American McGee's Akaneiro: Demon Hunters was Kickstarted only this February. Squeaking past its goal in the eleventh hour, it's only four short months later that a playable build is available. For free, if you go to their own site. Or for money, if you get it from Steam. Huh? This whole odd situation asks some interesting questions about such models, and when is the right time to let people start buying your game?
Because the answer here is: not yet.
Many Kickstarters and alpha-funded games have sold themselves on the promise that gamers would get to get their hands on them far earlier than they usually would. Get to respond and influence the direction of the game. Get to see the iterations and changes along the way. Get to... well, be free play-testers, seemingly. And when a game is already great, it's a great plan. Although that rather strongly reveals the issue with the model, I think. It is to say, really: when the game is basically good enough to be called done, it's a great plan. The rest of the time? You're playing an unfinished, buggy, scrappy game. And I'm not entirely clear why anyone would want to.
Akaneiro starkly reveals this to me. Running in a tiny resolution that can't be changed, blurring up into a real mess when fullscreen and far too tiny on my 27" monitor to be played in a window, it staggers, blips, and coughs its way through an incredibly primitive experience, both in visual design and how it actually plays.
This is trying to be a very typical action RPG, infected with free-to-play purchases. Left click attack, right click special, loot, vendors, etc. It's very familiar But in a world that's just given us the Grim Dawn alpha, Path Of Exile, Van Helsing, Torchlight 2, and so on, the basics we already have in plentiful supply. What we need is the thing that makes a game special. That doesn't tend to be its being half-finished.
Akaneiro is a clunky mess. Is it a clunky mess because it's not finished? Or because they're making a bad game? I can't tell. I can only assume that all of the interface is placeholder, because it's all dreadful. The inventory is a vast mess of square tiles that are visually uninformative, the comparison information floating confusingly. Enemies run through scenery while you cannot. Quest information is meaningless, while the dungeons are insipidly bland and offer no challenge at all, because it forces you to play them on Easy the first time - I've yet to experience anything I'd want to play a second time. And it's so damned easy that the only time I saw my health go down at all was when I stood still just to see if it even could. Are these fair criticisms if the game's not finished?
Except, well, can we really say it isn't? Because, in fact, the Steam page describes it as "a launched state", despite its being sold as Early Access. And yes, being sold. Despite being available for free elsewhere, to play the Steam build requires a £7/$10 buy, and guess what - it's littered with in-game purchases you can make, using Steam's in-built store. Pay the ten bucks and you're gifted with thirty bucks' worth of in-game stuff. But, well, still. So why is this happening? Spicy Horse say,
"Why $10? Our initial launch of Akaneiro across our SpicyWorld platform and Kongregate, though successful, simply hasn’t provided us with the necessary feedback to prepare the game for the next stage, for crafting and co-op. When Valve discussed placing Akaneiro in the Early Access program, we saw this as an opportunity to leverage the experience of the Steam community before opening the game to a wider audience."
Which is a deeply peculiar statement. It asks a question it absolutely does not answer. Why $10? Because, erm, something else. So why $10? It's not as if that's the minimum you can charge on Steam!
When I started playing the game, I honestly believed that this was a case of Spicy Horse simply making a mistake in allowing players into their build too early. But instead I can only perceive this as charging money for an entirely unfinished mess, no matter what intentions may be behind the decisions.
But those intentions themselves seem very problematic to me. This idea that their Kickstarter backers, and their deal with Kongregate, has not generated them enough feedback, so etc etc. What? I'm a huge advocate of developers ensuring they experience outsiders playing their game during development, but they can't be depending upon them to do the work for them! It shouldn't take a community forking out cash for an unfinished product for a development team to know how to make a game. That's ludicrous.
I'd argue that this is the rather bad side of this recent attention on consumer feedback. Many Kickstarters and the like boast of how much backers will get to define the game - something I've always thought sounds like a terrible idea. Partly because I want to play the game that's the vision of the developers, and partly because some other people are complete idiots and I don't want their thoughts defining the game I'll play. But here we're seeing a situation where it's implied that rather than this being a sop to gamers to encourage funding, it's become an unhealthy dependence.
Yet how can it take audience feedback to tell a developer to have their game run in resolutions appropriate after 2003? Do you really need to crowdsource the idea that forcing someone to play every bland level on Easy before offering anything worthwile is damned stupid? By the time you're calling your game "in a release state", do you think it might be appropriate for it to indicate how exactly you upgrade your skills, rather than forcing the player to clunk around all the various shopkeepers until you find the right one? (Oh, and guess what - levelling skills doesn't take XP, but the in-game currency bought with real-world money.)
In the end, Akaneiro is a game that's available to buy, and as such I'm happy to judge it: it's awful. Absolutely awful. Will it still be by the time they declare it finished? Once they've had enough feedback? Who knows. Why $10? Um, er, LOOK OVER THERE!