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Alpha-funded Steam game  Towns  abandoned by devs
Alpha-funded Steam game Towns abandoned by devs
May 7, 2014 | By Mike Rose

May 7, 2014 | By Mike Rose
Comments
    42 comments
More: Console/PC, Indie, Business/Marketing



A day after Valve was forced to remove a game from Steam for deceitful marketing, the company now has another dilemma on its hands, as the team behind a well publicized alpha game has decided to pull the plug.

Towns, a city building/management game with RPG elements, first launched on Steam at the end of 2012 as an in-development game (this was just before Steam Early Access launched.) It was one of the very first games to pass through Steam Greenlight, as it was voted through in the first batch of 10.

Now developer Florian Frankenberger, who joined the team only months ago, has admitted that the game isn't selling as well as hoping, and that development has now been abandoned.

In fact, the team is currently thinking about instead working on a sequel to Towns through which they want to implement all the features that they could not with the original game.

Frankenberger was handed the reins for the project earlier this year, after developer Xavi Canal said that he was burned out on development, and could no longer continue.

As you'd expect, those people who have purchased and supported the game aren't too pleased, with numerous negative user reviews appearing on Steam, and negative comments on Frankenberger's forum post. At last count, Towns had sold more than 200,000 copies, and generated gross revenue of more than $2 million.

Gamasutra has contacted Valve to find out what the company's policy is on in-development and Steam Early Access games that are abandoned. Notably, you can still buy the game via Steam, regardless of the fact that there are no longer plans to complete development.


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Comments


Innes McNiel
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This game spent a good long while in the top sellers on Steam. Something tells me this isn't a sales issue, but an internal management issue. Given the history of the game's development, that seems pretty likely.

Mike Kasprzak
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Too many Ferarri's.

Kevin Fishburne
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Or 40's and bong hits. "Hey man, like, when are we going to start working on the game again?" "Tomorrow, man. Tomorrow."

Nikolay Kushnar
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> Now developer Florian Frankenberger, who joined the team only months ago, has admitted that the game isn't selling as well as hoping....

> At last count, Towns had sold more than 200,000 copies, and generated gross revenue of more than $2 million.

They were probably hoping for $3mil

Dane MacMahon
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I think when you buy early access you are gambling, and perhaps one of the issues with the program is that Valve does not make this abundantly clear. "Today's featured game is Y: The X Adventure for 25% off!" and then in fine print buried in the update notes it mentions the game is 20% complete. It should be more obvious. Perhaps a large percentage bar showing you roughly the experience you can expect.

As an aside I think something else interesting is the impact of early access sales numbers. For one thing a lot of people (like myself) might wait for finished product, so you can't be sure low early access numbers mean anything. Wasteland 2 and the new Divinity game are two games I am highly anticipating this year but I have not bought them yet, as I am waiting on complete versions. The developers behind those games should not assume I am disinterested.

Also one wonders how much impact early access has on launch day excitement and the perception of perceived value. There is certainly a day one hype factor to full price sales which might be lost if the customer has heard about your game for months or years from those playing early access. Also they might expect a low sale price right away, since the game has been "out" for a long time.

In short I don't think the merits of early access beyond some early cash have been proven, and in fact it may be detrimental in the long run. And I'm not even touching on the "this game is broken" forum comments from people who don't understand what an alpha is.

Christiaan Moleman
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Dane, I have to ask, how do you find the time to make games AND read and comment on what seems to be every article on Gamasutra? I would like to know your secret because I barely get around to reading half the things I'd like to read, let alone comment on them.

Dane MacMahon
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I comment when I think I have something to say, and it's really not that often. More the last few days than usual I guess, not sure why that would offend.

Mike Rose
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Let's leave it there please, folks

Mike

Christiaan Moleman
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Fair enough. Sorry.

Dean Hall
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My take:

Early access is not a silver bullet. It's like everything else, you need to have a good game, well designed architecture, all the other things.

Just because some games fail when using a particular distribution/funding method does not mean that distribution/funding method is flawed.

Phil Maxey
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You make some good points. I agree that Valve should make it very clear that a game is not complete, that users are getting a game that is in production, and that there is a chance that it might not ever get to 100% complete.

The problem of course, and as you have suggested is that a lot of players will just wait and see what happens, which ironically might mean the game will never get made because the developers won't have the funds to complete it due to everyone waiting for the final version.

Pedro Fonseca
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I don't know....

I don't think "Early Access" should be a risky deal, we already got Kickstarter for that, and on Kickstarter I can understand.

But "Early Access" is supposed to mean "access to a game that is being built", meaning that eventually it'll be completed. Perhaps not with full features, but completed nonetheless, so I would be really sour if I got an Early Access game and it then fumbled because yes (especially in this game's case where it has been a success and made some nice money).

But what really, really, reeeeeeally rubs me the wrong way is the statement of "working on a sequel". Sequel of what? There is no bloody game!!

And if there's desire and plans to expand on the game....why not finish the one they already have and kind of totally owe to people who believed in them?

Hopefully no one is up to be fooled twice.

