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COMMENT | Spacebase DF-9: another Double Fine mess

Jonathan Lester
Double Fine, Spacebase DF-9

COMMENT | Spacebase DF-9: another Double Fine mess

Following the furore over Broken Age's bloated budget and brutal bisection (look Ma, I'm alliterating!), Double Fine find themselves back in hot water. Spacebase DF-9 will soon be leaving Steam Early Access under a cloud, as it transpired that the hardworking team had essentially ran out of money, so plan to abandon development and leave the player base to implement all the rest of the missing features themselves by releasing the source code.

Features that were quickly and conveniently deleted from their web page. Never mind. It's version 1.0! Let the modding commence! Mod, mod, you ungrateful fools!

This predictably resulted in a bit of a firestorm. Some accuse Double Fine of pulling a fast one, others believe that the studio acted ethically in the face of a bad situation and the YouTube first responders wasted no time in thumping their tubs.

COMMENT | Spacebase DF-9: another Double Fine mess

Now that the smoke has cleared enough to see the situation for what it is, we're going to get involved. Or more specifically, explain why Double Fine deserves to be hauled over the coals.

No, this is not going to be a critique of the Early Access business model. We (along with every other pundit on the internet) have already weighed in, but the simple fact is that there's nothing wrong with Alpha Funding in and of itself... so long as the specific game is actually suitable!

I can't resist taking another dig at Valve, mind. Steam may have evolved from Harrods into Costco, but even they vet their stock, ensure baseline quality standards, exchange faulty goods and issue product recalls if necessary.

That sorted, we're going to take a closer look at the ethics of the situation and, more importantly, the way Double Fine handled it.

COMMENT | Spacebase DF-9: another Double Fine mess

Projects fold all the time, especially ambitious sandbox games from inexperienced developers. It's naive to think otherwise. Considering that Double Fine's sub-team were miles outside their comfort zone with DF-9, both in terms of genre and business model, I can't say that I'm entirely surprised.

I am surprised, however, at the shocking level of dialogue and (mis)communication perpetrated throughout the early access process. Early Access is supposed to give punters... say it with me... ACCESS to the development process, which includes regular and candid status updates. The best crowd-or-alpha-funded projects relay both the bad news and the good as often as possible, willing to keep customers informed about potential delays, pitfalls and even mistakes ahead of time.

Completely running out of money and resources didn't happen overnight. Obviously. You probably should have mentioned it at some point, Double Fine!

COMMENT | Spacebase DF-9: another Double Fine mess

What you definitely shouldn't do is announce a massive jump from v0.6 to v1.0 in a press release phrased as some sort of glorious triumph, and going so far to trumpet the source code release as an additional favour to consumers. That's disingenuous. That's spin. That's dishonest. And that's exactly what happened.

The sad fact of the matter is that clued-up Early Access punters are on board for the journey, not the destination. If Double Fine had explained the situation ahead of time, honestly telling supporters that the project might be at risk when they first had doubts, punters still would have been justifiably disappointed and more than a little peeved. But at least gamers would have understood, tried to support DF-9 as best they could and content that they'd at least been afforded enough respect to be kept in the loop.

Instead, Double Fine yanked the rug from under their customers before embarking on a desperate campaign of damage control and image massaging. Sure, Schafer was quick to leap into a Q&A (answering his own questions), but it was yet more justifications after the fact when up-front honesty and humility beforehand would have been so much more appropriate.

COMMENT | Spacebase DF-9: another Double Fine mess

Schafer may be a visionary, but project management is not Double Fine's strong suit (outside of PSN and XBLA releases). Broken Age made that patently clear, not to mention allegations about Brutal Legend's questionable development cycle. Personally speaking, I reckon that Double Fine might benefit from hiring some new producers; not starry-eyed idealists, but ruthless ornery troubleshooters who've seen enough projects fail and been around the triple-A block enough times to know how to keep creatives on schedule... sparing neither the cupcake nor the lash.

Ugh. Hurk. Argh! As someone who's always championed creative freedom without limits and cynical intervention in all spheres of videogame development, it physically pains me to write that. But all bets are off when you charge customers real money on the back of a promise and a prototype.

Milestones must be realistic, then realised.

Goals must be achievable, then achieved.

Development must be sustainable, then sustained.

Expectations must be measured and met.


