Not really, of course, but what if it had been?
Space-Base DF9 was released by Double Fine on Early Access on 27th Oct, 2014, with an ambitious and exciting list of planned features. By Sep 17th, 2014 they decided to pull the plug, and make the next official release 1.0, quietly editing down their planned features to a nub, and claiming they didn’t have enough funds to continue. Me colleague Binky wrote this awesome thing, and pointed out that perhaps Early Access isn’t right for everyone, and very likely not Double Fine given the cost of running their studio and the apparently huge sales figures they would need to justify it.
(SteamSpy reports DF9 has 123,630 owners, which you would have to assume the majority were pre-1.0, given the 24% score. Many Early Access developers with much more ambitious games would kill for these sales figures and yet continue on without them)
On the announcement of the 1.0 (I plead with PZ players to remember that long Early Access runs aren’t always a bad thing ;)) the steam reviews for Space-Base DF9 plummeted, as you can imagine. In this instance, when gamers invest their money into a product, and the return on that investment is purely getting a game they were promised, and they do not get that game, their justifiable reaction is to write a scathing review and tell everyone they know to avoid a purchase.
In the age of Early Access, as much as I wish I could say otherwise, this is very important. It’s important to call out the people who betray gamer’s trust, deceive their customers or treat them unfairly, just as its important to spread the word on those that stay true to their word.
However today I heard about Fig, an upcoming newfangled crowdfunding site specifically for games, but with a twist! Now the backers really are investors, and get royalties from the game’s sales!
I’ll admit I’m obviously only going on the scant information we have about how Fig will actually work, but its hard to see how the main issue would be circumnavigated, and that is from the sound of it, it would reduce the likelihood of your game’s backers ever being vocally critical of the game or the developers.
It’s fitting that Tim Schafer is one of the brains behind this.
At time of writing, Space Base has 647 positive reviews, and 2,029 negative. This has resulted in a 24% score. We may need to investigate these kinds of scores to see where they come from, and there are cases of unfair mass downvoting, but when dealing with steam review scores, it’s generally a case of ‘no smoke without fire’. I know we’ve been far from perfect ourselves, but now that people are routinely buying unfinished games, and with the many opportunities for people to lose money on misleading or ill-advised Kickstarter or Early Access projects, and for the more unscrupulous sorts to abuse the system, being able to trust the word of your fellow gamer is ever more important. This is why tensions between gamers and the games media have heightened in recent years, with more and more ways gamers can feel dicked out of their money and being angry if they had the game recommended to them.
So what happens when even your fellow gamers may have a direct financial incentive to sell a game they backed, EVEN if they are hugely disappointed and angry at the resulting game? Now at the moment it will only be accredited investors, and this doesn’t seem to be an issue for ‘initial projects’. But…
“The lead investor in each project will negotiate the terms of the investment — which will then be passed on to the investors who sign up on Fig and follow suit. Minimum investments will be high — in the thousands of dollars — particularly in the initial projects, but Bailey foresees a future where fans set up trusts to invest in games collectively.”
We’re not talking about launch day here. We’re talking about where this system is headed if successful. Star Citizen has shown that a lot of people are prepared to put thousands of dollars into a game, even with no chance of returns. This doesn’t reassure me. How many backers will there be on these projects? If Space-Base was on Fig, how many backers would it have had in total?
I guess it depends on the game. But given that Fig hosts ‘just one campaign at a time’ (though again, for how long until they scale it up?) I imagine the focus on it would result in higher numbers of backers than games lost in the Kickstarter ether.
So we could have cases of hundreds, if not thousands of backers. How many of these people would then have a free steam key for the game? How many of them would be inclined to leave a glowingly positive review even if they were seething inside, desperate to claw back as much of their ill advised stake as possible? How much could the backers alone directly influence the Steam review score?
Not all games get 10,000 reviews and hundreds of thousands of sales and while it would be trickier to game AAA releases, I suspect indie games could be massively cheesable. Even if that’s not the case, like Cylons hidden among the fleet, investors with their objectivity compromised could walk anywhere among us. We don’t know how many of them there are, what they look like, and before long we’ll be trying to get our neighbours flushed out the airlock.
That’s just one problem. Back to the media. How do you really know that a YouTuber or a games journalist hasn’t backed the game they are reviewing? Even if they wouldn’t ever do that, how would you know? We thought the trust between gamers and journalists was bad before. YouTubers and streamers would be open to the exact same temptation and suspicion whatever way they would go.
If Fig was a success, and became the go to site to fund game development, how could we trust anyone ever again when it came to any of the games funded on it? With community/company loyalties, stockholm syndrome, buyers remorse and other biases, not to mention games being inherently subjective medium, it’s already not particularly clear to many people whether a Kickstarter or Early Access is a sure thing or a disaster in the making. People are getting more wise to judging, but this has the potential to become a huge step back, as in this age of concern about ethics when it comes to money and game critiques, it stands to compromise the reliability of everyone in games as the very people who are currently the most critical of failed game projects would be encouraged to keep silent.