When you purchase an item, whatever the item happens to be, there is usually some type of agreement involved. Purchaser and seller agree on the service to be rendered or good delivered and the compensation. The parties share a tacit or spoken understanding of how the product or service will serve the purchaser, which may include a warranty for a certain period of time.
But what about software? Not enterprise software or even consumer software. It’s computer and console games we are discussing here.
When you buy a game from a physical location, it’s buyer beware. Unless the “disc” is damaged, wait, disc? Who buys PC software on disc these days anyway? Back to my original point, if it’s a physical product, the only refund you’d be granted would be for a damaged product, and it’s not a refund but an exchange. These days, this mostly applies to the console or handheld variety of games.
How about digital downloads? Good question. Steam now offers a no questions asked refund within a 14-day window and less than two hours of gameplay [read the full policy here]. But does that help with a game that might take you 10-20 hours (or more) to figure out that something is amiss? No, it does not.
So, does buying a broken, incomplete, or otherwise mess of a game mean that the developer, or in some cases, the publisher, is now beholden to you to deliver a complete product? That’s what this eXposition is really about.
This isn’t my attempt to put a fire to a developer’s proverbial foot, but more about looking at our relationship and how communities handle games in their various states. I am not using any game in particular because I don’t have an axe to grind. But I am using games that I am familiar with and would like, or would have liked, to see succeed.
Let’s use these five games as examples: Elemental: War of Magic, Sword of the Stars 2, StarDrive 1, Civilization: Beyond Earth, and finally, Godus. Four 4X games and one Strategy game. A brief history is needed to show why I feel that these games were problematic at launch.
Elemental: War of Magic, a game by Stardock came out in August of 2010. The game was a complete and utter mess. Due to both internal development issues and tunnel vision by the creative staff, the game was in bad shape at launch. Did it work? Mostly. Was it fun? For some people. Did it meet all of the promised goals? Not even close.
The feedback from the community was harsh. E:WoM was Stardock’s first attempt at a fantasy 4X type of game. Part RPG, part 4X, but ultimately a game full of potential that was not met until years later. Stardock went into crisis control mode following its release. Brad Wardell, the CEO, took the blame, hired a new creative director, Derek “Kael” Paxton from the Fall from Heaven mods for Civilization 4, to run the new post-E:WoM development. As a result of the poor state of the game at release and the reception by the fans, Stardock gave early adopters two free games. Both of them were follow ups to E:WoM. They were called Fallen Enchantress and FE: Legendary Heroes. I am talking about three full-priced games for the price of one. Did this make up for War of Magic? I’m not sure, but you can’t be mad at Stardock for doing this, and I am certainly not.
In July of 2015, Stardock released Sorcerer King. It’s the fourth game in the Elemental franchise and takes place more than a century (gamewise) after the third game ended. It’s a tight game, with a narrow focus having almost everything that E:WoM promised in 2010: A 4X rogue-like RPG. Sure it took 5 years for this day to arrive, but arrive it did, and I am glad that Stardock stayed true to their vision.
Sword of the Stars 2 by Kerberos Studios was released in October of 2011. What was released cannot even be called a game. It was threadbare, and felt more like a limited tech demo put hastily together to show during a tech convention. Very few of the modules worked, and there was serious strife between the developer and its publisher, Paradox Interactive. The fans of the first game, in its complete form, were raging online. It was a spectacle to behold.
The game felt incomplete because it was. Throughout development, the developers added more and more “stuff” to it. They wanted it to not only look pretty, but to advance both the story and gameplay of the original (a near-perfect game) to whole new heights. Much was promised, and the publisher, being on a more realistic time scale, started putting pressure on the developers. Kerberos couldn’t produce what they promised, so they were forced to put out the game in the state that it was. Steam early access did not exist at the time, but the game seemed like an early alpha at release.
The game was supported by many patches for about a year. Four years later, it’s in a working state, but lacking much of the soul and finesse that SotS 1 has. It’s still an incomplete game, but because the publisher and developers ended their partnership, it will stay the way it is.
StarDrive 1 by Zero Sum Games was released in April of 2013. A game that was one of the first new IPs in the space genre in a long time. An innovative take on the Master of Orion franchise of the 90’s, SD 1 was a very bold step in the right direction, but it had problems too. So many, that a vocal minority has continued to badger the developer up to and beyond the release of the sequel two years later. Even now, there is a toxicity surrounding the StarDrive 2 release that originated with the state of SD1 at launch.
But why, you ask? That’s a difficult question to answer. The bottom line is that some features Zero Sum Games promised and hinted at couldn’t be done with the game’s custom-built engine. Some people who had purchased the game felt short-changed, and the situation started to get out of hand. Between an inflamed community and Dan Dicicco’s confrontational demeanor, things spiraled out of control. After several months of struggling and having to endure the vitriol that flowed from the fanbase, Dan ended up taking a break and started to work on the sequel.
