My thoughts on crowdfunded and early access games.

Disclaimer: Before I start this piece, let me make it clear that this is just my opinion and it may well be different to other people’s. I don’t speak for any person or organization other than myself.

It’s no secret that my childhood featured gaming to a large degree, I remember playing games such as Crash Bandicoot and early Lego games that were starting to enter the console market. These were the days I believe when games were at their best because developers weren’t out for consumer dollars, but rather they had creations that they wanted to show off to the wider world. The gamers didn’t really have any effect on a games development back then, we just took games at face value and either enjoyed them or we did not and confined them to the dusty shelf.

However around 2009, a new way of developing games appeared known as crowd sourcing. For those who do not know, this is where a person suggests a project and asks for people to pledge money towards making their project happen. The people who pledge then get access to the product upon completion because they’ve essentially paid towards it. Often these crowd sourced projects have milestone rewards such as beta/alpha access to a game, player names on non-playable characters or physical/in-game items. This gives the general public some control over what comes onto the gaming market, if they don’t like the concept they simply won’t throw money at it. The issue I find with such games is the fact that when I pledge money to a game, I’m essentially trusting the developers to actually give me a game with everything that they promised. If they said they’ll release the game by a certain date, I expect by that date to be able to download a full release with all the features promised even if there are a few bugs and glitches. It’s like ordering dinner at a restaurant, I expect my food to be in front of me on time and actually be the full meal that I requested. After all is that not what I’m paying hard earned money for?

I’m going to use the highly anticipated Star Citizen  as a case study in light of recent event surrounding the game. Star Citizen is an upcoming space simulator game that is in someways similar and different to Elite: Dangerous which I’ve reviewed on this site. It is being produced by Chris Roberts of Cloud Imperium who is known for his work on the Wing Commander Series, Freelancer and Starlancer so he is no stranger to the space simulation genre. However the Kickstarter for this game started back in 2012 and so far the game has raised $85,000,000 (at the time of this writing) with the initial promise of the full game being released in 2014 with a huge galaxy for players to explore, a First Person shooter module and many ships to choose from. The games funding campaign is largely based on players purchasing ships that will then be given to them on full release. For example you can pledge $45 for a basic Aurora starship that gives you access to the Arena Commander module, or you can spend $400 for a Javelin class Capital ship. Let’s remember that some of these ships you are paying for aren’t even accessible by you until the full release so you are paying a company and not receiving what you are paying for. The aforementioned Arena Commander module was released in the summer of 2014 and was intended to give players access to the smaller ships and let them fly around shooting a few NPCs in a closed area. Now the game was meant to be released in full during 2014 and instead all we have is a tiny combat arena with only a few ships for people to fly that they have already paid for. Elite Dangerous by contrast had a a large number of systems for people to explore, trade in and fight each other in during its beta and the number of systems and ships available were frequently added to. The Elite Beta was pretty much representative of the finished game. Frontier Developments have even said they will be adding planetary landing and ship-board combat in the future as expansions. Star Citizen have promised the same sort of thing  but have given their backers far less to play with while they wait for a game that has missed it’s promised release date.

It begs the question of where is all the money that was raised has gone? Chris Roberts has stated that his company has four studios now with over 300 employees working on Star Citizen, yet there’s no real evidence of work being done by the employees apart from a half-baked Arena module. What is even more concerning is the recent departures of key staff members such as a senior producer and recently the executive producer. Does that potentially mean these employees saw there was a problem in the way the game was being developed? We will probably never know. However as long as these sort of events are occurring, Star Citizen is going to continue to be controversial in regards to how much money it has to use for development and the in-proportional results (Arena Commander’s lack of optimization, non-accessible ships etc.) I’m not attacking the game, but I would like to have access to more of the game after 3 years of development which is essentially what is being said by Mr Derek Smart.

Leaving crowd-funding aside, I think it is also worth taking a look at the world of early access. This is where you essentially pay for a game at a reduced price and get access to a game as it’s being developed, with updates containing new content and bug fixes right up until full release. For some games like Kerbal Space Program and The Forest, this has worked out extremely well with Kerbal Space Program reaching full release with all the features the developers wanted to include, and The Forest consistently staying within the Steam best sellers ranks. However early access also allows some games which are being created by under-motivated developers to sneak on to the market. Consumers then pay for these games and eventually the game may simply cease development leaving players with nothing resembling the game they were buying into. Steam does very little to moderate what games come onto the market with games like Grass Simulator which quite frankly is a very bad joke. A game with no actual goal isn’t what I would consider fun, Goat Simulator at least made me laugh due to it’s intended wacky physics and general nonsense. Perhaps Goat Simulator was trying to make a point by combining all the common problems with early development games into one box of chaos. Early Access should be reserved for close to complete games where the players are able to play the game and help developers find bugs and fix them quickly so that on release the game is near perfect.

What are your thoughts on crowdfunding or early access games? Feel free to share them with me in the comments below.

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