Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Double Fine And The Disaster of DF-9

We all have fond memories of Tim Schafer and his games: Grim Fandango, Full Throttle,  Psychonauts, Brütal Legend, and more--it's a long list of memorable experiences.

Schafer formed Double Fine Productions in 2000, and while his games have often struggled commercially, they were still unique and interesting to play.

Double Fine went the Steam Early Access route for their latest game, "Spacebase DF-9." It was an extremely ambitious game, seemingly, described in some places as "Dwarf Fortress in Space", and had an incredibly ambitious development roadmap in October of last year.

Well, that's absolutely the kind of substantial project people are willing to buy into for Early Access, even at $24.99.

The problem, though, is that Double Fine pulled a a bait-and-switch.

Last week, Double Fine announced--out of nowhere--that development was winding down. The alpha version was going to get one last coat of paint, get renamed to "1.0", and there you go.


Oh, and here's a forum post by Double Fine designer JP LeBreton (since deleted, but cached here) from only a month ago to address user concern:
DF JP LeBreton - 19 August 2014 06:47 PM
Double Fine is not a random fly-by-night indie dev and we are not going to silently pull the plug on Spacebase or any other in-development project.  Doing so would be disastrous for our reputation and it would kill us emotionally ;____;

What has happened lately on Spacebase is that we’re trying something different with regard to communication.  Our hypothesis is that short, regular, relatively low-value updates (things like in-progress screenshots of new UI) don’t really serve much more purpose than telling people “we’re not dead!”  The time cost of doing those is pretty small, but our team has been 3-4 people since Alpha 1’s release and I wanted to see what the impact would be - both on our side and on the player side.

...Regarding Alpha 6 specifically… hmm, what should I say?  When we DO have something to say, you’ll know it!  We don’t have Valve’s resources so don’t expect lush animated shorts for each update, but we do have a surprise waiting in the wings for Alpha 6, and you’ll hear about it pretty soon now.  We want to tell you a story, we want to make you curious about things.  Please be patient for a little while longer.  Thanks so much for your continued passion and support.

That was less than five weeks before Double Fine pulled the plug.

Here's Schafer's explanation, and be warned, it's garbage:
"We started Spacebase with an open ended-production plan," writes Schafer, "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."

...Obviously, spending more money than we were making isn’t something we can afford to do forever. 

Here's the problem, Tim, and it's a big one: when you enticed people into paying for Early Access, you put up a hugely ambitious development plan, and there was no big asterik that said "this development plan only happens if the game is wildly successful." You made a pitch, and based on that pitch, a lot of people spent a lot of money. They trusted you. Then you yanked the rug out from under them with the game still far, far short of what you promised.

This is crap.

Even worse, less than a week before the announcement that development was ending, the game was part of a 50% off sale on Steam. Knowing that the game was going to be released in a state that was far short of player expectations, trying to pump sales just before the public announcement that development was ending was disingenuous, at best.

At worst, it was slimy.

What I always appreciated about Tim Schafer was that he seemingly held himself to a higher standard. It's too bad that in this case, he didn't.

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