COMMENT | Spacebase DF-9: another Double Fine mess

Be in no doubt: this is an industry where a single great idea can become a smash hit, where numerous alpha funded projects become truly great games whether developed by large proven teams or garage coders on a shoestring.

But invariably these projects succeed because their creators' vision is strong enough to push through without being diluted and distracted by shiny extra features. The design document is painstakingly thought through, not a bloated mess of revisions. The promise is literally a plan and they stick to it as much as possible, iterating and polishing, cutting unworkable features for good reasons only after frank yet firm explanations to their backers, ultimately resulting in something solid that can continue to evolve after launch or just release as a complete finished article.

COMMENT | Spacebase DF-9: another Double Fine mess

Big bold ideas are wonderful, but when a company with Double Fine's pedigree makes a promise and charges real money, it's not good enough to pull the plug and claim poverty after the fact. Disregarding the little detail that they have other revenue streams to draw on in a pinch (ooh, doesn't Costume Quest 2 look fun?), the plan should have been stronger, funding contingencies should have been in place and communication should have been brutally honest at every stage. No excuses. Not even from our Tim.

Double Fine deserves some slack. They're based in a very expensive area, pay employees fairly for their talent and have still produced something resembling a videogame at the end of the day. Mistakes happen. Projects fail all the time. All compelling and reasonable points...

...except that they launched a DF-9 Steam sale two weeks before the announcement and used their upcoming feature list to sell copies, despite already knowing that the project was on the rocks!

COMMENT | Spacebase DF-9: another Double Fine mess

This was unacceptable, unethical and totally unforgivable to my mind, even as someone who didn't buy Spacebase DF-9. It's shady no matter how you slice it. If this was a last-ditch effort to raise funds and keep the project afloat, they should have said so, rather than knowingly tricking new customers into believing that they were buying a game with months of development ahead of it. If. If. As it stands, though, it smells for all the world like a cynical raiding run. And it smells awful, no matter how you defend it after the fact.

I still believe that Early Access is a fantastic way of raising money for certain types of project, and some good will hopefully come of this. More gamers will finally realise that Early Access is not a preorder and that it should only be considered on a very rare basis, if ever, but I don't really want to blame gamers for believing in a promise from their favourite developer. After all, us press types should be informing our readers about the reality of the market!

As far as developers are concerned, this ought be a wakeup call for inexperienced studios flirting with the idea of Early Access, who'll hopefully look at their unsuitable project and realise that the model can do more harm than good even if they have the best of intentions. Steam,must soon look to enforce stricter quality control and curation of their storefront, not to mention better educating less savvy customers about the risks involved, implementing a robust refund program and blacklisting studios who repeatedly strike out. Yesterday's discovery update is a step in the right direction.

COMMENT | Spacebase DF-9: another Double Fine mess

And Double Fine? Schafer has apologised for the awful communication throughout the process, even though he should have learned this from the reaction to the shock Broken Age announcement that felt like a fait accompli. After patently mishandling another project, hopefully they'll continue to innovate and bring us big brilliant ideas... but only invite us to pay out when they're willing to make a plan, stick to it and communicate every step of the way.

And even then, they deserve every lost sale, irate tweet, YouTube drubbing and disappointed disillusioned fan who'll never buy from them again. They've earned it! We absolutely should make an example of them; not because they're the worst Early Access developer out there, but because they should have known better and everyone needs to know that it's unacceptable -- no matter how big or beloved you are.

Double Fine has banked plenty of goodwill over the last few years, but they've just made a serious withdrawal. Broken Age Part 2 needs to deliver.

Add a comment9 comments
phil16  Sep. 24, 2014 at 13:05

Gosh! Almost bought this during the recent game sale. Glad I didn't. I guess it was a finally roll of the dice to see if they could bring in enough money to finish it but seems really cheeky if not dishonest. This will make me even more careful of buying crowd funded and double fine games in the future...

Tsung  Sep. 24, 2014 at 13:14

I didn't get stung by this, but my take on it is this..

If game.developer = "Double Fine"
Ignore, Avoid, Advise against.

Even if their next game is amazing; trust is lost, the best they can do now is shut down and go their separate ways.

I'm not going to be buying in to any Alpha Games, Greenlight or Early Access games anymore. Not that it's stopping the developers.

I turn your attention to "Train Fever" the game is on Steam as released. Not beta, not alpha nor early access. I was almost tempted to buy it, it's a 3D modern day transport tycoon the blub says. The thumbs up reviews are glowing showering praise on it, people have clocked up over 200 hours.

