Between crowdfunding via sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo and with Steam's Early Access program (a service that allows players to play and provide feedback on games long before they're finished), gamers have been provided access to games that might never have been greenlit by publishers. These are games like Star Citizen, Space Engineers, Wasteland 2 and Don't Starve that, thanks to direct gamer feedback, have grown to include new features and better represent players' hopes for the end product
However, there are obviously plenty of risks associated with handing over your money to a game that might be years away from its final release. This week, for example, Peter Molyneux's Godus has been criticized for how long the game has been in development (it's been two years despite backers being promised that the game would be released completely in seven months). Many backer rewards (such as a Godus art book) are also yet to materialize and this is from a game that raised over half a million dollars with crowdfunding.
Meanwhile, dinosaur sandbox The Stomping Land was actually removed from Steam Early Access in September due to a lack of content updates. It has since been reinstated, despite the developer not having spoken to fans since it was taken off.
Worse still, modeler Vlad Konstantinov stopped working on The Stomping Land in January when developer Alex "Jig" Fundora hadn't responded to a single email in over a month, although he owed Konstantinov money for his work and for the work of a texture artist. The situation was so dire that Konstantinov actually jumped ship to another dinosaur game, Beasts of Prey.
These examples would be fine if they were rare but they're not and they appear to be happening more and more frequently as of late. It's especially concerning given the fact that lots of crowdfunding and Early Access games are making the jump to consoles. Sony has even said that they are considering some sort of Early Access model too. At the same time, many Early Access developers have begun to see how dangerous the crowdfunding idea can be, like DayZ creator Dean Hall, who had this to say on Twitter:
Many would agree with Hall's point about accountability as it would surely lead to less developers announcing features and goals that they cannot reach and achieve. When you know you have thousands of fans ready to call you out – and try to retrieve their pledge money – you'll be more likely to make good on your promises. Hall also clarified in another tweet that "media and gamers need to hold developers accountable. gamers need to smart consumers [sic] and vote with their wallets. There's also a lot of truth in this as if gamers refuse to buy games that simply aren't up to scratch, developers will have no choice but to fix their work and win us over with quality, not words.
However, Hall's tweets also highlight a glaring problem with Early Access. Crowdfunding is obviously there to fund games, but Early Access is not and Steam platformer holder Valve clarified this back in November when they updated their Early Access developer guidelines to state that “Don’t launch in Early Access if you can’t afford to develop with very few or no sales". The fact that one of Steam's most popular Early Access developers believes the program is there to help fund games is a serious concern.
It is correct that funding from Early Access is an allure – and it's certainly an incentive for many developers to keep releasing updates and push their game ever closer to release – but first and foremost feedback is what's important. This means that questions like 'how do we make this game better', 'what do we need to include in this next patch' and 'which features do we need to test in our Early Access build' should be asked before 'how can we use Early Access to fund our game'.
Hopefully, if gamers heed Hall's words then accountability will play a larger role, but it will likely take more than that to correct the crowdfunding course. For a while now, people have been asking Valve and the crowdfunding platforms to do more to protect backers and fans from those who don't use the services correctly; not just by updating their guidelines but by enforcing them too. Transparency is also needed as the case with The Stomping Land shows – yes Valve removed the game from Steam but the game came back and no one explained why.
Crowdfunding and Early Access can be useful but they'll need a serious overhaul if they want to be a driving industry force.