Impressions: Shadowrun Online Early Access

By Rich Stanton on April 16th, 2014 at 9:00 pm.

The honeymoon period for Kickstarter is long over. There are a number of reasons why but perhaps the most impactful is the failure of several high-profile campaigns to deliver what was promised, or going full Darth Vader: ‘We are altering the deal, pray we don’t alter it any further.’ Such drek leads us to Shadowrun Online – a game that was due for release in May 2013, but on March 31 2014 crept onto Steam Early Access, available for sale to non-backers at the princely sum of £25. So what’s going on?

We’ll come to the tortuous twists and turns of Shadowrun Online’s development soon enough, but for ponying up the dough this is what you get: Early Access to what is currently four singleplayer missions and a miniscule multiplayer map, along with the full campaign on release. Worth noting is that this purchase does not include future expansions (i.e. they’re already thinking about DLC), and when the game is eventually released there will also be a free-to-play version of it.

In fact there are some pretty big claims for Shadowrun Online, so I’m just going to quote the developer before coming back to reality: “Every character perceives the game world differently […] the collective actions of players will not only determine the fate of the online game world [but will] also cross over into the pen and paper storyline […] accessible through Windows, Mac, Android, iOS, and Linux and on Ouya […] it is fully cross-platform, meaning you can play it on your tablet [then] sit down at your PC to continue with the same character.”

Hoo boy. The kickstarter promised co-op gameplay and faction wars, with hubs where players could mingle and pick missions to undertake – as well as all the Shadowrun bobbins you’d expect, from computer hacking to magic to gritty combat. The current build of the game has none of this, but it is of course Early Access.

The good news is that the backgrounds look pretty great. More than anything else in Shadowrun Online, the look and atmosphere of these few environments is bang-on. The missions are short ‘kill all the dudes’ affairs, and showcase a relatively slick but simple turn-based combat system. Think XCOM but without the dynamic combat camera.

But that comparison is a problem in itself. I think XCOM’s amazing but Shadowrun Online really shouldn’t play like a poor man’s XCOM – yet it does. You have two guys who each have two weapons: a bulky SMG-toting Orc with a machete, and a mage that can shoot fireballs or whip out a shotgun. The big problem is that combat doesn’t live up to the interface: the battles don’t seem enormously dependent on tactics, more on the random chance of shots landing and who gets the first good hit in.

All that’s on offer here is combat, which is fine, but being a shadowrunner isn’t just about killing people. Interaction beyond combat is limited to shooting at door panels. There’s no hacking to speak of, though in one mission you guard an NPC who’s doing this. You can see everything happening in the level (no fog of war). Cover is interchangeable – a pot plant’s as effective as a big hunk of steel.

The most disappointing thing is the magic system. Currently magic is simply fire-and-forget with certain spells having a cooldown of a few turns. Core Shadowrun concepts like drain and overcasting are not present, which means that spells are basically fireball guns. This isn’t even to mention that the mage character indicates his magicalness by wearing a pink hat and carrying a giant skull around, which is so far away from the basic concept of being a shadow runner – you know, disguising true power from the enemy and surprising them – it’s hard to believe it got past the concept stage.

The PvP element on offer is so insignificant it doesn’t even deserve to be called a taster. It’s a tiny map for 2 vs 2 battles where both players move forwards into cover, then take pot-shots at one another. There’s no room in this environment for any kind of interesting approach to the combat, beyond chancing your arm by running the Orc forward and slashing away.

The ‘this is Alpha’ excuse is, just under a year after the original deadline, pretty astonishing – that is, that the £25 version being sold now is merely a functionality test and that content will come later. The projected launch is by the end of this year. The developers still aren’t sure about absolutely fundamental aspects of the game like team size and the inclusion of overwatch.

When Cliffhanger announced the first delay, they did so by saying that the game could not be built on the existing codebase for Jagged Alliance – it ‘compromised’ too much. This is all well and good in theory, but in practice it is very hard to see what Shadowrun Online has gained from such a delay. Game development is not this linear process whereby a team can, having perfected a single mechanic, produce an entire semi-MMOG worth of content within six months or even a year. It’s not going to happen.

And here’s the real killer: if Shadowrun Online is about showing off a core gameplay loop, then it doesn’t. It shows off a visually slick but generic isometric strategy game that lacks any kind of tactical options whatsoever. The strategy here comes down to the random number generator. The core gameplay loop isn’t here.

