Last week Double Fine announced that Spacebase DF-9 development was coming to an end. The issue was that hundreds of features that had previously been listed as "maybe possibly" coming to the game were no longer to going to be delivered, replaced instead with the release of the game's LUA codebase so the community could add content themselves.
People are understandably peeved. Tim Schafer has now commented on the game's Steam discussion forum in response to some of the common questions about what happened.
Basically, it didn't make enough money to justify the length of development they'd originally hoped for:
We started Spacebase with an open ended-production plan, hoping that it would find similar success (and therefore funding) to the alpha-funded games that inspired it. Some of its early sales numbers indicated this might be the case, but slowly things changed, and it became clear that this was looking like a year and a half of production instead of five or so. With each Alpha release there was the hope that things would change, but they didn't. We put every dime we made from Spacebase back into Spacebase, and then we put in some more. Obviously, spending more money than we were making isn’t something we can afford to do forever. So, as much as we tried to put off the decision, we finally had to change gears and put Spacebase into finishing mode and plan for version 1.0.
It's perfectly reasonable that Double Fine can't and won't work on Spacebase at a loss for an indefinite amount of time, yet it seems unreasonable to have gambled so highly with the money and goodwill of the game's audience. In order to support a five-year development project with a small team in San Francisco, Spacebase would have had to consistently bring in money equivalent to the biggest Early Access successes; ie, "the alpha-funded games that inspired it."
I understand that the recent announcement was a disappointment. It was for you, and it was for us. We wanted to keep working on Spacebase for years. But Spacebase spends more money than it brings in, and that’s just not something we can afford to do any more. Set up against the expectation of the game being in development as long as Prison Architect or Dwarf Fortress, it’s hard not to find fault in the game by comparison. But we continued to sell the game, and will continue to sell the game, because we feel that based solely on its own merits, Spacebase DF9 is still a fun, clever, hilarious, beautiful and complete game.
It seems as if that expectation of Prison Architect-style development was set by Double Fine themselves, both in their hopes for its funding success and in the development plan they initially posted online. If you list features on your development plan, then no amount of "maybe possibly" caveats will stop people buying the game on the hopes those features inspire. That's why you wrote them on your public development plan.
It's also worth remembering that for all Prison Architect's financial success, Introversion didn't need it to earn that much in order to continue development. That it earned more than their previous four games combined in ten months of alpha funding was a pleasant surprise.
Schafer's answers end with:
We have stumbled awkwardly through some new territory with this game, and in terms of early access communication we fell short. But we are still proud of the game in the end, and are happy to have it on the roster of Double Fine titles. I hope you are able to reserve judgment on version 1.0 until it comes out, and then enjoy it for the unique and entertaining experience that it is.
I hope the finished result is a good game, but hope also that this acts as a reminder to people of how important communication is in early access, where whether a game is "finished" is measured in degrees.