised. And despite the ongoing criticism, the DreamWorld team seems unphased. Fans truly believe that some day or some year, DreamWorld will become a reality. "We're hoping to have DreamWorld on every internet connected device with a screen within the entirety of our development lifetime haha," Kaplan wrote in Discord.

It's nothing if not bold. "They've made claims of solving networking issues that have eluded industry titans to this date meanwhile having a single developer who has never worked on a video game in his life," says Kira. "Dreamworld is coming in late to the party where we've seen all the magic tricks, and we know this isn't Gandalf we're seeing."