Steam Early Access — a place where people can buy new PC games before they're finished — started out strong. The phenomenal sales of DayZ and Rust showed how inventive new ideas could succeed in spite of being buggy and broken. But this week, the dark side of crowdfunding is rearing its ugly head. One Steam game has abruptly stopped development despite selling hundreds of thousands of copies, and another was kicked out of the program for misleading would-be buyers.
Technically, Towns wasn't part of the Steam Early Access program, but it may as well have been. When it arrived on Steam in November 2012, buyers were immediately outraged that the game was woefully incomplete. Though the developers promised a combination of Diablo, Dungeon Keeper and Dwarf Fortress where you build a town for your questing hero, it didn't live up to that lofty goal and received poor reviews.
But that didn't stop the developers from selling over 200,000 copies at $15 each, nor quitting work on the game after dealing with angry players for well over a year. In February, lead developer Xavi Canal quit, citing burnout, and today his replacement Florian Frankenberger has quit as well, claiming that he can't afford to keep working on the game given how much the sales have shrunk. There's some talk about bringing on a third developer, but it sounds like the game is effectively toast.
Early access poses a funding conundrum
Needless to say, the community isn't too happy about the idea that development would only continue as long as sales continued, particularly given that the game was originally sold as complete. But even viewed through the lens of Steam Early Access, where gamers should know better, it's a bit of a conundrum. Should game developers be expected to keep working on a game if the income doesn't last? If not, does Steam owner Valve intend to keep developers from taking the money and running as soon as sales first dip?
That's not clear, but it seems that Valve will stand up to more obvious scams. Yesterday, Steam removed another game called Earth: Year 2066 from the Early Access program entirely, and is offering refunds to anyone who purchased the broken game — after it was discovered that the developer stole copyrighted artwork and astroturfed the game's reviews page. However, Valve suggests that the decision was made on the basis of the game's dishonest marketing, not any issue with the game itself.
Meanwhile, the developers of Towns say they might like to make a sequel.