Like everyone else over the past week i was furiously refreshing Steam's store page every day looking for bargains i can nab but my focus was more specifically on the blue Steam Early Access section. I jumped from game to game looking for a new gem that could astonished me with its potential. Some i knew via Let's Plays, others by word of internet, but seeing such a plethora of games eventually reminded me of my own supported games, games that i was a 'backer' of and which i had forgotten about after the initial excitement in their early alpha beginnings.
The first part of my exploit went poorly. The brand-new forums of freshly-greenlit games were full with errors and issues, mentions of 'it's alpha/beta' and maybe even a dev saying 'sorry, it'll get done in a later patch'. Delving deeper into the lists and getting wearier all i started to see were just ten minute specks of brilliance with some of them not reaching that level. The Forest for example stands as a testament to how unfinished and brilliant games can be and i'll love to play someday even if that day is nowhere near. Worst of all was that some of these games seemed to be nothing more than a polished prototype, a proof of concept that's already used in today's industry to pitch games.
But that's exactly what they're now getting used as, aren't they? Pitches, just not to a hardened council of people which have to lead a company to its next success or maybe even just getting it into the green, poor THQ, but to more malleable and optimistic minds, the minds of you and me, gamers that want more and better from our medium.
We think 'it's only 15$' and we happily give these people our money, sometimes even as early as a full year or two before we begin to even see something proper of the game. If we're late adopters we might see them in Greenlight trying to catch a cozy spot on Steam's list, and even then, there might be mentions of their Beta status slapped everywhere. Not that those mean anything any more to anyone... they don't even hold the meaning of demos that they once did with MMORPGs. They're shards, fragments of a potential, promising, engrossing experience.
But we give our money either way, and get sucked in. "It's great, it's awesome, if only if...". Maybe if a there was more to do past the first half-hour. Maybe if the game actually worked in even the meager tender bits of content it gives us. Maybe if our saves weren't wiped every time a new patch arrives. But we say to ourselves "we'll come back later, it'll be great!". And a year later, we see it sit in our Steam Library, still in Early Access.
And here comes the second part. We do come back later, those of us who haven't gone to the next big or more to the point, indie, thing. And we install it again. We may see added content, even if some may come in packs at multi-month long intervals. Old bugs are gone, new bugs are in. But every so often there may even be a complete change in the vision or path that the game we initially fell in love with, a change that fails to appeal to the original game we had in our mind's eye. And we get disappointed.
But this is all negativism, what if the game is going well? The change logs are long, the fixes are quick, the content packs come quickly and we can actually say we have a game? What if this is one of the merry few that actually come out of whatever alpha/beta literal nonsense words they use to define them and are a full and complete game?
The game is spent, it's too late. Its message muddled in the sea of changes and incremental additions and people have gradually gotten disenchanted with the beautiful idea that they fell in love with. It isn't any worse, and they may have gotten exactly what they wanted, but the end of the performance, it's a jittery mess, since the perception of the game matters as much as the game itself.
Instead of having the game consummated in a beautifully engrossing experience, we ate the onions, and then we ate the bread, and then we ate the tomatoes, the meat and the ketchup, all good ingredients, but we did not eat a hamburger.
Can you imagine playing The Last of Us, Bastion or Portal as they went through the process? Maybe you'd know the general story before any of the visual style that sharpens it even gets refined, the gameplay clunky with animations that reminds us of computer-science month-long projects and characters nothing more than blocky polygons with pink-tone flesh textures. A game 'ruined'.
Who is to blame here? Is anyone? Everything going around this concept of playing the idea of the game, not the game, can not be held accountable. The developers want to get support for their great idea which they know they can do, and they'll be happy to have the input of the fans as they make it. The gamers will get to support the ideas they think are great and get to shape it along the path they want it to go. They should, shouldn't they, because they're invested in it, both money and soul.
The problem here is of the understanding of human sociology and proper respect for the execution of art.
If you saw the greatest cathedral in the world being build, brick by brick, right outside your window, would you be awed with it when it would be complete? If you were on the set of your favorite movie for its entire creation, would it still be your favorite movie since you never experienced it as the art it's ment to be, hearing the actors argue about lines, the director annoyed and hurrying scenes along, the writers changing dialogue mid-shoot?
No, i assume you would not. But let us return to gaming and one of the most debated and analysed indie successes of our generation. Minecraft.
Minecraft was hailed as being a caller of prophecy, of a future ripe with indie games managing to hit above their weight, with just a prototype. But people forget how even the first publicly released version of Minecraft had almost all of the core successful pillars, flavor and elegance that the game today has. The game, as much a performance act as a theater play, could be called complete. While actors can be replaced, the scene improved and special effects added, the core of the play remains the same, and that's what people enjoy. Even if Minecraft now sits at version 1.7.10, with so many changes and additions that it's clearly a superior game, the core pillars are still on display and win over new gamers everyday, no matter when they picked it up.
But Minecraft was not a game that was subjected to the same go-between fans and developer that is not only going on, but expected nowadays. Yes it's an amazing thing to be able to support financially and guide creatively a work of art that you want to experience, but there has to be an understanding on both sides in regards to what they're actually wanting and getting. If one side fails, the other has to step up.
As i doubt the mass of gamers would collectively rise up and say "We can actually separate the events in our minds and we'll perceive the finished piece as the defining game experience" it falls on the shoulders of the developers to put their foot in the door and say "It's not ready, when we think it's ready, you will play it".
I often tout Obsidian's Pillars Of Eternity as crowd-funding done right, but they actually are one of the best wielders of this new power. Once a month, i see a certain email in my inbox. It's the monthly Pillars of Eternity newsletter which showcases some variety of devblog that shows us the progress being made on the game. People reply, comment and speculate on that on the forums, aside from their general speculation anyway, but in the end, they know that sometime this winter season, they'll receive a caringly crafted game that features the honed vision of the studio behind it. It still may have tiny bugs or problems, but it can be considered complete.
When the time comes i'll pick my copy up, then probably have to get a week off from work to fully enjoy it but i'm decently sure that years later i'll be able to point to the game and say "yeah, i remember that game, it was great", as i've done with other crowd-funded games that put their foot down and launched with pride and minimal after-patches; Faster Than Light, i'm looking at you.
In the end, i don't know how many of the Early Access games in my Steam Library will i even remember what they're even about in a few years when and IF they actually manage to reach completion.
There is a popular saying that goes something along these lines "never meet your idols". I think this applies beautifully to any situation where knowledge and gradual absorption of the naked artistry will forever brand it as a piece that you will not be able to fully appreciate or experience in the same measure as a person that comes into it blindly.
But what do i know, i may just be romanticising the possible death of an era. An era where developers put their foot down and say "It is complete, my creation is done, the vision accomplished, this is what i made!'.