Valley of the Dead Pre-Releases

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Before any gets clever, I am not asking about the dinosaurs; I am referring to a mass extinction event going on within the confines of digital media.  Early Access games are out there and comprise a large part of Steam.  I have nothing resembling exact figures, but it feels like there are at least 5 unfinished games on steam for every complete title.  Want a more solid idea of how many there are? Early Access is its own searchable category on Steam.  It contains such prestigious titles as The Forest, DieselStormers, Galactic Civilizations III and others.  The three I will be discussing today are those shown above: Towns, Terraria and Stomping Lands

What is Early Access?

Once upon a time there was a magical viking who had an idea for a video game.  You can mine and mine and mine, build a house, a fortress a town, farm, breed animals and fish.  You’ll be able to use portals to travel to other dimensions and work magic.  Monsters will come out at night, but you can defend against them!  And in the End, you’ll fight a dragon!  This game was slow to catch on at first, but once kids and gamers found it, they fell in love.  It rapidly became one of the most popular games of all time, spanning generation gaps and giving everyone something they loved.  This was the first instance of an unreasonably popular early access game.  It was called Minecraft.

Since then a number of companies have vied to create an early access hit like Minecraft.  Steam has been the most successful in its push, encouraging devs to submit their games for rigorous vetting by Steam’s community through Steam Greenlight.  Once the games have been selected, they are allowed to provide an early version of the game at a reasonable price for purchase.  This was awesome at first, but then Steam became progressively more inundated with games that aren’t finished.  And worse than that, some games die in this public-run games incubator.

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This is a brief description from Steam’s website about what early access is and here is a link to their complete explanation about what all of that entails.

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Many people are familiar with this title.  The idea is that you start a small, 16-bit town of sprite people and then guide these people through building a town.  You can do all kinds of fun things from farming and animal husbandry to combating foes.  You can also create a little stairwell down to the mines below.  Of course, these mines are filled with all nature of foul monsters, so you need to attract heroes to your town to battle the enemies and delve deeper.  By doing this you can get better materials to build with and make a fabulous town!

So how did it die?  Sales.  In a lengthy post on the Towns official forum, gamedev Moebius went into detail about why Towns is no longer being developed.  Hardly news, this post goes back to May 2014 and details his reasons.

“When I signed up for working on Towns I was told that we sell a minimum of about x copies/month of the game. I agreed to work on Towns for 15% of what would remain after removing all the taxes and the Steam fee. Xavi and I agreed that this would be a fair amount, and I still think it is.  After getting used to the source code and publishing the first new version of the game, we talked about the agreed payment and it turns out that the sells are getting down rapidly. So we are now selling less than a third of the x copies a month, loosing about 33% of sells per month.”

Yea, that is the most of it.  The game wasn’t selling anymore and the most of the money to be made there was lost in the initial rush of sales.  By the time Moebius was conscripted, it was too late.  If you keep reading that little post by Moebius, down at the bottom they make some spectacularly upsetting statements.

“Xavi and I were talking about a possible Towns2. At the moment this is just in an idea stage and we can’t really say if he, I or eventually Ben have the time to create a Towns2. As faithful fans of Towns we would of course reward you in some way, when/if the new game is released.

“A new game will give us the following advantages:

  1. we can implement all the cool things that are not possible at the moment due to how the core mechanics works in Towns 1
  2. we can also rise attention as this is a completely new game and a successor for once great runnning game
  3. this will also make it possible to have a financially sound basis for a long development of Towns2

“I want to end this post by thanking you for reading this and for all your support in these two months. Again I’m sorry that we had to pull the plug right here, but I sincerely hope you can understand why we had to make that decision right now.”

So let me get this straight.  Not developing the game anymore because of a decrease in sales, so the money isn’t there.  Got it.  Now we are considering a Towns 2 as a sequel to this farce?  What the fuck?  I mean at least they were open about saying the idea is just a way to get more money out of the game, but how do you make a sequel to an unfinished game?  Granted, there have been 2 updates to the game since this post, but they were the only two updates to the game since September 30, 2013.  So fans of the game are left with an occasionally updated title that is a testament to what could have been.

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I am pretty sure this title is older than Towns, but there is a reason I am listing it here.  Terraria is a game where you build 2D houses and dig in the ground for stuff.  At night evil monsters come and try to kill you.  God what the fuck is with all the similarities here…

Back in 2012 the developers of Terraria declared the game had received its final update and that it was “time to move on”.  In this PC Gamer article, it is explained that one of the developers even went to work on Starbound with Chucklefish, which, for lack of a better term, is Terraria in space.  In my opinion, it seems like CF stole the developer for this game to prevent it competing with their own game.  Shady horseshit.  Despite the developers apparently jumping ship, the game is still receiving updates on the Steam store, which makes it seem like the whole “boo hoo we’re ending the game” thing was a cry for help.

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Now we’ve got this game, The Stomping Land.  I was originally planning to review this game, but I spent hours in-game and realized how much it sucks when you play it alone.  To give you an idea, when I first came in, I was a naked caveman.  I was on a beach for about a couple seconds when an idiot burst out of the underbrush riding a raptor and hurling bolas.  Someone else was trying to stop him from killing me, and I managed to use the terrain to conceal my escape.  Crafting was boring and you couldn’t stash your shit except in a box, which you dragged along behind you.  It was utterly unfinished, and now I read THIS horseshit.

Apparently the game has gotten no updates in months, which really got Kickstarter backers nervous.  The company also went radio-silent for a while too, but they came out and said that they were switching to Unreal 4.  That is not so bad, but with the game itself being pulled from Steam, everyone with that game in their library – myself included – shat many bricks of frustration.  Of course, before Alex Fundora, SuperCrit founder, announced the engine change, he effectively disappeared for two months!  Tumultuous, scary shit.

So what does all of this mean for Early-Access games?  Tread lightly.  Many of these games are financially on the ropes as it is, so a heavy measure of trepidation is urged in investing.  Buying these games isn’t you standard I give you money you provide a product, it is literally a form of speculation similar to stocks trading;.  Certainly it is not nearly as volatile or risky, but you might not get your 20$ for that game back, nor might you get a finished game.  It might be a sign that all of these games attempt to emulate Minecraft’s basic structure despite adding new elements to their games.  Just like so many other MMO’s attempted to emulate World of Warcraft’s success and died trying.  In some of these instances you even have games that died and came back from the dead, which gives a new meaning to the term “zombie-game.”

I spoke briefly with my friend Dave about these types of games and he echoed the same frustration that many long-time gamers feel.  When you buy a game, you want a finished product.  You don’t want to play a game up to the point where the bugs are too much to handle and then have to put it down.  Sure, there will be more content later, but it will trickle in; then you’ll log on each time to experience that new content, effectively experiencing the finished game in pieces until the finished product feels as worn and old as the other games in your library.  It is irritating and many of us just want to play a finished game.

Some people seem to be over Steam Greenlight and similar services altogether, but just how many I am not sure.  VG247 had a pretty interesting article back in January 2014 about Greenlight closing, which might not be the complete answer, but I am not sure that too many people would be upset about it.  What are your thoughts about early-release games?  Join me in a discussion about it on Crotchety Gamers United!

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