Petrucio Stange
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Early Access is pretty clear today. At the time on Towns, there was absolutely no Early Access indication if I remember correctly. It was being sold as a complete game and that was that. Early Access began shortly after that because of the outcry from Towns.

Dane MacMahon
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@ Pedro

I think buying something that isn't finished is inherently risky. It might never be finished, it might change things that you liked, etc. etc. It might be better than Kickstarter because you're getting something playable for sure, but I don't see how it couldn't be risky.

Kyle Redd
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@Dane

As Petrucio mentioned, Towns has no indication of being unfinished anywhere on its store page.

Valve needs to be careful because the controversies about in-development games being sold on Steam are starting to pile up. If I were them, I would require the developers of Towns to go through the Greenlight process again before the planned sequel (or any future games) are allowed on the store.

Marvin Papin
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1) Unfortunately, on steam there's just a banner with "anticipated acces", but many user probably don't know what is it. While it's obvious for us, literally, it means that you can play before. not before it's finished or more something like "just after development has begun".

2) I do not support that kind of funding, because, even if it is potentially a great opportunity for devs, it's an open door to abuses and devs who have develop a cool prototype, without having any idea of how to have a game finished or how to manage a team.

AFAIK, 200 000 copies at 20$ makes 4 000 000$ - 30% for steam. With that amount of money, with a real indie team (not people who only want their salary at 6000$ at the end of the month but can live with less than 1500$) that seems to be largely doable for the game they presented ???

I prefer to see devs learning the hard way. That's barely the same for kickstarter and Clang. A writer at the head of that studio ? who though he will do AAA with that amount money ? People who develop on their spare time do not need that bad indie reputation, because this is more about that fails that press is speaking about...

James McDermott
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I would like to make a quick note to the author: Towns, as one of the earliest games approved through the Steam Greenlight process, predates Steam Early Access; therefore, the game is not considered an Early Access game by Steam, nor is it listed as one.

Mike Rose
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Hey James,

you're correct, and this is noted in the article.

Cheers
Mike

Alan Barton
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(A) "the game had sold over 200,000 copies"

(B) "the game isn't selling as well as hoping, and that development has now been abandoned."

(A) + (B) == That doesn't make sense.

Either they are burning cash completely unrealistically or they have completely unrealistic expectations of what they consider success. Either way someone is being very unrealistic.

Many of us would love to start with 200000 copies sold before we have even finished the game! (Especially as its listed at $14.99)

Sung Kwon
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I believe that the game has sold over 200,000 copies through its lifetime, but the developer who agreed to take on 15% off sales joined in very late when the sales most likely have slumped quite a lot, thus only seeing very tiny portion of that 200,000 copies sold and then only 15% of that on top of that.

Alan Barton
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"take on 15% off sales joined in very late when the sales most likely have slumped quite a lot"

Giving someone a deal of 15% knowing sales have slumped, is pulling a fast one against that developer ... if sales have slumped that far?.

It still comes back to unrealistic, because whoever is (mis)managing this project, they need to be aware of how viable their business is, which means watching all cash flows to make it a viable project for all on the project. If people can't live on their income, then its no longer a viable project.

Yet 15% of about $3M income is $450000 ... therefore someone on the team has the money to pay the team fairly and realistically.

Sounds like someone is either sitting on that money or they have burned through that money?.

Greg Scheel
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Sounds like they knocked one out of the park, and then dropped the ball. Not sure how anyone can pull that off.

Natascha Roosli
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I think much like Kickstarter the biggest problem is miss-management and underestimating the business side which is often just swiped aside thanks to the high appeal both Kickstarter and early access (or in this case - paid alpha/beta?) have (funding without payback, community building, instant feedback, no "real" risk if a project fails).

I am actually surprised it has taken so long for the public to react to failed projects on both platforms.

However, all parties involved need to show responsibility: the platforms need to make clear what the projects are, the devs have to be honest and, among anything else, need to be clear about what they need and how to get to their goal and last but not least the consumer needs to properly inform herself/himself about what he/she buys into. That of course is directly related to point one and two, though.

Allen Danklefsen
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I bought this game when it came out on steam, played for 20 hours, then put in one of my categories of 'waiting for updates'.... I still had fun with it (20 hours worth is more than I've gotten out of $50+ games.)

Still a shame there won't be any more updates.

Jeff Leigh
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"..the team is currently thinking about instead working on a sequel to Towns through which they want to implement all the features that they could not with the original game."

Wait... so they actually could complete it, but want to do so as a "sequel"... so that the 200,000 people who bought Towns are screwed, and presumably have to pay again if they want what they were told they would get.

Personally, if you don't follow through on things like this and don't offer refunds - be it Steam or Kickstarter - I think you should be blacklisted from the service in question. Not given a second chance to make the same promise, take more money, and fail to deliver again.

Shea Rutsatz
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Thats what caught me - "We dont have the money to finish the game, but we plan to do a sequel with all the stuff you were supposed to get, but for $19.99"

This seems so wrong!

Dan DiCicco
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There are more than 8000 games on Steam, and I would wager that roughly 7500 of them count as "abandoned" because the teams are dispersed or have moved on to new projects. This story make much ado about nothing. Towns is not on early access, has been out for years, and the indie devs are moving on.

