Backing a game on Kickstarter is risky. Whenever anybody puts money into a Kickstarter project they should expect absolutely nothing in return; it is quite possible that your investment will result nothing. Kickstarting a game is not a guarantee that the project will be completed, that you will get it, or that it will even be what you expected or wanted. While talking to Aaron, one of the editors at Caps N’ Coins, about this prospect we also discussed some of the risks involved with purchasing a game that is in “Early Access”. Early access is significantly less risky simply because when you pay money you are able to download and install a “game” immediately. With kickstarter you could wait months, or even years, before finding out that your investment will reward you with nothing; however, that doesn’t mean that early access is not without its own risks.
Up until recently the only early access game that I had ever purchased was Prison Architect by Introversion Software, a game that I found quite enjoyable. Apart from this purchase I have been given early access copies of games that I had funded on Kickstarter back in 2012, when that had become the trendy thing to do. Since then I have been very careful with my early access purchases. I do not want to be burned by the early access experience; however, I was thrown into an early access game by purchasing the Humble Double Fine Bundle from Humblebundle.com.
I had purchased this bundle specifically to get Brütal Legend, for Linux; but, paying the amount required to get Brütal Legend had given allowed me to access to the Amnesia Fortnight Tier. This included several early access titles from Double Fine, one of the titles that caught my attention was Spacebase DF-9, a Dwarf Fortress inspired space colonization game. I decided that I would give it a shot seeing as how Aaron’s cousin, and fellow Caps N’ Coins contributor, Dave had been suggesting that I play Dwarf Fortress for some time now. Turning on Spacebase for the first time and trying it out in earnest led me to discover that this game was pretty great. The alpha 6 version of Spacebase was littered with bugs and minor annoyances, but I assumed that it would get fixed up and expanded on by the time the game was finished.
To my disbelief, Double Fine kicked Alpha 6 out the door and said that this was now the finished product, with some “bug fixes” being provided in the future. At this point in development Spacebase was not even feature complete; it was a barely functional product, cobbled together with duct tape and glue. The outcry from disappointed fans was so extreme that Double Fine’s CEO, Tim Schafer, himself needed to come out and explain what was being done on the Steam Community Forums. Companies have many reasons for “abandoning” a project and I would understand if the development had hit a snag or if the game was just not turning out the way that Double Fine had expected it to. The actual reason for why development of Spacebase was being canceled is the most infuriating, piss poor excuse I had read up until that point.
We started Spacebase with an open ended-production plan, hoping that it would find similar success (and therefore funding) to the alpha-funded games that inspired it. Some of its early sales numbers indicated this might be the case, but slowly things changed, and it became clear that this was looking like a year and a half of production instead of five or so. With each Alpha release there was the hope that things would change, but they didn’t. We put every dime we made from Spacebase back into Spacebase, and then we put in some more. Obviously, spending more money than we were making isn’t something we can afford to do forever. So, as much as we tried to put off the decision, we finally had to change gears and put Spacebase into finishing mode and plan for version 1.0.
Really?!? You are cancelling Spacebase because sales are too low? Did it ever occur to you that perhaps people were not buying it because it isn’t finished yet? Having the sales of an alpha version of a game fund the rest of development, like Minecraft, is extremely rare. Minecraft is an exception, an anomaly, not the general rule. There isn’t a single developer that should expect this to happen to them, ever, regardless of their popularity. The only people who are willing to pay money for an “early access” version of the game are the most extreme fans and they are not the general consumer. A general consumer wants to pay money for a game that is finished. They do not want to pay you money to have the “privilege” to be your beta tester and the excuse of cancelling a game due to low sales of the alpha version is insulting.
Thankfully Valve, the developers of Steam, have made adjustments to the early access guidelines, possibly due to the incident with Spacebase DF-9. One of the new early access policies is directly targeting developer shenanigans like this, “Don’t launch in Early Access if you can’t afford to develop with very few or no sales.” I am grateful that this extra policy is now in place but this should have always been the mindset of releasing an “Early Access” title. Developers should never assume that the community will flock to them and provide the money to finish the game. Hopefully other developers will use early access responsibly in the future but people do not want to be burned and the damage has already been done.