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Following the release of update 6.0 hilariously and prophetically dubbed “Brig Ambitions, Broken Dreams”, Kickstarter darling Double Fine announced in the middle of September that they would be prematurely wrapping up production on Spacebase DF-9, falling three years short of their projected five year development cycle. For those of you with a short memory, Spacebase DF-9 was the overall winner of Amnesia Fortnight 2012 – an in house game jam where the community paid to vote on 23 proof of concepts to determine what game Double Fine would work on next. With Prison Architect and Dwarf Fortress  as cited influences,  Spacebase DF-9 essentially had penny loafers with an entire Lovecraftian pocket dimension hidden in them to fill.

The communities reaction was perfectly in-line with a consumer who just had the rug pulled out from under him, with first commentator “Xander” setting the tone for the next 15 pages:

“Double Fine is not a random fly-by-night indie dev and we are not going to silently pull the plug on Spacebase or any other in-development project. Doing so would be disastrous for our reputation and it would kill us emotionally ”

This does not seem to match up with what was written above sir. This is a quick end after a large steam sale with the game at a discount. A sudden discontinuation. You are going from alpha with multiple features planned to a quick cut ended 1.0.

Why are you going back on your word above? That or, why tell people this if resources had been becoming a problem? Why the disconnect between the two?

Also, what about peoples requests for refunds?

Project Lead JP, or Jean-Paul LeBreton, was quickly inundated with cries of outrage, and though a fair amount of users rushed to the defense of Double Fine, it becomes painfully clear that a majority of consumers felt jilted by the developers decision to pull the plug. Eventually public outcry became so loud that it even  reached the ear of self-described industry legend and noted panhandler Tim Schafer. Roused from his hibernation by the unwarranted grumblings of entitled gamers, he descended from his ivory tower to assuage complaints and offer as good of an explanation as people are likely to get. His response is rather lengthy, so for the sake of brevity here is a link to the thread in question.

To summarize, Tim reveals that they had planned for five years of development but were only able to fund one and a half due to fiscal shortcomings. He further explains that every dime spent on Spacebase went right back into the game, along with a healthy amount from Double Fine’s own pocket. Unfortunately, they still weren’t making profit on an unfinished game and decided they couldn’t operate on a loss, resulting in the decision to end development. This lead to the rather organic question of why they ended the production after explicitly stating they weren’t going to silently pull the plug. Tim Schaefer responds:

We are not silently pulling the plug. We are announcing our finishing features and v1.0 plan. I know it’s not a lot of advance notice, but we’re still here telling you our plan instead of vanishing quietly in the night.

This little morsel is best digested after a helping of the fact that Spacebase DF-9 had just came off of a steam sale, which raised the question of why would they put the game on sale if they knew that they were going to end development? In a dazzling display of mental gymnastics, Tim Schaefer offers:

Frequent sales are part of the Steam marketplace. We’ve had multiple sales throughout the game’s early access period in attempts to create a bigger audience for the game. As for the version of the game that people bought in this most recent sale, we are still working on it, fixing bugs and adding the final features to make the 1.0 version of Spacebase a fun and complete game.

So basically Double Fine and company turned their trick out for one last nights work with every intention of killing it and burying it in a shallow grave. For some reason they wanted to get their unfinished game out to a larger audience, even though at this point it was pretty clear it would never be feature complete and that they were essentially selling people on a dream. Yet, Tim is just as disappointed as we are:

I understand that the recent announcement was a disappointment. It was for you, and it was for us. We wanted to keep working on Spacebase for years. But Spacebase spends more money than it brings in, and that’s just not something we can afford to do any more.

tim-shafer-holla

Hard at work.

Tim rounds out his appearance by talking about how he can’t stand to see JP ripped up in the steam discussion threads:

It’s hard for me to see JP and his team get eviscerated on these forums, after I’ve watched them put their blood, sweat, and tears into Spacebase for the last year and a half. Telling you that they are hard-working and talented developers who toiled in good faith to create this unique work of entertainment probably isn’t going to change your minds about how you feel about this game. But I hope you might at least consider that no one is more disappointed than them that they will not be able to work on this game for years and years to come for reasons mostly out of their control.

While I’m sure that Tim’s heartfelt sentiment is fairly accurate, as I’m sure no one on the project wants to go down as the people who left a sinking ship, I assure you that a bulk of the people who purchased Spacebase DF-9 are more than adequately disappointed that Double Fine will be shoving a pre-natal 1.0 through the ravaged Fallopian tubes of Early Access as a last-ditch act of appeasement.

Let me make one thing perfectly clear before we go in to my reaction to all of this. I do not believe that Double Fine set out with the intention to never finish this game. I honestly believe that Jean-Paul LeBreton wanted to make Dwarf Fortress in space and had every intention of delivering on the stated devplan, which can no longer be viewed on their website but can be viewed here. That being said, it is my opinion that Double Fine not only grossly mishandled the development of this game, which they readily admit to, but set a dangerous precedent for future early access titles.