The problem with Shadowrun Online is that there are a tonne of games doing what it does already – but better. For solo players, there’s even Shadowrun Returns. But very few games have captured that intoxicating blend that makes Shadowrun such a great universe: biotechnology, magical fantasy and raw danger everywhere. The multitude of approaches for any given situation. Taking up such a mantle requires much more than a logo, and a by-the-numbers isometric strategy game.

Be wary. So far Shadowrun Online has swallowed over half a million dollars in Kickstarter money, claims to have had an angel investor that walked away at the last minute, has another background investor, is sharing its codebase with another game, and is now selling on Steam Early Access to people who didn’t back the original. What has been released is more like a tech demo than an alpha version of the game, and frankly the chances of a 2014 release don’t look realistic.

It could be that Cliffhanger are straight-shootin’ types and will deliver by the end of the year, in which case I’ll happily eat my cyberware. But one thing in particular stood out from the video released to announce Steam Early Access. Almost the whole six minutes is shots of the beautiful Vienna office of the developer, and Jan Wagner talking. There’s plenty of merchandise around, big posters on the walls, smiling employees looking busy, and tutting about the various issues and how they’re solving them. There’s barely any footage of the game.

Shadowrun Online has been funded and in development for years now. For me the warning klaxons are blazing. Plenty of us want a great Shadowrun game, something Cliffhanger has taken advantage of to fund the development of Shadowrun Online. Perhaps they’ll deliver. But for now, I’d advise you keep your wallet shut, and watch this project from a very safe distance.

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35 Comments »

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  1. Hyomoto says:

    A good, brutally honest read. It’s hard for some to believe, but the promises of a Kickstarter are easier said than done by even experienced teams. I did the Kickstarter honeymoon, I backed nearly forty projects in 2012 so I know exactly what that well tastes like. It’s a cocktail you take with a healthy dose of caution.

    • skittles says:

      I dunno, I backed a lot of projects in 2012, 2013, and done some this year too. I honestly have never seen what peoples problem is. The date is an estimate, nothing more, that was obvious from the get go. What was also obvious was that a lot of projects were promising very short turn-arounds that made no realistic sense. I knew that full well as I backed. I guess if you truly expected it to come out I would be pissed. However I simply cannot see how anyone could have believed the dates given. The type of games that can be made in a year are not the sort of ones being promised on Kickstarter.

      Not a single project I have backed has failed to deliver what was promised. And yes that includes Takedown, which despite all the bad press about it’s farce of a release actually delivered more than was promised. Not that I disagree with the negative on that one, it should never have been given an official release in the state it was in. Other big failures have honestly passed me by. I look closely at what I am backing, which people don’t seem to do, they jump on a hype train. CLANG was the biggest of these, yet it was obvious it was in trouble. There was no clear plan, no clear outcome, no design. I looked at it and decided to give it a miss due to this, boy am I glad I did. Look closely people, don’t not back, there is some amazing stuff sometimes, just look to see that people have a clear plan and timetable for working their shit out. And don’t trust dates, I would of thought that one is obvious. ;P

      • zhivik says:

        I think this is much more about the lack of content, rather than missed deadlines. Yes, it has become a habbit of developers funded through Kickstarter to delay the final product, though this doesn’t really excuse them. However, this particular project has sounded fishy to me from the fery beginning. The decision to split game worlds to paying subscribers and free-to-play ones was the first to ring the alarm bell. Then, the very ambitious plans, claiming loads of stuff without really having yhe money or the experience to back it.

        I am not surprised their original investor left, and I think this is an even better indication of where this game is heading at (i.e. the trash bin). Developers need to have a better idea what they can afford to do with the money they can get. Unfortunately, Shadowrun Online is an example of the cons of crowd-funded projects – you don’t have a publisher to keep the developer in line. Yes, I realise that publishers have killed a lot more good titles than they have saved, but it’s not all black and white, and there are situations when publishers can be useful.

      • Hyomoto says:

        It’s not about money, it isn’t even always about scope or timelines, it’s about design. It’s easy for me to say, “It will have these elements.” I’ll use my favorite example. In the original Assassin’s Creed, the notion was that you would be able to ‘blend into the crowd’ to escape. How was this implemented? Holding a button near a group of monks. THAT is the difference between describing something on paper and making it happen.

