Well, it finally happened. We weren’t quite sure what game this would happen to, nor when this was going to happen. I think this was something that all of us saw coming but none of us actually wanted to address. Now is the time to talk about it.
Towns is a simulation game developed by Super Mal Parit (SMP), a three-man team that took the game from concept to Greenlight to Steam’s Early Access platform. The game did fairly well, selling over 200,000 copies and grossing over $2 million as of summer 2013. The fan base was fairly supportive of SMP and enjoyed the game, but there was progress that needed to be made. The game wasn’t complete, the dev team acknowledged that, and progress continued on it just like it would with any other Early Access game.
Then in Feburary 2014, Xavi, the lead developer and the head of SMP quit working on the game and SMP was officially no longer the developer of Towns. He cited massive burnout as his reason for stopping development. “The only thing I can say, and I understand you don’t care about it, is that I’m burned, really burned about the game and all it involves. I don’t have the [strength] to continue with it.” Not only that, but he also said they were interviewing prospective coders to continue development, but “at the end I messed that [up], because I’m so burned to show the code to other guy and explain him how all works.”
People were pretty outraged, as it seemed that Towns would be abandoned, but shortly after, a new developer under the screen name of Moebius took over where SMP left off, and things were looking up. Then, earlier this month, Moebius stated that he couldn’t work on the game anymore, as the sales of the game were dropping and he couldn’t afford to work for the small amount of income they were now pulling in. This was the big one. There was nothing left for Towns, and development was officially halted. All those people who had paid for an Early Access Steam game, supported the developer before they even had a finished product, had been left in the dust with nothing but their empty wallets and an unfinished game.
So, this is it. This is the worst thing that could’ve happened during an Early Access release. People in the forums were outraged.
They’re being poked and prodded by the developer drama. With developers leaving and coming on, the game is barely clinging to life, and it makes for a toxic and upset community, as you can see. What’s so wrong about this, though, is how unnecessary it is. This shouldn’t even be an argument. If you pledge to make a complete game, and people give you money to do so, you should finish the game. You do what you were set out to do as a game developer. There’s plenty of road bumps along the way that will halt development, but giving up simply is not an option for SMP or any of the other developers who have worked on Towns.
Many consumers are angry, and rightfully so. They should be angry, but I also believe many of them didn’t realize exactly what Early Access entitles. For indies, Early Access replaces QA. It allows a community to form around the game as it’s under development, and it frees up time for devs to stop bug testing and start coding. However, a lot of people (myself included, rarely) buy a game up because the core concept sounds really cool and don’t really understand that it’s not going to be done. For a game like Towns, it not only wasn’t nearly close to completion when it went on sale, but it wasn’t completed two years after it was released.
It’s scenarios like this that confirm my stance against Early Access as a viable platform for indies. When consumers aren’t exactly sure what they’re getting at the time of purchase, it breaks the trust between the player and the developer, making for an unhealthy community of players who are consistently wary of those behind the game. While it makes things much easier for the developers and gets games into the hands of those who want to play it sooner, that comes at too large of a cost. Consumers need to be aware of exactly what they’re buying, and Early Access doesn’t allow that.
As of the publishing of this article, Towns is back in development with Xavi leading a team once again, apparently. It’s confusing, considering that not more than a year ago he said that burnout had drained his motivation to work on the game, but here he is, trying to finish what he started. The game was resuscitated three months ago, however, so this isn’t an indication that everything is great and Towns will be finished. We’ll have to wait and see. In the meantime, be sure to think before you press the “checkout” button with a cart full of Early Access games. You might get exactly what you pay for.