This is how most gaming companies work. I expect better from Gamasutra than a hit piece on legit industry practices.

Michael Garber
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Have you played this game? It's clearly not finished. It hasn't even shown any progress over the last 2 years. It's clearly Alpha and barely playable. Taking cash and then deciding to use (whatever's left) for another project is unethical and a black-eye for indie developers. Anyone who's thrown money their way should be outraged. This is NOT how most gaming companies work.

Maurício Gomes
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The game is not early access on Steam because it was accepted before Early Access existed.

On Desura (where it was sold before Greenlight existed) it was listed as "Alphafunding" and was clearly labelled as Alpha, and the devs never moved even to a "Beta" stage.

I bought it as Alpha (on Desura, before Steam) for full price, hoping that a game of a genre I particularly like would be worked on... Then they pull all these shitty stunts and run away with the money.

Michael Garber
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I have to say this angers me. $2m in revenue, 2-man dev team with not much progress at all over the last 2 years. That works out to a lot of hookers & blow... just sayin'

Vyacheslav Gonakhchyan
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When exactly is game like Towns considered feature complete? In theory they could label it as 1.0 and move on. Of course it will result in community backlash. Many such games are very demanding. They have bad graphics but lots and lots of engine work. You can compare it with episodic games like Walking Dead. Walking Dead divided game content into chunks and released them as episodes. Why not do the same for games that require a lot of programming? Towns is clearly inifinite development game like Dwarf Fortress or Minecraft. Early Access model is not suitable for such games. Perhaps they should not have placed it on there, but they would not have money to continue development. In some sense it was inevitable. I'm guessing that other early access games like Spacebase DF9, Project Zomboid might end up in similar situation at some point.

Marvin Papin
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I don't think so for Spacebase DF9. It's a double fine game and seems to be already far advanced. The development will just not be very ambitious. The problem with that game is its price. 23€ arrgggh ??? for an early access. Did they see that as a AAA ?

Everybody seems to have forgotten that originally, with minecraft, you got the game at a lower price. Now it's just a complete mess with Iphone quality games. I know I'm rough but also EXTREMELY WORRIED

Maurício Gomes
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When I bought towns Alpha on Desura, it had a sorta clear roadmap, features that should be done (including fixing the shitty graphics, that were supposed to be only placeholder).

Seriously, the game have only a placeholder music track (a, singular) for monies sake!

Christian Guthermann
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I think if they actually complete the "sequel" they should give it to the people who bought the original without charging them for it. Since they did not finish the original it's only logical that we get some sort of finished product.

John Mascarenas
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An interesting question comes to mind.... Is it better to release an incomplete and unpolished final game or to not release a game at all that had a strong following?

Michael Bakerman
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Although I think it's wrong for games like Towns to essentially ditch support of their product and leave fans in the dust, I don't think it'd be the first time any company has "moved on" from a failed project wishing to start fresh. Maybe they're hiring brand new heads for their team, etc.? I've worked with some people before that have had this very attitude by the end of production; granted, the game wasn't for sale.

I see this event as yet another prod towards Steam to see if they will start policing Early-Access more vigorously, or really, the whole store in general. How often would Valve schedule build tests? How much of your game is allowed to be non-functional? And also, where is the line drawn between a "broken" game, and a not-well-received game? Should Valve listen to customers that feel entitled to a refund if the game is simply "not as fun as expected?"

Joshua Yu
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This whole "early access", fund me phase is such dangerous territory to be in I feel. To an indy developer kickstarter and steam early access were almost a god send, but companies and/or teams like this that fail to deliver a product they promised are hurting the chances of new developers to get funded.

Whenever I hear a story like this I feel for the paying consumers and it just makes me more wary of ever supporting any type of kickstarter campaign or early access on steam. If it were a trusted company that has released games before, that's another story, but for a completely new startup.. just dangerous.

I do agree that if you ever back a kickstarter or early access on steam the meta now just feels like its a gamble. Maybe that will change, maybe not.

Michael Bakerman
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I think that's what's weird, is that they've always been gambles, but some customers seem to want to go into it thinking "nothing should go wrong" and that they deserve the success they paid for. What they forget is, they didn't pay for the game's assured success - they merely paid for the game to have a better chance at success; it's a big difference. I think some (many) campaigns try to hide this idea of "risk" by coaxing people with gifts, prizes, extras. Reality is, though, the game is Not done yet, and is not guaranteed to be done by anyone.

Budd Royce Lam
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Makes sense to me. Creator of the game bails and gets a new guy to take over. New developer guy is paid based on % of net sales. Sales since he signed on drops to a point where he's not getting what he thinks his time is worth, pulls the plug on the project.

Maurício Gomes
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Then announce he will start a second one, with the same money ,and will charge again.

Of course it makes sense, the name of this is, Scam.

Kyle Redd
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The creator made millions of dollars from the sales of an unfinished game. He *absolutely* has the ethical mandate to spend every last penny of profits to ensure said game is in a complete, working state before moving on to any further projects.

Marvin Papin
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@Kyle

Unfortunately honor and loyalty are rare nowadays.


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