        Yes, Kickstarters may deliver on their promises but that doesn’t mean that the end game is good. I appreciate this article for its brutal honesty. Instead of saying, well it’s a Kickstarter and its in early access, Mr. Stanton had the balls to say “This isn’t very good and I don’t see how it will get better.”

        My comment has nothing to do with ‘buyer beware’.

        • phemox says:

          Yes, Assassin’s Creed failed on a couple of levels indeed, blending into the crowd isn’t even the worst. What to think of the mindlessly easy combat? It has certainly given 3rd person casual games a whole new meaning. Yes, sometimes you die, but that’s mostly because of the clunky controls, not necessarily because you’re outsmarted or outnumbered by the enemy.

          Sad thing about it, apparently the developers are oblivious to these problems. After all, millions buying their game in hopes of getting said fixed, can’t be wrong, right?

          All in all, there are few reasons to really get excited about modern day game developing, even when a new franchise like Assassin’s Creed manages to survive and get popular. It’s ultimately not even that good of a game.

  2. Greg Wild says:

    Talking about promises with regards Kickstarter projects is pointless, frankly.

    It’s part of the risk, that a team can try to deliver, but it might not. Most of the projects I’ve backed (20 or so in total) are making good progress. Maybe 3-4 are failing or failed. I regret nothing! Just don’t put your money in if you need it or don’t want to risk not getting what you put in for.

    • The Random One says:

      I’ve backed quite a few projects that went belly-up. Hell, I backed Haunts: The Manse Macabre. But just because you know a project you’ve backed may fail doesn’t mean you can’t be disappointed if it does.

    • Hyomoto says:

      That is a horribly narrow view. Giving developers a free pass because they received free cash would be reckless, they deserve the same honesty about their product as any developer. Did you find it to be okay that BF4 came out unplayable?

      If we don’t want to risk the game being bad, we should just not buy it right? At what point will you let the developers be responsible for their mistakes and failures?

      • Paareth says:

        Kickstarter is a donation.

        Early Access you buy the product on sale at that point. Anything promised beyond that is a risk, that you take.

        If the prices they are selling them for don’t reflect that, don’t give them your money. It really is that simple. People can afford different levels of donation, and more importantly tolerate different levels of risk. That is very obvious by reading some of these comments.

        Of course if you trust a developer from previous products you can take that into account, but with someone you’ve never heard of, don’t be giving them full game prices unless the money doesn’t matter that much to you.

  3. DatonKallandor says:

    It’s hardly surprising – this is a developer that has never produced anything good. What did the kickstarting people expect?

  4. Theboredfish says:

    There was a time in which I bought quite a few early access titles. Come today and I don’t touch the stuff. Large promises with watered down results have sullied what could have been a pretty excellent business plan.

    The only early access titles that I felt were worth the gamble were ‘Sir, you are being hunted’, ‘Starbound’, and ‘HEX’. I’d like to see more developers follow through, but even if you look at the original design document for Bioshock, you’d be disappointed to see all the features that didn’t end up in the final (still very fantastic) game.

    Design document can be found Here and is well worth reading.

    • SillyWizard says:

      I’m pretty selective, but I’ve so far had good experiences with Early Access. The important thing to remember is — it’s Early Access. It’s not helpful or appropriate to expect a functional product in return for your pre-purchase.

      For me, it’s been an opportunity to get a taste of what’s to come while my enthusiasm is high, and then — typically wait until the game is released with more solid knowledge of what to expect.

      There are plenty of hallmarks for unreleased games which are to be avoided. It’s on the buyer to make responsible decisions with his or her disposable funds.

      • twaitsfan says:

        My biggest problem with early access games is that 9 times out of 10, there’s no date anticipated for simply access. When the phenomenon first started I figured that early access meant that the game would be out in about 6-12 months. Now I do less figuring and less buying.

  5. Frank says:

    Ouch.

    For what it’s worth, I’ve backed 15 games (and 21 other projects) and have no real regrets so far (though I should’ve paid for a higher tier for the Banner Saga, and Castle Story had s*** UI the last time I checked).

    KS is not a scam simply because fools see it as a preorder program and actually sign on with Molyneux, Roberts, et al. Back projects from folks you like proposing to do stuff you like or gtfo. You lot who support bad, hyped-up projects are the poison on KS.

    And, seriously, who cares about delays for games that are not Deus Ex? Don’t you have a backlog to get to?

