Paying for Promises: the new trend toward “buy before you try” game development.

Posted: October 21, 2013 by ryanlecocq in Off-topic, Technology

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John Carmack overcomes the issue of costly game development with a simple trick:  Working instead of podcasting.

I remember when I first purchased Minecraft.  I got it for about $12.50 and this allowed me to play a still fairly early beta version long before the game officially released.  Since it was such a paradigm-shifting game, I felt like I was really getting a deal since the full release would be more expensive and I got to play this amazing thing right now!  Had I known that I was encouraging something that would eat at the heart of game development, I might have hesitated.  What I am of course referring to is things like Kickstarter and Steam Early Access.  These could be beautiful things if used responsibly, but sadly that is more the exception than the rule now.  While Minecraft is such an entertaining game that even it’s alpha versions contained more fun than most full games, that is a rare exception.  Even though you generally get the game at a reasonable discount when you donate to a KS campaign or buy Early Access on Steam, I often end up feeling like even that is well over what the game is worth.

I think in 100 years, these last few decades will be known as the ‘time of entitlement.”  A time when people forgot that you had to work first and play later.  I’m not referring to the high unemployment or social programs.  What I mean is the commonly expressed view that you cannot do __________ without __________ and therefore someone needs to provide it in order for you to deliver.  As it applies to gaming, I just want you young developers to know that John Carmack and his generation would laugh at your pathetic weakness.  They did things like work 24/7 and not eat what would be called food to bring you the milestones you rip-off today.  They didn’t go around whining that “without funding and support, it’s almost impossible to make a decent game.”  Well motherfucking duh dudes, that’s why games like the Doom and Minecraft are world famous: because it’s really hard to create them.  Life doesn’t have to be easy in order for us to live it, just ask oh, I don’t know, anyone in history ever.  While the idea of community investment is allowing some wonderful ideas to see the light of day, these are almost completely swept under by the tide of developers trying to get paid upfront and then not delivering the goods.  I could go into detail about many of these and easily spend paragraphs bashing the worst offenders, but I think we all know I’m talking about games like The War Z and ’nuff said about it.

At first I was all about the idea.  I contributed money to some projects that delivered 110% like Shadowrun Returns and the aforementioned Minecraft.  I was able to support things I really wanted, like a PC release of Deadly Premonition.  Overall it seemed like a really good way to finally have some hand in stopping all those diamond in the rough games from being cancelled when mostly finished.  Then the honeymoon ended.  We started to see some high profile games not deliver the promised features, or just go up in smoke with all of our invested dollars, just like happened under the old model with corporations’ money.  The worst part of it was seeing developers whom we had first been attracted to by their ideals and positive message, turn to whining finger pointers who blamed the world and us the investors for their failure to deliver.  On the worst end of this were games like The War Z, where the developers did a sudden Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde transformation as soon as they had our money.  The developers of these games went from telling us these games would be the realization of our dreams, to becoming peevish forum trolls who tried to blame us and our money or lack thereof for their inability to meet their own lofty promises.

I don’t want you to get the impression that I am unfairly blaming the devs 100%.  There is a wide spectrum here and some very well-meaning developers fell victim to this new craze.  American McGee, a developer I really respect and who got his start with good old John Carmack, was in an opposite position.  His first two Kickstarter funded games (Big Head Bash and Akaniero) were executed exactly as advertised and the gaming community lashed back at his studio Spicy Horse as if they were cheated.  All because the games had in-game purchases when they finally released.  Even though at no point in the Kickstarter campaign was it claimed that donations would purchase a final version and that the money was just start-up funding to develop the engine and assets, people assumed that they were buying a full version.  I don’t even mean that the games released as trials like the Diablo 3 or World of Warcraft starters, just that they had in game purchases similar to EVE online or Guild Wars 2.  Also games that you purchase up front, but still give you the opportunity to hand over more of your money.  So clearly the community is just as entitled as the developers if they would lash out with equal virulence when the shoe is on the other foot.

So what is the solution when Kickstarter is nearly as big as Pinterest and Early Access has become the standard on Steam?  I hate to take this position, but I think it’s a system of regulation (hopefully independent like the ESRB) that decides standards and what is fair.  At the moment developers are free to make vague, yet enticing claims about what is bought with your early investment.  Ideally this would be replaced by an industry determined standard and common language that would determine what your money was buying.  I’m not talking about lawyers throwing devs in debtor’s prison when they go bankrupt or Big Brother watching them at their desks to make sure they don’t cheat.  What I’m talking about are internal industry standards, like for example that if big developers like Activision and EA want to get on board, they need to use that money to stop releasing games with bugs and crashes on day one.  Afterall, that is supposed to be what you’re buying.  EA already budgeted the money to make the game and paid the developers.  Any early access funds should go to extra last-minute costs required to make a game that is ‘finished’ on day one.  Indie games on the other hand (as long as they continue to cost $5-15) should not be held to the same standard.  Considering that indie games cost so much less and are often much simpler, it should be enough to release a fully functioning and entertaining work-in-progress as long as that progress is clearly documented.  The important caveat is that the price should not be able to go above a certain point unless the game will be releasing with EXACTLY the promised features.  Also investors need to be kept up to date on what they are paying for and what is actually complete.  The idea is to avoid games like The War Z, where the lack of transparency leads to a game that everyone thought was going to be A, right up until the early access release.  Then when it arrived, it suddenly turned out to be B (which was waaaaay crappier than A) and the developers fail to take responsibility and never actually deliver A.  It’s okay to fall behind schedule or have to alter/remove elements that become unfeasible.  It’s not okay to keep collecting money on the assumption that those elements are still in place, or even worse to ask for more money without disclosing that it is buying less.

While it is true that gaming is one of the most over-regulated industries and that this contributes to high development cost and long development time, standards are necessary if we expect fairness.  At the moment the concept of end-user investment is still new and finding it’s feet.  It’s still a great idea with a lot of potential to get even better.  We just need to decide as a medium what we think is fair and then hold everyone up to that standard equally.  By that I mean not just developers, but the consumer investors too.  As consumers we need to be able to separate our hopes from what is realistic and be willing to keep our expectations within reason.  It’s easy to view Kickstarter as this magic vehicle for all of the things you ever dreamed of to become real.  We have to recognize though that if our dreams are things like a live action Ghost in the Shell movie, a 6 million dollar Kickstarter campaign is extremely unlikely to deliver this up to what we imagine in our mind’s eye, regardless of how hopeful it’s creators are.  Above all, everyone involved in gaming, creator or consumer, needs to manage our entitlement.  We all have ideas and products we’ve imagined for decades.  They are not outside our reach, we just need to manage our reach so that it does not exceed our grasp.

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