Posted by Rampant Coyote on October 21, 2013
Games released in what customers consider an unfinished state is nothing new. Some more picky customers are quick to declare any game with flaws (and that would be… hmmm… all of them) “unfinished” out of some view that imperfection means it wasn’t cooked long enough. However, there are many games that a more reasonable majority of gamers can agree (and, if you catch them later in a truthful mood, the devs and publishers will acknowledge) were released in a less-than-adequately–finished state. Usually, this takes the form of a game that just hadn’t reached an adequate level of bug-free polish. For some reason, the dev or publisher felt compelled to toss it out the door so that it could start making money instead of consuming money.
It’s the way of things. Again, nothing really new here.
With indie games, it’s been another matter. For one thing, they have traditionally not even attempted the level of polish of modern mainstream games, because those high production values cost a boatload of money. Indies usually don’t have access to that. However, as the world has become saturated with indie games, a lot of them are finding that the more expensive production values are what makes a game stand out – which is critical if you want a prayer of actually making money.
And with those same pressures come the same results.
On one hand, you’ve got the emergence of “alpha-funding.” People pay for a game as it is still in development, in exchange for early access, a lower price, and maybe the chance to bend the developer’s ear while it is still getting created. On the surface, I have zero problems with this. It’s a victory of the indie model. There’s no doubt it has enjoyed substantial success. Minecraft, of course, has been the poster child for this model, making millions while it was still in alpha and beta before reaching a stable release (and then continuing to have updates from that point forward). I’ve enjoyed a few games this way, and felt like I helped participate in making the games’ eventual “final” release a success. Yes, we may “pay for the privilege of beta testing” a product, but sometimes that’s actually pretty awesome.
But it’s not all successful. Just as some successfully funded Kickstarter projects never hit completion (or go back to the well for a second dip), some of these alpha-funded projects never do get completed. The devs never (as far as I’ve seen) admit that they’ve dropped the game, of course. Maybe they’re even still deluded into thinking they’ll still finish it one day. But the updates just become fewer and futher between, and then… that’s it. It’s like they hit the point of the long tail for their game, realize they’ve made most the money they’ll ever make on it, and give up. This is frustrating.
But this will exist – as will Kickstarter – as long as players prove more willing to fund the promise of a great game than to pay for a great game that already exists… warts and all (which they’ll all have in the “real world”). We pay for hope. and sometimes those hopes get dashed. ‘Cuz — really — new indies may not have too much of a reputation to trash when they discover that making games is very hard work and there’s not really a pot of gold at the end of that particular rainbow.
Having been burned by this, does it make me less inclined to support alpha-funded projects? Well, yeah. To a point. I think I may be a bit more discriminating in the future, ascertaining that the developer has experience and a reputation first. So I guess that means to you first-time indies… don’t expect me to pay for your game until you deliver. Period. That good will has been squandered by indies (perhaps inadvertently) behaving badly.
Last week, we encountered yet another variation on the theme of “incomplete” games — a polished game that ends abruptly because the developer ran out of money. The reason it is unusual is because usually a game is feature-complete and relatively “content complete” long before it is final. In this case, the developers seemed to decide that, failing the Kickstarter they’d hoped to fund a full series, they’d spend their remaining time and money polishing what they could, and release the first ‘episode” at half the intended price point, skimping on anything that could be considered a satisfying conclusion.
I’ll go ahead and say it now – flames coming as they may – they made the right choice, and I don’t blame them. If they’d taken an alternative approach, skimping on the polish so there could be a more satisfying ending – the reason we wouldn’t be complaining right now wouldn’t be because it had a decent ending and more hours of gameplay. It would be because it wouldn’t have found its way to Steam, wouldn’t have been sold by GOG.COM, and nobody would have known about it other than a vague recollection that it failed its Kickstarter campaign.
Gamers – and sellers – don’t look too deep under the hood. They see the awesome, cool, inviting facade, and that’s good enough in this world where people don’t even bother with demos anymore. Maybe they’ll start if we have more repeats of this kind of thing. But really – things are what they are, and the market has proven over and over again that it rewards this behavior. Maybe they’ll have a tough time selling the sequel after this embarrassment, but I don’t think so.
And as much as I complain about people who can’t seem to see past graphics, I would prefer a game with 4-6 hours of solid, wonderful gameplay than a game that takes twice as long that feels like unpolished “filler.” So I’m not going to be too quick to pillory Dark Matter for what they did. Maybe the game is overpriced for such a slim title. Then again, I remember playing Loom for nearly full-price back in the day, and being surprised at how we won the game only about four to six hours in, too. But at least it had a satisfying ending… far too close to the beginning. And then I beat Karateka only a couple of hours after bringing it home from the store, too. The games were way too short for their price-point… but at least they actually reached an ending-point that felt like a satisfying conclusion. So maybe the Dark Matter devs’ biggest fault was making the ending abrupt.
Still, I worry that if this pays off, we’re going to return to the bad ol’ days of the game endings where you get unceremoniously dropped to the DOS prompts with a one-sentence congratulatory message. Although even then, it usually came on the heels of a major boss-conflict or another satisfying climax or expected conclusion. Simply stumbling across a game-over message is pretty bad. I really don’t want to see this repeated. But it might be.
I just wish (I can wish, can’t I?) that players AND major game-sellers out there would be smarter and more experienced than to be suckered in by a pretty face. But then, the expression “lipstick on a pig” exists for a reason, doesn’t it?
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