Released in April of 2015, StarDrive 2 is a game that really has the Master of Orion series in its heart and soul. Using the unity engine, Dan built, from the ground up, a very legitimate successor to the MoO titles. Does it work as intended? I would say yes, for the most part. The endgame slog needs work, as does the hastily put together ground invasion mini-game, but overall, SD2 is a legitimate 4X. But yet, it has its detractors and I hope that the sole developer sticks with it, because SD2 has a lot of potential.
Civilization: Beyond Earth by Firaxis was released in the October of 2014. Even though the developers said that it wasn’t a spiritual successor to the legendary Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri, the community decided that it was, and major fallout ensued.
Why did Civ:BE get such a rough reception? I think it has to partly due with the spiritual succession blues as well as its striking similarity to the successful and complete Civilization V. The developers themselves agree that they played it too safe. They didn’t take enough chances to release a really innovative game. Because of the initial limited interest from the “bosses” and the subsequent lack of funding, Civ:BE ended up resembling Civ5 far too much.
The blandness of Beyond Earth left the 4X community pining for a spiritual sequel to Alpha Centauri that is nowhere to be found. A year of patching and a soon-to-be-released expansion (called Rising Tide) shows that the “bosses” have had a change of heart, and we might soon get something that more closely resembles the game we have waited on for 20 years. Our Alpha Centauri successor might be here. Firaxis has kept at it, and the footage coming out looks very promising.
Finally, we have Godus by 22cans, which is run by Peter Molyneux. This game has languished for years in early access, and hopefully won’t hit final release until it is fixed. This game is in a category of its own, and probably deserves an eXposition of its own. A game that made so many promises, that a completely different iOS title was used as a set up and prequel of sorts for this game. But yes, it’s a disaster, and I’ll gladly tell you why.
Molyneux, a habitual over-promiser, did it again here. He duped us, but more than that, he duped a massive community that plays mobile games. During the early development of Godus, 22cans had a game called Curiosity – What’s in the cube? It’s a game where you click on a cube as a means of getting at the center of the mystery. Many people played, billions of clicks were made, and one person opened the last cube.
He was supposed to be the “God of Gods”, a virtual God within the Godus realm. This was supposed to be a life altering experience. Money, fame and babes (or hot guys), okay, I added babes, but with the first two, the third usually follows. Did he get any of it? Hell no! Will he get what he was promised? If I were him, I wouldn’t hold my breath (apparently, he hasn’t). Godus hasn’t met many of its promises. It’s late. It has Kickstarter backers calling for Peter’s head. Journalists disrespect him constantly. The gaming community has all but given up on him and so have I.
Godus is a god game where you are an entity, not unlike Molyneux’s previous games (Populous, Black and White 1 & 2) that has indirect control over its followers. You compete against other deities for the hearts and minds of the people and your future followers. In reality, it is nothing more than a glorified clickfest, and incomplete one at that. Does the game work? Barely. Yes, it has changed, but at it’s heart, you are still just clicking your mouse buttons.
I call it clicking for profit and success. Molyneux’s profit and 22cans of success, that is. The game is not enjoyable or captivating. I have played plenty of free pay-2-win games on my iPad that were much better and cost less than this detritus. Games that don’t pretend to be something they are not. Godus was, and still is, an iPad-type game ported to PC based on a pay-2-win model that is a tedious time consumer. Something that Molyneux swore it would never be. Has this changed at all? No. WIll it change? Probably not. Do I have any hope for this title? Not even a little.
Okay, so I have introduced our five case studies and how the developers and/or publishers handled their release and post-release support. Let’s quickly tally it up.
Stardock has kept at it (three sequels so far) until it got it right with Sorcerer King. Kerberos is no longer working in the 4X genre, they’ve parted company with Paradox Interactive, and they’ve moved on to other projects (Kaiju-a-go-go). Zero Sum Games is still in the process of making StarDrive 2 better, which I think is great. Firaxis is releasing a full-blown expansion (Rising Tide) to make Civ:BE better and closer to what they had hoped it would be with the initial release. If this expansion does well, there is a possibility for a second expansion, which would bring it in-line with Civilization V. 22cans just had a change in the top brass, and promises are being made all over again, but since Peter Molyneux is still there, I have no hope for any actual improvement in Godus.
So all in all, we have one success (according to eXplorminate), one failure (according to the greater community), two games on the road to success (according to me), and one train wreck that can’t seem to stop itself. Not too bad I think.
So, that leaves us with the real set of questions at hand: Do developers and/or publishers have some kind of a contract with us to deliver good and compelling games in a working state? Must these games be enjoyable to every single person that plays them? Can every single promise be kept? Are our expectations unrealistic? Is there such a thing as a perfect game? Are we good customers in return?
