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Unwritten: That Which Happened May Not Happen

Edit: a Kickstarter update with some clarifications as to the project’s future.

When Joe Houston, formerly a core member of the Dishonored team, headed to Kickstarter to raise funds for an esoteric turn-based strategy game, I was intrigued. One interview later, I was convinced that Unwritten might well be one of the highlights of 2013. The crowdfunding attempt almost failed but we were glad to see it reach the $75,000 goal with little time to spare. The initially planned August release date passed and now, sadly, the game has been delayed indefinitely. The reasons are below.

The tale is best told in Joe’s own words, so I’ll quote a few paragraphs from the Kickstarter update which brought this news to me. You can also see the full text at Roxlou’s official website.

It’s been a few months since the last update, which is hardly fair to the project or its backers. However, it is also true that this is the earliest that I could manage to write an update, for reasons that I will get into shortly. Realizing that I’m short in my duties to Unwritten Passage, and that I’m also doing the absolute best I can, has caused me to come to terms with the reality of the position I’m in. This also means that the project’s backers deserve to know the whole picture, without sugar coating or spin.

Every person in life has a limited amount of themselves to give. I have been striking a compromise between a project that has had its own troubles, a family in crisis (that I oftentimes couldn’t or wouldn’t recognize), and the regular demands of supporting my wife and daughter on my own. I am tenacious and hardworking, and I have been creative in addressing the problems that I see. But I have my limits, and sometimes tenacity can become willful blindness and stubbornness. And those qualities don’t honor the trust that my wife, my daughter, my backers, and my contributors put in me.

The delays are not directly related to any business or creative decisions, then, although the family issues have impacted the course of the project.

So here’s the situation right now, as simply as I can think to put it. We raised $75k (which became about $68k after various Kickstarter costs) to make a game in 6 months with the efforts of 3 people. At this stage we’re at the 9-10 month mark. I’ve stretched the budget hard, and for the last month and a half I’ve been doing contracting on the side to try and stay afloat and to give my family the stability to see the doctors we need in order to heal. To be blunt, this is not enough.

So why did we fail to create a realistic budget and come in on time? I feel that I would need to write 3 full postmortems to address that question: one as an indie game developer, one as a small business owner, and one as a bit of flotsam swirling in the maelstrom of the U.S. health system. But in short two idioms apply: “hindsight is 20/20″, and “shit happens”. Although nobody was perfect in this process, I do feel that everybody did their best with the information we had.

We often celebrate the creative freedom that independent development allows but working outside a larger structure can be perilous. Fall of a tightrope in a circus and a safety net will catch you – a man alone on a wire above the world might not be so lucky.

The website will continue to host updates as progress is made but Joe admits that Unwritten is now “a personal side project”, adding that any backers who feel that Roxlou have “violated their trust” should contact via Kickstarter to seek a refund.

OK, now the big question: is the game canceled or what? I have been thinking hard about what is the right thing to do. The stupendous work already put forth in Julian’s music and Lee’s art still sets my imagination on fire. And I see people come to life all the time when I describe the concept to them. However, my experience also says that we have lost momentum, we’re out of money, and it’s now a one-man project centered around a fulltime game developer with family baggage that needs better health insurance. And I’ve worked in the past on wonderful projects with real promise that have been canceled, so I know what that looks like. Sometimes it still takes a lot of luck to make a game.

But I’m not ready to completely call it quits and say that Unwritten Passage is dead forever. However, to say that the project as I pitched it is alive and well would be beyond naive. It would be dishonest. It lives on as my personal side project, something I hope to bring about on my own and through the help of talented friends when possible. And should it come to be I will do my best to deliver on my original promises… but I have to be honest. To many this is probably the end.

I hope that I’ll be able to play Unwritten one day but, for now, our best wishes are with Joe and his family.

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