Double Fine Struggles Show The Problems With Steam Early Access

Double Fine Struggles Show The Problems With Steam Early Access

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.

Double Fine Struggles Show The Problems With Steam Early Access

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.

Double Fine Struggles Show The Problems With Steam Early Access

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.


    Have there been many early-access games that haven't had issues? I don't buy into them myself. I'd rather save myself from the potential heartbreak :/ Bummer for those who do, though.

      I threw some money the way of Starbound, and they've come out recently to say they're sitting on about 9(?) years worth of funding thanks to buy ins, and will be plugging away for a long time.
      There's literally thousands of hours logged on Terraria in our house so it felt well worth it.

        Part of the reason that Starbound developers can have 9 years worth of funding is because there's fewer of them, so that funding can stretch much further. Andy Hodgetts (of The Indie Stone, makers of Project Zomboid) expands upon that thought here.

    There is a reason why Double Fine always butted heads with big publishers.

    They don't understand business or money. So while they are a favourite of the hardcore gaming / journalist community, I wouldn't give them a dollar until they have a finished product.

      My issue with all this (asides what you've said, which is correct), is that surely DF have made enough money at this point from their other games to fund such games as this? They seem to have an outright addiction to kickstarter now? To me, that's just not good business sense.

        I think their addiction to kickstarter is that it is essentially up front funds and they don't have any other choice for funding. Which they then go and spend.... and end up with an unfinished product. This isn't the first time.

        None of the backers have punished them for it though.

        The only group punishing them is publishers who now won't touch them with a ten foot pole. Other groups won't lend to them because gaming is risky (which is part of why publishers exist). They can't raise funds through traditional means.

        It's their only way to fund themselves.

          Also it seems they've looked at the numbers and figured that even if they did spend other cash reserves the pay off isn't going to justify it, space base isn't going to become the next minecraft. Better to spend remaining money on a new project with with a potentially larger profit margin.

          Given the large amount of money they procured from their first project and the income it's made from steam etc (allegedly a fair bit), I'm reluctant to concede on the idea that Double Fine is in any sort of position not to be able to fund its own game at this point.

        To be honest, this game was never going to have the appeal of some of their other games (Costume Quest, Stacking, etc), so it isn't clear that funnelling profits from other games to this one would have been a good business decision.

        All the available information seems to indicate that this game was an experiment to see whether development of a small niche game like this could be sustained via Early Access funding alone. They've previously stated that the development team has only been 3-4 people for most of the life of the game, so it's not like they had unrealistic expectations of supporting a huge dev team this way.

        The end result seems to have been that Early Access income wasn't even able to pay for this small team. I guess they reached the point where they needed to cut their losses and stop throwing good money after bad. Which is a shame, because I have enjoyed playing the game.

    what did small/indie developers do in the days when they didn't get any money in at all from their customers until the full game was actually released? Early access might've started out as a 'for the fans to play games early' thing, but it's quickly become a last resort (or even first resort) pitstop for developers to go to when they're running low on funds.

    I've said it time and time again, small developers think it's easy to budget a game. It's not. Under-estimating costs, not allowing for delays and setbacks, over-estimating income from customers, getting a big bagful of cash from Kickstarter and thinking 'oh, we have plenty of cash, let's go straight ahead and get all this big stuff in that we didn't initially budget for'. There's a reason why some people become qualified in finance and accounting whilst others put their effort into creating games. Unfortunately most small developers think they can do without that finance person

      Early indie guys used to have to fund it themselves.

      For Kickstarter, you usually have to have a mostly complete game to show off or you don't get funding. There was an article recently about that comparing ones that got funding and ones that didn't.

        Not everyones had a mostly complete game, hell, half the time they're just 'concepts' put together to sell the game.

          Yes, the article was saying most of them don't get funded. Some but not many.

    I keep seeing Double Fine apologists defending this with "Caveat Emptor", that when you buy an Early Access game there is every likelihood that this will occur.

    It's worth noting "Caveat Emptor" is invalid under Australian consumer law and is as legally valid as "tresspassers will be shot".

    You don't enter into early access on the condition that you will only finish your product if you get enough money from what amounts to pre-orders.

    Consumers paid the same fee for early access as they would otherwise pay for full retail of the title - Early Access just grants the privilege of being able to provide feedback during development to result in a better final product. It is not in any way conditional on their being a finished product.

    Consider it in the context of engaging builders to construct a house for you. Expenses can vary throughout the process. Builders don't get to just walk away 1/3 of the way through because it turns out they're not making enough money. They can go broke and leave people high and dry, but they don't get to just say "Yeah, nah, this isn't working out" and walk away cash in hand.

    Even in the absence of written contracts, Australian consumers have a wide range of legal protection to prevent this exact thing from happening. For example:

    If consumers are only getting 1/3 of the product they paid for, would it be unfair for them to get 2/3 of a refund?

    And that's just Australia. How many Americans bought into DF-9? That's a class action waiting to happen right there.

    Valve has enough problems with the ACCC in Australia, I expect the poor timing of this debacle is not lost on them, and I suspect Double Fine's headaches are just beginning.

    Last edited 23/09/14 1:13 pm

    What's my rights to request a refund?

    I get that it was in Early Access and everything and thus everything has a giant caveat of 'buyer beware' but wow. A reputable name has forced me to decide to NEVER buy an Early Access game again. I wasted money on the game (and talked some other people into getting it based on the roadmap).

    I wish I could get my money back. I doubt it will ever happen, but I really wish I could.

    People forget it also got a $400,000 investment from the Indie Fund, which they made back in a week. They're useless with money. I won't buy into their shenanigans again.

    Never again. I'm done* with DoubleFine.

    Although now it's suddenly very clear why Double Happy Vs the Infinite Sadness is taking as long as it has. Incompetence!

    Oh gahd, bought Broken Age. The other half is coming out right?

    They're open sourcing this? Suddenly I'm a lot more interested.

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