Double Fine and the Early Access Fiasco

Way back in mysterious, distant 2012 – when the Curiosity rover landed on Mars, Gangnam Style ruled the airwaves, and Kony 2012 ran for president – Double Fine had its Amnesia Fortnight, a sort of game jam that showcases prototypes that backers could vote on; a Kickstarter of sorts. One of those prototypes was Spacebase DF-9, a space base simulator headed by JP LeBreton. Out of the 23 concepts, it received the second most votes. In October 2013 it made its way to Steam Early Access. And now, 11 months after its initial launch and six alpha stages later, it’s been announced that it will be fully released, version 1.0, in October 2014; immediately following a 50% off sale. In addition, the game will receive limited support following version 1.0, and the source code will be released for mods to further flesh out the project.

Fans of the project and of Double Fine have been vocal. Before the release announcement, reviews on Steam were mixed to positive, with many players praising the art direction, music, and potential, but bemoaning the lack of gameplay features, limited updates/communication, and the “bare bones” feel of the title. At the time of writing, Steam reviews are 98% negative.

Abandon ship!

I have some thoughts. And feelings. And I will express a few. I’ve played my fair share of Early Access titles. Some stinkers here, some really outstanding ones there. And I’ll tell you what separates the two: developer communication/transparency, a fun, (relatively) fleshed-out core concept, and a (relatively) reasonable timetable for patches, updates, and full release. I’m a supporter of Early Access when it’s treated as such. Double Fine, to the detriment of its reputation and fanbase, treated it like one of their Kickstarter campaigns.

Early Access isn’t Kickstarter. Now, Kickstarter is a risk/reward investment. Additionally, if a Kickstarter doesn’t reach its stated goal, investors see their capital returned. Early Access, alternatively, is investing in a game early in its development to be a part of that process until a final, usually more expensive release. While the money does finance the game, in part, the developers are responsible for seeing their project through to the end. Sometimes not meeting goals can lead to tapered end results, which is fine as sometimes ambitions can be greater than the income generated, and even the best artistic intentions can end up on the cutting room floor. But what grinds my gears, what gives me pause, are the following damning moves:

1. Spacebase Going Out of Business Sale – yes, just prior to the announcement that Spacebase would transition from crawl-Alpha 6-to-full-blown-relase-sprint, Double Fine went and put that puppy on sale for half-off. Now some might call this a last minute attempt to resuscitate a dying project. I would argue it was a last minute attempt at breaking even.

2. It’s Finished! PR Bullshit – yes, you heard from lead developer JP LeBreton himself: we’re ready for launch! Complete with the feigned excitement at a job well done, Spacebase players got to look at a sweet infographic of how far Spacebase had come; all the while being mocked by the intended development roadmap laid out previously… until that was removed.

3. Tim Schafer Answers Select Questions – after JP announced glumly that, yes, they hadn’t reached their vague monetary goal and had to cut the project because of “powers greater than”, heavy metal enthusiast and secretly Jack Black Tim Schafer came into the forums. He defended the embattled development team:

“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.” – Schafer

I found this picture symbolic.

There it is, there’s the disconnect. Early Access isn’t a Kickstarter persistent money-collection pit. Early Access is paying to play a game before its full, intended release. Tim Schafer and company seem to have misunderstood that, to the near universal displeasure of everyone in the gaming community. And instead of ‘fessing up to mismanaged funds and poor planning, or biting the bullet and continuing development, or even some kind of refund, partial or otherwise, they’re simply shrugging and saying, “Sorry, you guys weren’t generating enough money for us to continue this project.” And that stinks.

So what’s there to do? Me, I think Early Access needs to be better defined. Maybe my definition of it is wrong. Perhaps Early Access should be a Kickstarter where, if the devs don’t meet their monetary goal, they don’t do the project. But then their monetary goal should be clearly expressed, and if said goal isn’t reached then investors should get their hard earned cash back. If I’m right in my definition of Early Access, those devs should have some stringent rules they have to play by. I’m not suggesting hard deadlines, but rather required weekly communication, ballpark deadlines, and consequences for not finishing their game. It can’t be some mishmash of the two. You can’t have your cake and eat it too.

This isn’t Double Fine’s first rodeo, and it isn’t their first hideous, rodeo-related injury. After making ten times their initial Kickstarter goal for an adventure game, they plum ran out of money developing Broken Age and had to break (ha) it up into two acts. Released in January 2014, there is still no Act 2. Bobby Kotick, CEO of Activision Blizzard, claimed Schafer went over-budget and failed to meet deadlines while developing Brütal Legend.

And the biggest travesty to come out of this big, ugly mess? Decent developers playing by the Early Access rules are going to take a hit because big, recognizable Double Fine couldn’t keep their promise. And that isn’t fair.

Next time Double Fine would be wise to set aside some capital from their next crowdfunding misadventure for “You Need a Budget 4” on Steam. It’s on sale frequently. – JR

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