Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Early Access and The Liberties Taken by Studio Wildcard

It’s been close to a year since I’ve written here, and while I’ve been doing some streaming and working on a video or two for YouTube, I’ve really let this slide.  With a bit more time available, I’m going to be working on this, as writing is one of my favorite past-times.

For years, early access has become more and more common amongst indie developers in the gaming world, who take money up-front, often for the purpose of fulfilling their dream of creating an engaging game.  This isn’t necessarily relegated, mind you, to Steam, but there are game companies out there that use GoFundMe and Kickstarter to get the cash infusion they need.  Valve, to its credit, has attempted to get more and more small game companies into the business with their early access program, which debuted officially in 2013 (though there had been a pilot program in 2012, and only nine titles were made available in this manner).  Game companies view the early access concept as a win-win scenario, though the truth is that the concept heavily favors the developer and not the player, who essentially becomes an unpaid tester, and in many instances will not see games come to fruition.  In 2014, Patrick Walker wrote an article on the phenomenon of the early access craze, which had picked up significantly in 2014 compared to 2013.  In the article, he stated that only 25% of the games in early access have released a finished product, which is a pitiful percentage all things considered.  In many instances, players are paying the full price of a game (upwards of $60.00 USD) for an early access title.  When games are not finished—timely manner or not—it casts a shadow on all early titles, not just that one.  Also of note, Steam makes it very clear that they take a more hands-off approach concerning early access, to quote:

"You should be aware that some teams will be unable to ‘finish’ their game.  So you should only buy an Early Access game if you are excited about playing it in its current state.”

As such, if a company cannot finish their product, Valve won’t necessarily punish them directly.  More than likely, Valve will be hesitant to offer them the ability to put other games up for early access in the future.

All this aside, there have been some great early access titles that have gone on to be solid finished products.  My personal favorite to this day is Path of Exile, and there are certainly others that have made it through this gauntlet. That being said, yes, to this day most games do not make it to a finished product.

Ark is an interesting case of a developer failing to meet the expectations of many of the people who have bought into early access.  Going for $30.00 on the Steam store when it first debuted, it has had several sales on Steam, dropping to $10.00 this past weekend before going back to it’s original price.  It has been one of the top early access titles Steam has ever had, and I’m sure it has made a lot of money for both Studio Wildcard and Valve.  Players seem to be very interested in the game, as shown on this Steam Chart, but it’s a matter of time before people become fed up with it, as the game continues to slog on in early release—referred to as “Pre-Alpha” in a January2016 Tweet by Jesse Rapzcak, co-founder of Studio Wildcard–and that self-imposed due date for a finished product has passed: the game was supposed to ship the finished version in June 2016.  It has been, to date, ten months since that went by, and there is no end in sight for the move from “pre-Alpha” to even Beta.

In essence, Ark’s problems lie with the developers, who have pushed off deadlines more often than they’ve met them.

Now of course, no plan survives first contact.  You can’t plan for every eventuality, and even I accept that as a cost of doing business in this area.  I’ve made promises I had to back out of, sometimes because of legitimate issues, sometimes because *I* screw up.  In each case, I am honest about the reasons.  Studio Wildcard is an interesting case of honesty and obfuscation.

Let’s start with the biggest issue at hand: the deadlines.  Patches are routinely days after their initial announcement.  A patch that might be announced for, say 04 April might likely be pushed back to 07 April, because of bugs in the programming, or for “more QA testing”.  Routinely, these patches will also break something that requires an immediate patch in order to fix something that became broken.  Technologically, it’s difficult to tell what will work and what won’t on a live server compared to the test server: CCP Games has this problem every now and again, for example.  To date, over 50% of the patches have not met the initial “ETA”, and Studio Wildcard’s response (and often parroted by strident defenders) is that it’s simply an estimate, and that they have no requirement to deliver it to us at that time and date.  Not completely true, though, as these are self-imposed deadlines, and they have often failed to meet them.  If a company can’t meet its own deadlines on small things like this, it bodes ill for large deadlines…like the finished product release date.

Hand-in-hand with this is the fact that many of the patches do not have complete patch notes.  As shown in the stickied patch notes on their Steam discussion thread as well as the official forums, you can clearly see “More Notes To Come” in both.  Ubisoft took a huge hit in ratings for incomplete patch notes for The Division being far more common, because it seemed like stealth nerfs were intentionally being hidden from players (and routinely on The Division’s livestream with Hamish, players would be the ones asking about these nerfs with Hamish being unable to confirm their presence), and it seems that Studio Wildcard has decided to follow in this same “lazy” tactic.  For a company that routinely puts out minute-cinematic trailers for new biome and dinosaur updates (individual updates, mind you), it seems rather silly that they would take this route, when it would take minutes by comparison to simply type up all the intended changes.

Obviously, they are going to have issues crop up.  So long as those issues are taken care of quickly, I don’t think it’s fair to chastise them if this wasn’t in the patch notes.  However, more and more Studio Wildcard has opted to warn people of impending changes, and then not tell people or engage in a discussion about those changes until they drop.  This seems an odd thing to do, considering the players are supposed to be the ones acting as your quality assurance team.  An unpaid quality assurance team.  Scratch that, we paid to be that quality assurance team.  That's even worse than being unpaid!