    • Lemming says:

      I agree with this. For example, Nekro is one of the few games I’ve seen doing an Early Access on Steam correctly, and that was a Kickstarter (albeit one that’s a bit behind). It’s actually a proper beta, not this pre-alpha nonsense that covers developers for their failures. Never seems to get mentioned by the gaming press, though.

      We’ve also got nothing but good things to expect from InExile’s efforts and Obsidian’s Pillars of Eternity. Carmageddon Reincarnation, while possibly stretching the early access stuff a bit – is at least doing exactly what they said they would – remaking Carmageddon.

      Shadowrun Returns itself was perfectly playable and enjoyable – even if it wasn’t the second coming that some expected it to be. It certainly enough Shadowrun for me short of something Bethesda-esque. The last thing I’d want is to go ‘online’ with it unless someone wanted to make a modern version of Hired Guns with the franchise with co-op.

      • icemann says:

        Shadowrun Returns was a success imo. As you say it wasn’t the second coming. But it was more about giving Shadowrun fans the medium in which to create their own content, through which the skies the limit.

        Speaking as a Shadowrun fan since the SNES and PnP days I absolutely love it. It may not be the open ended non-linear game that the previous 2 games (the SNES and Genesis games) were, but that’s fine.

        I will say that Shadowrun Online didn’t interest me at all from the get go. And this one might crash and burn later. Hope not. But my eyes are on where Shadowrun Returns goes in terms of future DLC/expansions, rather than this one as Dragonfall was friggin awesome.

    • Shadow says:

      Random snipe at Chris Roberts. I backed Star Citizen precisely because the proposed game is something I want. I’ve been yearning for a proper space sim for years. How is it that backing certain folks is okay, but backing others makes me the “poison on KS”? Seriously.

      • subedii says:

        I’d like to second you and the rodent above you please.

        Basically KS it if it’s something you want to see happen, and you believe the devs can deliver. Be aware that it might not be any good, you’re KS’ing it because you want this thing to happen and you doubt it’s going to come from one of the “regular” channels. That’s about it.

        I suspect the snipe at Roberts has more to do with the fact that he’s raised crazy money which could very easily be seen as a “bubble” that’s going to burst on release.

        Me? I backed for the singleplayer campaign. I doubt I’m even going to bother with online so I guess that particular universe of expectations doesn’t really apply to me.

        • Frank says:

          Well, okay, fair enough. Sorry, Mr Roberts. I knew nothing of you before you showed up and attracted bajillions of dollars to make god-knows-what. (I’ve never gotten into the fighter jets genre of games, set in space or on earth.)

          … how about I say the poison is (i) folks who back projects, often thinking that they are preordering, and then whine not only about the projects but also more broadly about KS; and (ii) professional writers who passive-aggressively deride new funding models, like early access and KS (and imitators), implying that they are per se sketchy and/or fads past their “honeymoons.”

          Oops, meant to reply to Shadow.

          • Caiman says:

            Agreed. The “honeymoon” period that the article mentions is really an artificial construct based on expectations propagated largely by certain journalists on what Kickstarter is. So it’s not surprised to read admissions that Kickstarter is, in fact, just a different funding model to allow a development team to try and make a game, it has nothing to do with the quality of the outcome nor project management. Publishers aren’t all bad, you know, some of them know how to guide developers to produce a finished game with realistic expectations. It might not include every conceivable idea that the development team had, but it was realistic based on the available budget. Some teams can do this on their own, of course, and it’s telling that the most experienced companies like InXile and Obsidian are producing exactly what they promised. Some smaller devs get it as well, and know how to do project and budget management, but there are clearly plenty who can’t.

            But like others have said, it’s down to the backer to exercise judgment on what projects they back, just as it’s up to us to spend our money wisely on anything. Read the project description, read the comments, get a feel for how the devs are responding to questions, visit their website, look at their back catalogue, make a smart decision basically.

          • Bull0 says:

            I like the way you not knowing who Chris Roberts is is somehow his problem

  6. Press X to Gary Busey says:

    People still talk about kickstarters as if they are preorders… That’s what the early access is for nowadays right?
    At least it got made and they get to create what they want to and not what they are told to.
    And the ratio of bad to good games will always be in favour of the bad ones. No matter AAA, indie or kickstarted.

