Midway through 2009, Markus “Notch” Persson released the 1st official version of the insanely successful Minecraft for the PC as a “developmental alpha version.” The game continued development, and using paying customers as both playtesters and proselytizers, Notch had changed the course of gaming forever – for good and for ill. If that sounds like hyperbole, jump on Steam and do a quick search for “early access” to see how prevalent the model has become. I just did a quick test, and found 291 results – even if that includes separate entries for games, developer notes, and the occasional soundtrack, that’s a huge selection of essentially unfinished products on sale to the public.
And not all alphas are created equal.
Notch came to Minecraft with a background in game development, but he didn’t bring a big-name studio along for the ride. Rather, Mojang was created after Minecraft was already a thing, as if it needed to exist specifically to answer the question of, “what studio is making this crazy game I keep hearing about?”
Contrast that with Godus, a god-game currently in development by the king of god-games, Peter Molyneux. Yes, Godus is officially being developed by the small studio 22cans. But while Mojang was created by Persson to support the growth of Minecraft, 22cans was built on Molyneux’s name, and with Molyneux’s money. With a number of huge hits under his belt, followed by more than one project that fell far short of expectations, it’s easy to see 22cans (and the Kickstarter campaign that helped fund Godus’ early development) as Molyneux striking out on his own to sidestep a normal development cycle that may not be as forgiving as he’d like it to be.
The reactions to the early versions of Minecraft and Godus are dramatically different. Even when there was nothing more to Minecraft than a buggy sandbox, the reactions were not only overwhelmingly positive, but bordered on awe – this thing was amazing, but also clearly heralded something new. Godus, since it’s alpha release in September of this year, has been crushed in the press, with generally neutral reviewers going after Molyneux like they had a grudge against him. Even the most positive comments have an apologetic tone to them, like they don’t want to be caught saying nice things about the project. Or about Molyneux.
So, what’s the deal?
Is it an expectation of what “early access” has come to mean? Is it a personal beef with Molyneux? Is it the Kickstarter thing?
I fell in love with Black and White only to be let down by B&W II. I was brought back to the Molyneux camp with the Fable series, only to be thoroughly disillusioned by Fable 3 (if the whole point is to make me feel like all my choices have consequences, you’d better not let me see the rails you’ve shoved this plot onto.)
As for the Kickstarter angle, I’ve come to believe I’m in the minority, but I genuinely don’t care. The prominence of a creator has little to no impact on the success of a Kickstarter campaign, and I do not accept the argument that big-names steal donations from independent creators. Rather, I bet you’d have a much easier time finding a Kickstarter supporter who came to the site because he or she was a fan of Zach Braff, and while there plunked down a dollar on a small project that looked cool than you would finding a supporter who came to Kickstarter with a dollar in hand and was seduced by the allure of DoubleFine into supporting a project that probably could have found funding elsewhere, and had nothing left for the struggling artist.
I think the problem is us.
The gaming community is no different than any other chunk of nerd-culture: we love to know. Seriously, we loooooove to know. We crave it, we need it, we define our adoration by our level of access. Oh, you just found out who’s playing that part in the upcoming movie adaptation? How cute.
Believe me, I’m not defending this attitude, but I’m also not going to pretend it’s not true.
So fine, we want to see the progress of a game. We want to be involved in the development of a project we admire. But let’s be honest, that means we’re only as pissed at Molyneux as we are because we’re so excited to see what he has in store for us next.
And that’s unfair. Profoundly so.
Because while Minecraft was released in an alpha form, we didn’t really know what to expect. Godus, at least, tried to warn us. Right there on the loading screen is a big 41%.
Molyneux and 22cans aren’t claiming the game is done. Rather, they’re telling us up front that it’s only 41% complete.
But the next question I’d ask is: which 41%?
Because while it’s great that Molyneux is trying to be up front with us, saying 41% doesn’t really tell us anything useful. And that get’s into the growing problem I see: we don’t really know what to expect from a game anymore.
Back in the Arma II days of the DayZ mod, the gaming community put up with a lot. The mod was buggy, it lacked the support players wanted, and was so demonstrably flawed that players were scared off playing it for fear of the terrible experience they foresaw (me included). Then our dreams were answered: a standalone version was in development. And lo and behold, (eventually) it arrived! And it was terrible. The most common attitude among the reviewers and players I found was: unplayable. In fact, it was far worse than the incomplete mod had been. But is that fair?
I’d say no.
Right there on the purchase screen for the new DayZ standalone is the following:
WARNING: THIS GAME IS EARLY ACCESS ALPHA. PLEASE DO NOT PURCHASE IT UNLESS YOU WANT TO ACTIVELY SUPPORT DEVELOPMENT OF THE GAME AND ARE PREPARED TO HANDLE WITH SERIOUS ISSUES AND POSSIBLE INTERRUPTIONS OF GAME FUNCTIONING.
That’s pretty clear to me. In fact, I’d say that anyone who chooses to blast DayZ (at this point in it’s lifecycle) is doing so more for the sound of their own voice than in an attempt to be helpful.
Even so, I find a flaw in the warning provided. It still doesn’t tell me what to expect. What works? What doesn’t? How do I know what is a flaw to be ironed out versus a genuine problem with the game? Is it any better than saying 41%?
I think there’s a solution: tell me what to expect. If you want me to pay to playtest your game (and history shows you’ll have little trouble getting me to say yes), do me the favor of treating with me honorably. Give me the lists: this works, that doesn’t. The gaming industry has adopted a rating system far more detailed than that used by motion pictures. Give me a development cycle rating. Ditch terms like “alpha” and come up with a series of labels that actually help me understand what I’m getting in to. If nothing else, your reviews will probably be much more favorable if I think you’re meeting your mark, and not basing my expectations on how well you craft visions of the game you hope it will someday be (cough, cough, Peter Molyneux, cough).
It’s a weird problem, and one crafted in a joint effort (developers and gamers), but I think it’s a problem with a pretty interesting solution.