The short answer is: Yes, developers and publishers have made a virtual handshake with us, not just a sly wink and a tiny imperceptible nod. Even though we can’t technically demand refunds for the products we’ve purchased after more than a tiny glimpse at what they have made, we can and often do hold them accountable in other ways. We talk to our friends and use social media as stages for our opinions. If a game is good, we’ll occasionally sing it’s praises. If it’s bad, well, plenty of soapboxes exist for us to mount and disparage everyone from the lowly art director to the CEO. If you don’t believe that, just ask Brad Wardell or Dan DiCicco. They have and still do constantly field questions from irate gamers to various degrees of success.
What about us as the customer – what do we owe the developer/publisher? No game is perfect. No one is trying to say that we will get a perfect experience. We are very capable of ratcheting ourselves and the greater community into a mindless fervor, and if a game doesn’t meet every one of our expectations, we blow a fuse.
We are stuck in nostalgia too. Not all of us mind you, but many of us. There are plenty that haven’t played the games of yesteryear but have only heard about them. How perfect they were at release. How flawless the experience was. Master of Orion and Alpha Centauri come to mind. Unfortunately, they’re not as great as we like to remember them. Both games needed patches, but this was during the start of the information age. The internet moved at a snail’s pace, and you couldn’t download anything unless you were in the military, a university campus or using dial up. There wasn’t any Steam to auto-patch our games. We had to get them directly from the publisher by mail, or wait for a patch disc to come with a gaming magazine. No one seems to remember that.
Games that were broken weren’t fixed all that often and when they were, the “fixed” version came in the same old box as the original. No one really knew. In most cases, the developer/publisher wasn’t really motivated to do so because there weren’t many online forums for us to visit and hang out in. We couldn’t ruin their reputation by hounding them online. Twitter, Facebook, Steam and eXplorminate4x were just pipedreams. That’s why we need to fulfill our end of the bargain too. If we buy a game, we should tell others how it is. Give feedback to the developer in constructive ways. Especially if these are Early Access titles. If we want things improved, then we need to help.
Many games have a development cycle that lasts past the release. Continuous development is the new model, not a scam run by money-hungry business types. So we need to be patient, respectful, and calm. We also need to keep in mind that backing a game through crowdfunding doesn’t really guarantee us anything. It’s an open ended investment that might not deliver. So, how does attacking the developer improve our game? I don’t know, to be honest with you.
What I personally like is a studio that is honest and open with it’s fanbase, as well as one that accepts criticism and then goes out and tries to address the issue at hand. When a large group of people complain, there is usually something going on there. Mod support is a must too. If the studio is open to the modding community, often real magic occurs and each group feeds off of the other. All of that leads to better sales. Just look at Steamworks. Steam, for better or worse is the great equalizer here. A platform where we not only purchase our games, but leave direct feedback, and studios and publisher are well aware.
With Steam’s refund policy now in effect, developers and publishers must at least present us with a game that is mechanically sound and mostly bug-free, has a reasonable support period, contains enough fun to last more than two hours, and has enough content and longevity to keep the Steam reviews in the positive. Will future games really have content within to last more than a couple of hours? That’s an altogether other eXposition right there. Does GOG’s refund policy offer something similar to Steam’s? I think so, and from what I can tell, it’s actually better, but that too is an eXposition in and of itself.
Refunds aside, not everyone will like every game. I’ve bought games that I’ve regretted, but very few that I wish I could discard. I’ve named one above. But just because I do not like a title doesn’t mean I have the right to demand a refund. Especially when the game works as advertized. I could have done my research to make sure I knew what I was buying. The fault is mine completely. If developers communicate with us, and use the Steam platform to its full extent, no game is a lost cause. Assuming they have the sales to support the continued development, that is. That brings us back to the original point.
Ultimately, I think that developers/publishers are should be held to their promises. The games must be bug free, or have support to catch and find all of the critical ones and most of the annoying variety. The game must at least work on the machines with the listed minimum requirements. The game must have enough content to be worthwhile, and enjoyable for its buyers. The promises that were made during crowdfunding campaigns (if used), or Early Access on Steam must be delivered. The developers and publishers must be able to withstand a reasonable amount of criticism from their customers.
We speak with our wallets. Some of us leave reviews on Steam and other places, while others write reviews for sites like eXplorminate. We talk to our friends and share our experiences. We look on YouTube for impressions by those we trust. We still follow traditional outlets for reviews. At best, we’ll buy the game, enjoy it, and then move on. There are plenty of quality games out there. At worst, we’ll demand a refund, share our horrible experience, and then go online and make sure we are heard. Developers and publishers need to pay attention. The days of making and selling games in a vacuum are long gone. Steam gave us a tool to purchase wisely. Now we need to learn how to control our urges during those evil Steam sales. Damn it… I think another sale just started…