  7. Shadow says:

    To be honest, I don’t see anything good coming out of this, considering the delays, money gobbled up, BS excuses, and what they’ve actually managed to produce so far. I can’t remember any massively delayed game amounting to anything more than mediocrity, at best. They’ve already shown they can’t handle matters with responsibility, and it’s unrealistic to expect they’ll do a 180, shape up and release something proper in seven months.

    They aren’t taking longer to make an excellent game. They’re desperately trying to produce something that looks arguably passable with beer goggles on to save the bare minimum amount of face and therefore avoid accusations that they plainly scammed $500k+ from honest backers. Anything from internet rage to actual legal actions.

  8. lomaxgnome says:

    This one barely made its 500k target on Kickstarter back in the peak of Kickstarter mania, not long after the single player game got well over five times that much. It always seemed questionable and unlikely to deliver on promises, at best it was going to be the Shadowrun license on an Asian f2p mmo, at worst… well, some would say that would be at worst too. Shadowrun Returns is (imo) one of the biggest successes of the Kickstarter era, a game that truly wouldn’t exist without it and that delivered everything any backer could have wanted. This on the other hand, will probably fizzle and die with barely a notice.

  9. Shuck says:

    “So far Shadowrun Online has swallowed over half a million dollars in Kickstarter money, claims to have had an angel investor that walked away at the last minute…”
    It’s clearly yet another example of a game Kickstarter that asked for far, far too little money with the expectation of outside investment making up the shortfall, which didn’t happen. Whatever other investments they did get are clearly not even remotely enough – the Early Access appearance is admission that they desperately needed the funds. So of course it’s a poor man’s XCom – XCom had 50-60 people working on it and took four years of development; their development budget would have to have been in excess of $30 million. Cliffhanger has promised too much with too little – they could be the best, most honest developers ever, and they wouldn’t be able to make good on this, however much they want to (and I’m sure they do want to).

  10. HumpX says:

    Speaking of the Shadowrun Universe, I wish the hell MS would release the much maligned Shadowrun MP shooter as freebee.

    ignoring all the SR fan complaints about what it should have been, taken at face value, it was a great lil MP-only tactical shooter. Its a shame it is moldering in MS’ legal vaults going to waste.

    • Soleyu says:

      Oh, yeah I agree.The game was quite good, though I could only play far too little of it, so I would love to play it again more extensively

      The thing I find interesting, is that while it’s true that making a shadowrun action game when people wanted a new RPG was not exactly a brilliant idea, thematically speaking, the game fits quite well into the shadowrun Universe, after all, shootouts between differing factions is not outside the realm of possibility in shadowrun.

      Though I do fear that even if there were quite a few shadowrun rpgs at the time, people would still be against a shadowrun action game, which is just silly, to be honest. Having said that, I think that if they were to release the game now that we have a traditional Shadowrun RPG, the FPS Shadowrun might find a bigger audience, or at least I hope so.

  11. HisDivineOrder says:

    Kickstarter was the dream that was great, but then it was killed by Ouya, Oculus, and Facebook.

  12. Tony M says:

    This game was simply too ambitious for a $500k budget. People launching Kickstarters greatly underestimate the cost of projects, because they don’t want the fundraising to fail. For example I think Wasteland 2 would have been in big trouble if it had raised just over its $900k goal. Backers need to learn that “ambitious goal+low budget” is a huge warning sign. Anything under a million dollars should be aiming for an indie style limited scope (eg FTL). Even games with a $3 million goal need to be very clever about how they spend their money.

  13. phemox says:

    Quote:
    “The ‘this is Alpha’ excuse is, just under a year after the original deadline, pretty astonishing – that is, that the £25 version being sold now is merely a functionality test and that content will come later. – cut, too long –
    in practice it is very hard to see what Shadowrun Online has gained from such a delay. Game development is not this linear process whereby a team can, having perfected a single mechanic, produce an entire semi-MMOG worth of content within six months or even a year. It’s not going to happen”

    This is exactly the problem I’m having with both Kickstarter projects and Early Access ‘games’ on Steam that aren’t finished by a long shot. Developers apparently can’t be trusted with any kind of promised progress. The hardest thing about making games is getting it done! Starting a project is super easy. Failing to deliver even easier! As a developer that has failed more often that succeeded myself I totally know.

