Please note: Throughout this piece, I am going to be referring to “Early Access” a lot.
In the context of this blog post, by “Early Access” I refer to those games which follow
the “alpha-funded” model whereby the first build available is pre (or very early) alpha.
“Early Access” games which launch with an open beta are more traditionally funded and
these games are exempt from what I’m talking about.
With the latest news about Spacebase DF-9, one thing has become very clear to me:
Alpha Funded / Early Access is not an “alternative” development approach. It has a very specific use for a very specific set of games.
At the very beginning of Project Zomboid, when we released the first rough screenshots, outlined our goals, and asked for money to help us get there we had a discussion about the “what if” scenarios. What if we don’t really raise that much money? What if we do well initially but interest (and funding) dries up mid-way through? All these sorts of things. One thing was fundamentally obvious: If we take money up-front from people for a shell of a game, we have a duty to deliver the game regardless of how much money we make.
That’s why for the first year or so, Chris and I shared the same cheap apartment in Hartlepool (there’s very few cheaper places to live in the UK and not get murdered on the streets). When we did eventually move somewhere less horrid it was with the understanding that if things took a turn for the worse, we’d have to move back to an equivalent situation. Just turning round at that point and saying instead, “sorry guys, we’ve run out of money, the game as it is now is just going to have to do” was never an option. And it never should be.
So what is very clear to me, is if you can’t guarantee this from the outset then Alpha-Funding / Early Access is not for you. It’s too risky and were it just your own reputation on the line, that’d be fine. But failures tarnish the reputation of the entire model, so a failure (particularly a high-profile failure) is potentially damaging to the very developers who need this model the most.
Frankly, I find it bewildering that anyone would develop a game which relies on sales to fund development who is based somewhere with staggeringly high living costs (London, San Fransisco, Copenhagen, etc). You’re literally (metaphorically) burning that money. I know it’s easy to say but a lot more complicated to do, but you really should be based somewhere cheaper if you’re going to use this model. You need to be efficient and maximise the development you get out of every single penny that comes in. If you’re not prepared to do this (or are unable to) then, again, alpha-funded / Early Access is not for you.
So, I’m afraid, I’m just not impressed by this:
We started Spacebase with an open ended-production plan, hoping that it would find similar success (and therefore funding) to the alpha-funded games that inspired it. Some of its early sales numbers indicated this might be the case, but slowly things changed, and it became clear that this was looking like a year and a half of production instead of five or so.
Because that year and a half production could easily have been five years if only the studio were based somewhere which didn’t have an average $10,000 (!!!) per person per month cost. You are basically requiring your game to be one of the most successful Early Access games ever in order to have enough money to finish it. This is, frankly, an insane and (dare I say it?) arrogant assumption.
edit: A follow-up post here.