This has happened in the past, but recently the players have entered into an uproar over changes to the 'flyer' nerf.  Studio Wildcard said last week that a nerf was incoming to flyers, but not what it would be.  Of course, this led to speculation, but it all came to a head when the patch dropped, and players were left wondering what in the hell had happened.  There were no details on the nerfs until a player took to Reddit to note his findings.  Studio Wildcard eventually came out to tell players what they had done, but this was too little, too late in many instances.

This was on the heels of several recent creature additions, including the Troodon (a small dinosaur that has an attack that drains stamina to zero before disappearing), eels and jellyfish (capable of "stunlocking" players and dismounting them from all mounts except the basilosaurus), microraptor (capable of dismounting players out of nowhere), and others.

As stated previously, it would seem odd that Wildcard would willingly ignore the playerbase when putting in such large changes until after they were implemented, and after the players have begun, essentially, an open revolt.  If you're going to use the players to test your product, it seems reasonable that you would keep them apprised of changes in the pipe, not unload them without warning.

Studio Wildcard, however, has a habit of keeping important information out of the eye of players as long as they can.  In December 2015, Trendy Entertainment filed a lawsuit against Studio Wildcard.  Trendy alleged that Jeremy Stieglitz, who had previously left Trendy after allegations of sexism, fear of retaliation, overworking, and a general feeling of a hostile work environment was actually working on Ark: Survival Evolved as well as attempting to "poach" developers from Trendy, in violation of his contract's non-compete clause.  It wasn't reported on until March 2016, and Studio Wildcard said that the claims held no merit and asked the suit be dropped.  They claimed Jeremy Steiglitz was only consulted on the product, not actively working on it.  His wife is a co-founder of Studio Wildcard, so it's very clear why Trendy would have looked into this.  In April 2016, it was confirmed that Studio Wildcard had settled the suit to the tune of $40,000,000.  Susan Steiglitz claims she and the lawyers did not want to settle, but others in the company felt "intimidated".  It should be noted that routinely, lawsuits are settled in such a manner so that the accused doesn't have to admit wrongdoing.  Had Stieglitz waited until August 2016 (when that portion of his contract was up, which he had negotiated), the lawsuit wouldn't have had any merit.  He didn't, the company had to pay for it.

Move forward to September 2016.  Studio Wildcard is now down $40,000,000 that should have been spent on the game.  They are now three months past when they had originally promised to release the finished Ark.  They haven't even left Alpha status.  Studio Wildcard decides to release a much more polished paid DLC, called Scorched Earth.  Understandably, players were angry that an early access game had a paid DLC released.  As the blowback from this decision continued to build and reviews on Steam and elsewhere began to turn negative, Studio Wildcard released a statement to the media, in which they claimed they were simply following through on their plans for additional Arks (meaning DLCs).  This didn't really help anything, as it was touted as "finished" and "polished", where-as the base game was...well, quite the opposite of that.  In fact, they had fully intended to release this paid expansion that month in the expectation that the finished game would have launched in June, so they decided to carry through with it!

Going back to a previous point, it seems odd that they were able to stay true to this timeline, but almost any other the company seems to fail at maintaining.  To an objective observer, you might almost think that Studio Wildcard decided to bank on some extra money, no matter the excuses, now that Ark likely was not going to make them too much additional currency.  And similar to this decision that had a negative impact on the playerbase, Studio Wildcard was able to have a sale for Ark.  In this most recent development, a similar thing happened: the price dropped temporarily.

In short, the problem is that Studio Wildcard seems more interested in keeping the players in the dark concerning negative impacts to the game, rather than being honest and engaging the community in a discussion until the negative feedback is too much to ignore.  This seems particularly true when the Steam reviews suddenly go from "mostly positive" to "mixed", as was the case with Scorched Earth and this recent creature nerf.  If the players are supposed to be the ones playtesting the game, they should be included in these decisions.  Yes, Studio Wildcard has said they are going to be re-tweaking numbers, but that doesn't undo the damage done, especially concerning the loss of faith players have had after being kept in the dark.

I admit to having played 1,881 hours on Ark, but the decisions have caused me to re-evaluate how highly I rate the game.  Did I get my money's worth?  Sure I did.  I spent $50.00 between Ark and Scorched Earth, but that doesn't mean I should stop pushing for a finished product, and neither should you.  

Studio Wildcard’s continued delay in releasing a finished product—whether because of feature creep or what-have-you—points to a company seemingly more interested in maintaining the “free” quality assurance they get from the playerbase eager to engage in their product.  The release of a more polished paid DLC before doing the bare minimum of releasing the base game points to a company that might be making a decent product, but appears to be more interested in making money.  That’s fine if they choose to do this.  But considering the negativity regarding the constant delays in Star Citizen—to include lawsuits in the pipes for lack of accountability in finances and refusing the give refunds in contravention of their terms of service—and the lack of honesty and forthrightness from Trendy, the implications will be far larger for indie companies in the future, as possible investors consider the negativity associated with early access from two widely-anticipated games, and make their choices accordingly.