    Yes, to some extent game development is this unpredictable thing of when you’re hitting the next roadblock problem that will mess up your schedules, but how come just about every Kickstarted game looks to be made by a bunch of total amateurs when it comes to organizing, streamlining development, being transparent to backers (yes, EVERYONE has the rights to know what the heck you’re doing with their money, despite not being true ‘investors’) and ultimately getting things done? Most games in Early Access, supposedly in ‘beta’, do not even have a clear roadmap or definitive feature list of what they will be working on next. Some developers do not even seem to know or care.

    It kind of makes you wonder if that’s why publishers did not pick them up to begin with. Or even why the kickstarter only raises so little money compared to what it’ll ultimately take big companies to make a REALLY good game. And sometimes it’s not even about the money, not even a couple of million is a solid guarantee for success. Look at Star Citizen, they are wasting money at just about every turn they take and spend far too much time on marketing. Yes, we get it, they want to make the next EVE Online essentially. Well news-flash.. countless of developers want to make the next WoW.

    It makes me wonder. What’s their goal anyway? Making that game or creating world’s biggest hype for a ‘game’ that doesn’t exist? Estimated release in my opinion? Not within 3 years.

    Early Access in many cases just screams to me ‘keep your freaking money, ‘cos you might as well burn it. Not. Worth. It. (Yet).’. And it’s sad, because it does create an opportunity for fairly interesting indie games to see the light of day. But as a business model and for the backers, the whole thing stinks.

    What it needs to improve the business model? EASY! Developers PROMISE us a great game through Kickstarter, right? Well, in return we PROMISE to pay for their game when it launches (and is any good). With our promises they might be able to secure a loan for the actual development, the way it should be. Why should backers carry the risk of development and even pay for alpha or beta access giving ‘free’ feedback? It’s wrong on so many levels it’s not even funny.

  14. nitehawk says:

    I am done with kickstarter. To me it is a “here is a list of features you will not be getting”. Nearly every one of them over-promises and under-delivers.

    Looking back, yeah I was a sucker. How did anyone expect these guys to produce a good game on $500k. This is probably all we will see of the game, the rest of the money is going into hookers and blow.

    One one of two things is likely with developers that get a sizeable pile of kickstarter and early access money:

    1. Rush and put out whatever code is possible, because they realize that most of the money they will ever see on this project has already come in. Time to cash out and run with the money.

    2. Realize you really needed about 3x more cash or time than you received to actually fulfill all promises. No developer can estimate cost or time on a multi-year project with any kind of useful accuracy.

    The only projects on kickstarter that succeed are ones that were already mostly done when the campaign started. And these are ones that just look for the last little bit of cash they need for polish, art, music, or publishing.

    • Drakythe says:

      >Looking back, yeah I was a sucker. How did anyone expect these guys to produce a good game on $500k. This is probably all we will see of the game, the rest of the money is going into hookers and blow.

      Can we just take a minute and analyze this comment?

      First, its good that you are learning. You’re right, $500k is not NEAR enough for a project of this scope. I think many kickstarters like this are looking to drum up enough money to then go to actual investors/banks and be like “Look, we got half a million from the public on the IDEA of this game, half a million that we are putting up now. How much will you give us?”

      But if you believe, as you say, that $500k isn’t enough to produce this game. What makes you think there is any money leftover to use on “hookers and blow”? You think they just decided “Ah, well, we didn’t get enough money, better half ass it with, ah well maybe a little bit of the money we did get, and use the rest to have a good time compliments of the suckers!”? It is infinitely more likely that the developers are now deep in debt to a bank/creditor and working their ass off so as not to declare bankruptcy.

      If the money raised was never going to be enough, please don’t assume that the developer did it in bad faith and just ran with the money. There are cases where this has happened, but someone who has put out a product, albeit an incomplete and lacking product, probably tried, but had no idea what they were in for and failed, rather than outright stole your money.

      TL:DR; Why do we assume that if this wasn’t enough money that they have any money left to use on “hookers and blow”?

  15. belgand says:

    People are talking about the game not having enough money, but when I look at it I see that the most expensive element that requires the largest staff, the art, looks really good. Game mechanics are the part that’s cheap(er) and doesn’t require as large of a team. Either can easily become bogged-down in endless design iterations, but doesn’t appear to be the case here as everything sounds pretty bare-bones. Did they perhaps over-staff the art department, but under-fund programming and game design, leaving a team that was only barely able to meet playability without any time (or options) to build more interesting gameplay? It might simply be an issue of poor budgeting.