Tobold's Blog
Friday, May 30, 2014
Selling unfinished games

Hey, would you be interested in buying a house? I haven't actually started building it yet, and I don't plan to put much work in it, but if you pay me a monthly fee you can build that house yourself and totally influence the style. If that sounds like a bad deal to you, you need to wonder how Epic Games managed to get a much better reception for their Unreal Tournament 3 project: You need to pay $19 per month to contribute, and Epic Games is only putting a very small team behind the game. So the game will be both crowdsourced and crowdfunded, with Epic Games earning money as middle men.

And that is just one example of the current trend to sell you unfinished games. ArcheAge will happily sell you an alpha key for $150, and $100+ alpha keys have become kind of an industry standard. On Kickstarter you can easily end up paying money for a game that never even sees alpha stage. And Steam has a complete system of Greenlight and Early Access going, where you can buy access to unfinished games. Some of which then get abandoned and never finish.

What all of this does is basically turning players from customers into investors: They invest in the hope of getting a finished game in the future. But in general they are what is called an unsophisticated investor: The players don't have the means to verify whether their investment is sound. P.T. Barnum wouldn't have used "unsophisticated investor", but called them "suckers". Make a nice trailer that targets the hopes and dreams of the player community, cash in the money, and then some time later do an apology post declaring how circumstances conspired to not make that game possible. Rarely do the scammed customers get their money back, although sometimes they do.

I can only advise against most of those schemes. I am willing to pre-purchase a game from a reputable company. But I consider any Kickstarter project to be a charity event with a small chance of a reward. And I tend to put Early Access games I'm interested in on my Steam wishlist and wait until they are finished. Towns was on my wishlist, and I'm happy I never bought it.

We could argue that AAA titles from "big" companies are better, because you spend money for a finished product. But we all know it's not true anymore: bugs, missing features, lower graphics, DLC's ... they are all part of the new gaming industry.

On the other side you jave Kickstareter, where you already know you are not spending money for a "finished" game. You decide to help the developers. It's charity, I agree. But at least you KNOW what you're paying for.

With that said, I stopped backing kickstarter projects one year ago. I don't believe in this scheme anymore, there are too many devs trying to jump on the "let's make fast money!" train.
I think kick-starter and early access purchases have a role to play in funding games that otherwise wouldn't get off the ground. I do think that we the public have to recognise that they are a purely speculative investment which may come to nothing. From a purchasers point of view I think it makes sense if there is a reward on offer which offsets the risk of the game never happening. The reward may be discount on release price or it might just be the chance of getting a game in a genre that is not longer popular with big name companies. I don't understsnd the notion of paying extra for early access to an unfinished game.
Towns in its current form is more of a finished product than a lot of 'finished' games. I think I've gotten over 50 hours out of it, and never 'beat' it. It's worth picking up on a Steam sale IMO.

That said it does suck they stopped working on it, as it's a very fun game.
You say this like its a bad thing. The problem isn't selling unfinished games, its unwary people buying unfinished games.

Getting customers involved early in a game can give several benefits:
- Gauge interest. This can lead to investors or be a smack upside the head. This can be granular since a game can several aspects.
- Get early feedback, which may even lead to the a change in direction for a game, and prevent serious mistakes, or overbuilding features they don't have the money for.
- Kick a labor of love into gear and turn it into something great.
- Charging early money can make sure serious comers only, at a time when a developer needs feedback, but not too much.

You talk about this like its a scam. There are very few guarantees with most of these early projects. If people want to take the risk, that's up to them.

Now if these companies are guaranteeing success or claiming they are offering a finished game when they aren't and taking people's money, that's a different story.
Shrug, games are so cheap it almost doesn't matter. And I've certainly had AAA games, finished products, that I've spent money on and didn't receive a good return from. Just threw away $70 on the new elder scrolls mmo, played it three days and never intend to play again.

I don't think I'd ever invest in a game concept, in the hopes that they'll get at least a demo up at some point, but I haven't hesitated to buy early access to several fun games. Not all of them are good, or work out, but they seem to have a much higher chance of being of interest to me than a random full game release. I don't care about influencing direction or being charitable or helping the indie community or any of that crap, I just think that many early access games are still excellent entertainment value/time.

I've sunk hours and hours into games like Kerbal Space Program or Factorio that I'd regret skipping out on, if I hadn't been willing to pay for early access for fear the game might get canceled.
Funny enough, I only bought one Early Access game so far and it was because Tobold recommended that people buy it:)

Craft the World is a great game and I already put more hours into it than I did into something like Assassin's Creed.
I agree with you on kickstarter. It's the ultimate pre-order filed with unfilled promises. Even if the game does get made, how likely is it to be the game promised? The Repopulation is a good example - they started marketing two different rule sets to attract more interest. Call me a cynic or an educated investor but I'm betting only one ruleset is ever made.

I feel differently about early access on Steam. I'm pretty sure Rust and DayZ are both early access games and they've both been worth the price of admission.
The early access games vary widely in quality. Some are near finished, and are in their current state already well worth their price. Others are barely playable.
Some people have a LOT more disposable income than others. Some people don't have a lot of money but find very, very few things they want to spend that money on. Some people get value out of things other people find worthless.

I also see a HUGE difference between Kickstarting a game that hasn't yet been made, which is, I agree, a form of either investment or gambling, and buying access to an "unfinished" game. I'd be hard put to explain to a non-MMO player what the qualitative difference was between playing a fully-functioning "alpha" or "beta" build and playing a released game into which new content and systems are patched indefinitely. SO long as you enjoy playing, what does it matter how "finished" it is?
Kickstarter is also cheap marketing. Those days some people put Kickstarter campaign with the true objective to raise the awareness of their game rather than raising money.
Steam Greenlight and Early access are too intergrated into the main sight. There should be a marked skin change when you move from completed to proposed games in the store.

In other news, next release of Dwarf Fortress is due soon.
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