I Paid For Unfinished Games
In the last year, I’ve purchased more than sixty video games. I’ve come back into the PC gaming fold, and in discovering the joys of Steam sales and Humble Bundles, and I’ve spent more money than I realize on games I may never play. I’ve bought shooters, strategy, survival, and adventure games, and some that defy those categories. Here’s the thing: a fair number of them haven’t been finished.
I started with a game that hadn't even been created: Double Fine’s Broken Age. In its Kickstarter days, it was known as Double Fine Adventure. I knew Tim Schafer, and I knew that his record, both before and with Double Fine, was fantastic. The guy who made Grim Fandango, one of my favorite games ever, is making an old-school point-and-click adventure game? Of course I’m in.
That’s the easy sell. Republique was not. I agonized for a couple weeks over whether to back it. I don’t know why. Pitching a fully featured action/adventure game on a touch device that hasn’t even been around that long is hugely ambitious, and yet, that’s exactly the ballsiness that I want to see from indie developers. So yeah, I’m going to encourage that idea even if the project is a failure. I’m going to give Camouflaj some money, and with it I’m going to say, “I support this kind of risk-taking, because you are proposing a style of gameplay that I want to see refined.”
Armikrog, Castle Story, Planetary Annihilation, and others are similar stories; I backed them on Kickstarter because I wanted to see them succeed. But I've also purchased games that have been ostensibly released.
Natural Selection 2 is one of these. It's the sequel to a Half-Life mod that I played even more than Team Fortress Classic, Day of Defeat, and Counter-Strike. It was released in November 2012, and I bought it before I even had a machine to play it on. NS2's developers, Unknown Worlds, are constantly rebalancing, tweaking, fixing bugs, and adding features. By traditional definitions, the game may never be "complete," and that's ok.
What? Why would I pay for a product that's not complete? Isn't that like buying a car without brakes? Well, no, not really. First of all, no one is going to die if they can't play your game (fanboy dramatics aside). Secondly, people can play your game. If games like Minecraft and programs like Steam Early Access are any indication, people can't wait to play incomplete games, and they'll gladly pay for the privilege.
The technology that enables this new model is ubiquitous broadband access. It's taken for granted that people who are serious about video games will have fast internet access. How could they not? They can readily download thousands of games to their PCs or consoles, and be playing them within minutes. Knowing that most of your players have persistent connections makes it nearly painless to push out updates, which are increasingly expected. Microsoft and Sony essentially require a downloadable day one update to use their new consoles as intended.
And developers have been doing this for years. World of Warcraft and other MMO games were some of the first to see constant patches, updates, and refinements. This continuous iteration was driven largely by the huge amount of content in these games – there was simply no way to fix every bug before millions of players crushed the servers. But it was also a natural consequence of the online nature of these games; because they required an internet connection to play, developers could be certain that their changes reached every user.
We've become used to the idea of games in constant development, and this model has advantages. Indie developers have used the strategy to boost their fundraising, by offering access to playable alpha or beta builds of their games for a discounted price. These proceeds, in turn, fund further development, refinement, and feature enhancements. Developers often provide access to private, backer-only forums, which give fans a direct line to the creative team. In the case of Broken Age, Double Fine allowed Two Player Productions to document the entire cycle of game development.
It seems like we're headed for a golden age of democratic game-making, with developers working transparently, and gamers acting as patrons, funding and guiding the projects. But I don't think that's how it will all go down. Not exactly.
Here's one dilemma developers face: they're being paid by people who want a product that doesn't (entirely) exist. Many of these funders figure that they've paid their money, so deciding the direction of the game is their right. Can they buy the job title of game designer? If they all have a voice, how will development ever end?
Taking the model to the extreme, you'll have a constantly-changing game which incorporates every idea of anyone who throws in a few bucks. Someone will be brave(?) enough to try that Kickstarter pitch soon enough.
Game makers will need to find proficiency in balancing the desires of backers with the realities of game development. They'll need to decide whether they want to constantly iterate, releasing features and content continuously, or follow a more traditional production schedule, hitting milestones and releasing a finished product.
Some developers will do both. Many have adopted a "buy once, own forever" policy, in which all future releases – regardless of scope – will be free to the purchaser. Others rely on goodwill, offering a few small benefits in exchange for additional donations.
Whatever the strategy, the exchange of money for unproven and non-existent games is alive and well. Gamers have immense freedom in the games they choose to play and the developers they support. And even small studios (really small: Jonathan Blow, Phil Fish, Notch) can produce breakout games with pluck, luck, and innovative gameplay. In the midst of writing this article, I purchased Starbound, a game just entering public beta. I'm not about to stop.