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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
From DAY ZERO.
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.
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...
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.
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.