Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Selling Incomplete Games

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?


Filed Under: Biz - Comments: 11 Comments to Read



  • Dave Toulouse said,

    I just can’t figure why they didn’t try to get in the Early Access program. They would still sell the game and would have avoided the drama. Maybe they tried but didn’t get in? … Only explanation I can see …

    So to me it just feels sketchy. The whole “oh hmm, maybe let’s go with episodes” while I don’t recall ever hearing about this before the actual release of the game just makes me wonder if there are not bigger problems in the house.

    Good for them if the game sells anyway but I’m just not able to get on board with this. It doesn’t change much in my life (only ones that got really hurt here are them) beside that maybe next time someone make a bad comment about one of my games I’ll be able to say “hey but look, at least my game has a proper ending” :-)

  • gg said,

    Dude you beat the original karateka in hours??? That game is crazy hard.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    The hardest part was timing the bird before the final bad guy, IIRC. But I played it on my mobile phone recently, and apparently don’t have my old l33t skills.

  • automata said,

    The Dark Matter’s devs biggest failure was not making the episodic nature absolutely clear from the beginning. By their own admission, they decided not to call it Episode 1, or Part 1, or anything on their Steam page. Regardless of how well-meaning you are, if you do something that seems like a scam, at least some people will believe it is a scam.

    You cannot get away with being a small developer and burning off your goodwill by being dishonest with your customers. You have a lot of competition, not only for player’s attention, time and money, but also for people who actually want to see you succeed because you make games they like, because they’ll be your first port of call for future Kickstarter financing, or for getting the word out for your next game.

    Jay, I really would think again about your opinion on whether they did the right thing or not, because this is the exact type of shenanigans that are going to cause you – and a lot of other developers that you enjoy and respect – problems selling games in the future to people who get burned by this type of behaviour.

  • Zloth said,

    Gotta agree with Automata – having a possibly-episodic game without any mention of that in the description is pushing false advertising. If they had been up front about it then it wouldn’t be so bad. (Hmmm… Witcher 2? I hear it’s ending is amazingly abrupt, would it count?)

    Somebody needs to mention Sword of the Stars 2, too. That one was released without being remotely feature complete AND with no polish at all. It’s a miracle they got the game into a playable state before they went bankrupt.

  • Rygar said,

    I believe the issue is not setting proper expectations. Clearing both the in-game and out of game messaging about the game’s end was done poorly. If it is being made “episodic” they need to declare that and possibly adjust their pricing accordingly.

    The Dark Matter and Iceberg teams deserve the heat they are getting.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    You guys make reasonable points. I guess I should have said that I feel they made the necessary decision. Still, they should have handled it better. When you have to explain to your customers that TECHNICALLY you didn’t lie to them and rip them off, you have lost the argument.

  • Dave Toulouse said,

    Well you might revise the “necessary decision” point I think since it’s now removed from Steam and GoG is offering refunds:

    http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2013/10/21/brief-encounters-of-the-third-kind-dark-matter/

    They are now working to fix this “issue”. All this drama to just finally do what they should have done to start with: http://steamcommunity.com/app/251410/discussions/0/810938810836838055/

    I’m not sure why they insist on confusing people with “wanted to be bigger but now it’s episodic with no mention in the description of it being episode 1″.

    Would have been so much easier to:
    1- Improve the end (aka not just putting a bland wall of text in such a good looking game)
    2- Release
    3- Announce Dark Matter – Episode 2 later when you’re sure you can release such thing and have the funds to do so.

    There you go. No drama, nice game, success! But nope … They had to make everything complicated …

  • Xenovore said,

    @Everyone: Hindsight is 20/20, especially from our lofty perspective. =P

    To me it looks like they did what they thought was best at the time, i.e. release something instead of possibly canceling altogether (which is what generally happens when projects run out of money).

  • LateWhiteRabbit said,

    @Xenovore

    They definitely did the right thing by releasing what they had rather than cancelling the project, but they released it in a very poor way.

    Without changing even a single line of code, they could have avoided this mess by releasing it as Early Access on Steam, or plainly labeling it as episodic.

    It is all about managing expectations. If customers were told upfront that the game was not in a finished state, they would not have been upset by the abrupt ending. However, not as many would have bought it, which is why the Dark Matter devs silence on the issue made the whole thing look shady and morally duplicitous.

  • Xenovore said,

    @LateWhiteRabbit: Agreed; it was handled very poorly. My point though is that it’s much easier to see the flaws and possibly solutions after the fact.

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