Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Shocker: Unfinished Games to Remain Unfinished

Posted by Rampant Coyote on September 23, 2014

I keep grumbling (I try to think positive and to avoid grumbling too much) about people being willing to pay more for a promise of a game than an actual, completed game. I’ve suspected that as we had some high-profile failures in Early Access and crowdfunding games, that this might be tempered somewhat.

We’ve had a couple more major failures this week, but my desire to say, “I told you so!” is itself tempered by the fact that I’m a fan of both creators. This is the sort of thing that can ruin reputations and cause damage to careers.

clangFirst of all, as was somewhat expected, popular SF author (and, formerly, programmer) Neal Stephenson has canceled his sword fighting game Clang. This was a game that was funded to over a half-million dollars two years ago. Big name, big money on Kickstarter (especially in 2012), and a pretty big failure. He seems to be trying to handle things more cleanly than the other recent major Kickstarter game failure, the Yogventures … misadventure.

These two have made enough headlines that I do hope that people get the message, but I do worry how these failures will hurt the creators beyond reasonable levels, and how much the spillover is going to hurt the innocent. I still like crowdfunding as an idea, I just don’t like how it was abused or misused. And face it – making games is a risky proposition no matter what. Games get canceled all the time. But it becomes a different story when the customer has effectively already paid for the product, even when they are theoretically aware of the risks.

spacebaseDF9Coming hot on the heels of this is a failure from a studio that I have in the past considered a “safe bet.” Double Fine has pulled the plug on their Early Access game, Spacebase DF-9. I’ll leave you to check out the link for more information on the hows and whys. But the bottom line is that it wasn’t generating as much income as it was costing to continue development. In one aspect, that’s a developer’s dream – to know exactly how much money you should put into a game, by knowing in real-time how much it is bringing in. However, it’s also a nightmare – in spite of what you warn, customers are still buying into a promised game, not the actual early version that is available.

Double Fine is actively trying to polish up the current version of the game so it is a viable, relatively clean product, and releasing the source code to public as open-source so new development can hopefully be picked up by others. But still, early access buyers are understandably grumpy about the final version of the game being substantially less than advertised. The money is spent and there is no more, so there’s not much more I would expect from Double Fine, but I suspect this will stain their reputation for a while.

I guess the lesson to learn here is that while it has been employed as such (Minecraft, Project Zomboid, etc.), early access should not be treated as a way to fund game development, at least not long-term. If you have a minimum viable product, a game that is already worth the price but perhaps not yet fully polished and you would like to keep improving on it, sure. In that case, there’s no difference between buying a game with a bunch of free future updates, and buying an early access game, with the possible marketing exception that you are less likely to draw heat for bugs and some lack of polish in a game that’s not yet been stamped “1.0”. It’s weird, and only a semantic difference, but words matter. The important thing here is not to make long-term promises as to what the game will eventually become.

In response to some of the more embarrassing flame-outs of the projects they’ve hosted, Kickstarter has updated its terms to use to include a requirement that the creator “must complete the project and fulfill each reward.” That’s a little — well, ridiculous, but they then include a whole bunch of exceptions and appropriate behaviors to deal with failure to avoid legal action by backers. In theory, they make sense, and I hope they had help from a lawyer in drafting them. They are the kind of behaviors I’d expect from a developer, and it’s the kind of thing I’d be doing if I was running a crowdfunded project. In theory, if this constitutes something of a contract between backers and projects, this may help reduce friction and fraud. In reality… I guess we’ll see.

As always, be cautious.

Filed Under: Biz, News - Comments: 6 Comments to Read

  • Tesh said,

    Titan’s down, too. At least there, though, Blizzard wasn’t charging for early access, it was just hyped and milked for buzz.


  • alanmcl said,

    As you’ve said here before, this was always coming eventually.

    What do you make of Cleve’s troubles with the Grimoire KickStarter?

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    The Kickstarter game with “Grimoire” in the name is the least of his troubles, I think. He can raise a fuss, but legally I doubt he’s covered his bases well enough to win that one. He may end up being the one to be forced to change his game’s name if he’s not careful.

  • Lawrence said,

    The thing about Spacebase DF-9 is that they basically burned the money by lavishly residing in San Francisco. They either had a seriously bad business plan and complete lack of competence (which seems unlikely) OR it was just a scheme to extract money by promising stuff later without ever having the plan to actually fulfilling the promises.

    I have personally never financed an unfinished product for exactly the reasons you and others have warned about. But this is the first time a major failure makes me think “fraud”.

    I do not fear Double Fine will take a reputation hit. I *hope* Double Fine and the lead managers will never be able to find fools again to finance their “business model”.

  • Robyrt said,

    You also run into the Planetary Annihilation problem, where the game got a lot of negative press for going onto Early Access in pre-alpha for $90, despite actually delivering a finished game for normal price at the stated release date.

  • Andre said,

    I funded quite a few games back in 2012. The only loss so far is Forsaken Fortress (got themselves entangled in supporter design). But there are probably some still coming – which I haven’t heard from in a while. Biggest disappointment for me of games that were released were Legends of Dawn – they gave out the game but I could hardly play it on my machine as it lags horribly and they are now only concluding physical rewards. Then there is Malvolence – really ugly bloom effect I can’t seem to tone down and the rest of the interface makes it hard to play, although it is still in development I guess. Godus… ok I should have seen that one coming though. Star Citizen, hmmm verdict is still out on this although they have the whole world’s money it seems, I just got tired of updating a hangar I can’t do anything in. Then there is the great successes as well though: Broken Age, Divinity: Original Sin, Wasteland 2 and hopefully Elite : Dangerous.