Once upon a time Double Fine hoped to keep in-progress space station sim Spacebase DF-9going for five years. Now, however, they're abruptly pulling the plug, omitting many planned features from the "final" version. Fans are, understandably, upset. Double Fine says it all comes down to one unfortunate reality: money.
Late last week Double Fine announced that their maiden early access voyage Spacebase — a Dwarf Fortress-like simulation of space instead of, er, dwarves — will be decommissioned after its next big update. While things like a tutorial and tangible goals will undoubtedly make the game's mishmash of ambitious systems feel more cohesive, it's far from the original end goal Double Fine shared with fans when its spacest of bases first hit Steam Early Access last year.
On the upside, Double Fine plans to release the game's full source code so that fans can continue adding their own features as they please. However, that's small consolation to those who dedicated money and time to Double Fine's quirky sim, those who were in it for the long haul. Now the game's forums are overflowing with rage, and many want their money back.
Studio head Tim Schafer took to Spacebase's Steam forums to explain what happened on Double Fine's end. The short version? Money in didn't match money out, and there were no signs this was going to change.
"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."
"With each Alpha release there was the hope that things would change, but they didn't. We put every dime we made from Spacebase back into Spacebase, and then we put in some more. Obviously, spending more money than we were making isn't something we can afford to do forever. So, as much as we tried to put off the decision, we finally had to change gears and put Spacebase into finishing mode and plan for version 1.0."
Schafer also apologized for failing to communicate many of these issues better to fans. Double Fine and funding partner The Indie Fund were very upfront about Spacebase's financial situation when it was doing well, but they said significantly less about it after that.
Schafer added, however, that Double Fine didn't really know what the future held for Spacebase until fairly recently, so there was only so much they could've communicated — which still would have functioned as some kind of forewarning, so they probably should have opened up about these issues sooner.
Especially incensed fans have demanded that Schafer and co stop selling the "incomplete" game altogether or make it entirely free. That... probably won't happen. Schafer wrote:
"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. Set up against the expectation of the game being in development as long as Prison Architect or Dwarf Fortress, it's hard not to find fault in the game by comparison. But we continued to sell the game, and will continue to sell the game, because we feel that based solely on its own merits, Spacebase DF9 is still a fun, clever, hilarious, beautiful and complete game."
Double Fine stands by what they have done despite the fact that they're shutting down life support and sprinting toward the escape pods long before they originally planned to. Project lead JP LeBreton echoed that sentiment, writing that the team did "everything we could to keep making the game the best it can be." The latest alpha update, especially, was meant to add as much depth as humanly possible to an experience once criticised for a serious lack of meat on its bones.
So they tried — or at least, Double Fine claim that they did. However, people are (and should) be upset because — at the end of the day — they're not getting the complete game they were told about back when they first spent their spacebucks on Spacebase.
A more polished, goal-driven version of what's on offer now? Sure. But Spacebase was originally envisioned as so much more, and many players were enticed by its pie-in-the-stars ambitions — by the idea of a five-year-long developmental journey as well as the destination. There's nothing out there quite like what it aimed to be: a sci-fi sim with tremendous depth, silly humour, and an interface non-cybernetically augmented humans could instantly understand — both an antithesis to Dwarf Fortress and an evolution of it.
Double Fine will not deliver on everything they set out to do when they so adamantly claimed they were in this for the long haul, and that really sucks. Even if it's not a slap in the face, it feels like one.
That said, it's only fair that fans also direct a little of that rage/hurt at themselves. This is, for better or worse, the nature of Early Access. Some games will eventually cross the finish line, but many won't. They will instead crash and burn due to financial issues, internal drama, or a general inability to realise their vision.
It's surprising and upsetting that a company with Double Fine's critically acclaimed professional pedigree (as opposed to a nameless amateur studio) dropped the ball like this, but game development is messy and these things sometimes happen. It's good that they're letting fans continue development if they so choose, but again, that's not much for those who paid to see Double Fine's vision of a zany, brainy space sim.
It's a crappy situation, is the long and short of it. Nobody really wins. So by all means be mad, but also be wary. Between this and
the seeming disappearance of dinosaur sandbox game The Stomping Land (Update: After a long silence, The Stomping Land recently issued a new update. We apologise for the mistake), we've had quite a bit of trouble in Early Access paradise lately. Double Fine's example serves as a stark reminder that even big-name studios can still make huge mistakes here — in both communication and delivery.
So spend wisely. Maybe don't buy into Early Access games at all if you really want to avoid this sort of thing entirely. There are always risks. It's up to you to decide if they're worth taking.