The most egregious implication is that Double Fine basically used Early Access as a way to test the waters. Developers such as Swen Vincke of Larian will tell you that the Early Access system is worth its weight in gold if you’re looking for feedback rather than funding. In the case of Divinity: Original Sin, they had already acquired the necessary backing through a mixture of investment and a successful Kickstarter program. In the case of Spacebase DF-9, it was the principle means of funding with very little capital to fall back on should it fail to earn its keep. By pulling out of development Double Fine is sending a very clear message: that if they put a game in Early Access and it fails to make sales despite being an unfinished product, they will cancel the project and leave the people that did invest out in the cold. In this sense, Double Fine was essentially throwing ideas at the wall and seeing what would stick. As soon as the bologna started to slide, they took JP’s pet out back and gave it the Old Yeller treatment.

In traditional development Double Fine would have assumed all the risk. They would have developed the game in-house, or sought investors or a publisher, with a specific budget and a specific deadline in mind. If the game bombed, they would have been out the money and the consumer would have been able to make a very clear judgment as to whether the game in its finished state was worth their money or not. By taking this route, Double Fine minimized its risk by being able to closely monitor sales while still selling the product with a tantalizing list of planned features to string consumers along. Once they realized that their five year plan was unsustainable, they cut out before they dug themselves into too deep of a hole and the people who purchased the game end up with something that sort of looks like the game they thought they would get.

It’s my opinion that Early Access is best utilized by larger companies as a way to get valuable feedback, while in the case of smaller companies it serves as a fine way to secure funds that would otherwise be unavailable. When I see companies like Ubisoft and even Double Fine reaching into the early access honey pot with the intention of securing funds rather than looking for feedback it upsets me. It says “We want to try this out and see if it can make some money off of it” rather than “we’re going to make the game regardless, but would really like some community steering to help deliver a better final product”. It erodes consumer confidence and damages the integrity of the system as a whole, making it difficult for smaller studios who actually need the help to begin with.

The worst part is controversies like this hurt the little people. People like the developer of Kenshi, who after failing to secure funds through both Kickstarter and Indiegogo has to rely on Early Access for support. He has stated before that he’ll develop the game no matter how much or how little money he receives, and has been steadily working on it as a one-man show for a couple of years. Deliberate actions like those taken by Double Fine make the already dubious gamble of Early Access even less attractive to potential buyers, especially given the lack of consumer confidence laws in the United States that are enjoyed by Australia and the European Union.

Unlike Kickstarter, Steam Early Access offers no safeguards against devs that take the money and run. The most someone can do is report a game as fraudulant. Given that Double Fine is still technically delivering a product, albeit one drastically different from that consumers were hooked by, it’s even less likely that any action will be taken. Hopefully if we raise awareness of situations like this we can force reforms on Steam that impose more stringent requirements on Greenlight and Early Access to protect buyers.

What happened with Spacebase DF-9 is a story as old as time itself. Like a snake oil salesmen Double Fine went from town to town with the promise of something great, only to pack up and move on before people caught on. While this may not have been the intention on the onset of their adventure into SEA, from the comfort of hindsight it will have every appearance of a confidence scam. At the very least, despite nearly 15 years as a functioning studio with an established pedigree, Double Fine has demonstrated a startling lack of financial acumen that raises serious questions as to their ability to plan, manage, or deliver on a project. Given the reported dip in Kickstarter funding this year it would appear that the gaming community is sobering up and becoming increasingly skeptical of the pay-now-play-later business model. With that in mind and given the context of what just happened with Spacebase DF-9, it would be nice to see Double Fine show a little restraint for their next few releases when it comes to reaching into the crowd-funding cookie jar for another freebie.

Voices of reason insist to reserve judgment until the release of 1.0, but there’s little doubt in anyone’s mind that they’ll be able to deliver on a 5 year devplan in a month and speculation abounds that the “final” version will be gutted of most of its formerly planned features. At least with the announcement that Spacebase DF-9 will come with the game’s full lua users can rest assured that they will have every opportunity to finish the game themselves.

Edit: Twitter user @ki11deer brought it to my attention that Spacebase DF-9’s investors got their money back, meaning that the only people who are out their money are the people who bought the game. This begs the question of how the 400k was spent. Was it spent on the proof of concept? How far did it stretch in terms of development time?

Do you think Double Fine took advantage of the Early Access system? What are your experiences with Early Access? What would you like to see in terms of consumer protection? What does Early Access mean to you? Will you purchase another Double Fine game? Comment below!


Stuart Burns

Stuart Burns is aging horribly along with his world view. When not keeping his son away from choking hazards he sometimes plays video games and writes about them.