That made me suspicious, a closer inspection reveals that the game was crowd funded on "Gambitious" where people can buy shares and get a return on profits made.
Ofc. some of them glowing reviews were by people who were in the early Beta who had shares (some declared honestly they were, some forget to mention it). The thing is, spend a few minutes in the forums and you can see the game isn't "feature" complete at all. (So this is an alpha/beta game released as complete).

Steam needs to tighten up it's practices; publishers in the early access should have to show progress on an agreed timetable or the product will be removed from sale. That timetable should be published for all to see.

As for S:DF9, Steam should pull it from sale immediately. Selling products with false advertising is fraud after all.

CarlPhillips  Sep. 24, 2014 at 13:47

As for S:DF9, Steam should pull it from sale immediately. Selling products with false advertising is fraud after all.

Absolutely agreed. Valve did the same when The War Z (or Infestation: Survivor Stories) sold their game advertising features that weren't in there.

JonLester  Sep. 24, 2014 at 14:30

@Phil16: Glad to hear it. Even though the game was on sale, it was still a shameful cash grab regardless of the motives behind it. In fact, I've added an extra short paragraph to fully clarify my personal position - it makes me angrier the more I think about it.

@Tsung: I'm sorry to hear that this (and other) disasters have soured you against the Early Access model... but I don't blame you. In fact, good on you.

Early access relies on trust, and if the scene collapses due to high-and-low-profile failures like this, then it's a bubble that deserves to burst no matter how much I enjoy the likes of Dungeon Of The Endless, Endless Legend, Mercenary Kings, Minecraft, Prison Arcitect etc. It's up to everyone to decide whether alpha funding is actually the right choice for them, and 9 times out of 10, I'd suggest that waiting for the full game is the right call.

Folks, vote with your wallets and always err on the side of caution - and the market should eventually normalise as bullsh*t projects receive no funding and developers realise that other funding models are usually a better fit for their game. Hopefully Steam will start to take their responsibilities seriously too.

I'm still going to keep covering Early Access games (I always urge readers to not part with money) and posting deals for titles I can personally vouch for (i.e. that the prototype is already an enjoyable and worthwhile experience in its own right), but I think that realism and even downright healthy suspicion is always called for when it comes to buying an unfinished product.

EDIT: Oh, please call out abusive and patently awful Early Access titles if you see them. I wonder if there's even a semi-regular feature in there.

@Carl: I agree, though this case is a bit more nuanced only due to the fact that The War Z misrepresented features that were supposed to be already present in the release build, not just features that will hopefully be added down the line.

Again, though, agreed. I genuinely think that Double Fine should be made an example of by all concerned.

Last edited by JonLester, Sep. 24, 2014 at 14:38
Jerec  Sep. 24, 2014 at 15:21

Wheres Jar-Jar?

JonLester  Sep. 24, 2014 at 15:34

@Jerec: Ha! Well spotted again - after you successfully pointed out my original mistake, I decided to celebrate by finally finding a new Jar Jar-free image.

I might bring Jar-Jar back every now and again. :D

Last edited by JonLester, Sep. 24, 2014 at 15:36
Jerec  Sep. 24, 2014 at 16:15

Good shout!

I'll keep my eyes peeled!

TungstenShark  Sep. 24, 2014 at 20:00

This sounds like DF were a victim of a type of paralysis you sometimes see in larger projects. What happens is that things start to slip but nobody has the time or will to stop the process there and then and sort it out. Once that starts it gets harder and harder to stop and face the obvious 'why didn't you do something before?' question. Everyone knows it's going to end in disaster but no one has the balls to stop it.

Basically what they needed was a leader who was willing to risk being unpopular both internally and externally at an early stage. That really is a skill, which apparently no one in Double Fine had.

Last edited by TungstenShark, Sep. 24, 2014 at 21:13
JonLester  Sep. 24, 2014 at 21:23

@TungstenShark: Absolutely agreed, and we saw similar slip and bloat with Broken Age.

I made a similar point in the article - whether producers or project managers, DF need to make some smart hires with real industry experience, thick skins and who've seen enough projects go belly up to know that creatives have to be kept on track by any reasonable means necessary when promises are made and money is changing hands. Not to mention ensuring that said promises are actually achievable in the first place.

Last edited by JonLester, Sep. 24, 2014 at 21:27

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