I often lament that game companies don't tend to admit when they've ballsed something up - paralysed by fear that it'll affect marketshare or boardmember confidence. Today, we get to see what it looks like when a successful but small developer puts their hands up, admits there's a problem and explains why. Does it feel any better?
In a fairly unusual step for This Sort Of Thing, devs Frozenbyte posted an announcement on Steam in response to assorted griping from the newly-released puzzle-platformer sequel's players. This is probably the key line: "We still think the game is good but the cliffhanger story and the relative shortness of the game are valid criticisms but ones which we didn't realize would cause a disappointment in this scale. Sorry!"
I guess I understand why game companies don't often cop to failure. Even though Frozenbyte's post opens with - and often repeats - a claim that they're proud of Trine 3, it's almost impossible not to interpret it as 'our game is wonky, say developers.' They acknowledge weaknesses and give explanations as to why that's the case, which is hugely admirable. It takes serious chutzpah to have done this so soon. Or perhaps it just takes panic.
As for the why, the answer is, basically, money. Writes Frozenbyte vice-president Joel Kinnunen, "Back in late 2012, we set out to do Trine 3 in full 3D - bigger, badder, better. We took a big risk with the 3D gameplay implementation - it was to be a massive improvement over the previous games in several areas. We have always been ambitious and this time our ambition may have gotten the better of us."
Trine 3's development cost $5.4 million - three times what Trine 2 cost. Now, "there's nothing left on the table. We initially had a much longer story written and more levels planned, but to create what we envisioned, it would have taken at least triple the money, probably up to 15 million USD, which we didn't realize until too late, and which we didn't have."
Oof. It is perfectly understandable that they'd then want to get something out, in order to get at least some return from their years of work and millions of dollars in expenditure. It remains to be seen whether going public with their woes helps or harms Trine 3's sales.
In any case, it doesn't sound as though Trine 3 is a disaster by any stretch of the imagination (I haven't played it yet, but have been watching its reception). 6 or 7 hours for a £15 game is scarcely unusual, and it's a very pretty thing to look at. The trouble, it seems, is how unfavourably it compares to the larger Trine 2, with many feeling that the move to full 3D is not a worthwhile enough substitute. Some players are claiming to have completed the game even more quickly than Frozenbyte's projections, and so are grumbling about value for money.
The cliffhanger ending is upsetting some players too, even more so now that it seems there are no plans in place to provide a proper ending. DLC's not on the cards, say Frozenbyte in response to claims that Trine 3 was deliberately short in order to then sell add-ons. Now, "the future of the series is now in question, as the feedback, user reviews and poor media attention has caught us by surprise."
It's possible the Steam post will prompt a wave of curiosity and sympathy, and sales will pick up enough to buy the series a future. It's also possible that the first many people will hear of it is the context of an apparent admission that the game wasn't good enough, which probably isn't going to convince them to buy it. It's all a bit sad, given how beloved the fantastically pretty, good-natured Trine series was until now.
There have been technical niggles too, but Frozenbyte assure players these will be dealt with no matter what Trine's future is. Says Joel, "Regardless we will continue to fix and update Trine 3: The Artifacts of Power, as we've always done with our games, and I'm confident we'll get many issues fixed shortly (including some of the technical bugs and multiplayer problems). I apologize for those issues and I ask for your patience as we work those out."
Some are saying that Frozenbyte should have revealed their cashflow problems during its six months in Early Access, and that they only bought it months ago because they were led to have certain expectations from it. Well, that's Early Access for ya - always a gamble, for devs and players alike. No-one can possibly claim to know what to expect. However, in a slightly contradictory part of their mea culpa, Frozenbyte claim that "What we sold on Early Access was the 'realistic' vision and what we promised is what we have delivered, in our opinion." This is perhaps a little at odds with the statement else "that we initially had a much longer story written and more levels planned." I suspect it's a case of crossing fingers that they'd be able to do more if Early Access did gangbusters, but sadly this does not appear to have been the case.
"Right now we need a breather to bounce back from all this," ends Kinnunen. Let's hope this isn't the end for Trine: although Marsh wasn't totally impressed with part 3 when he looked in on it a few months ago, this series has always seemed like a positive, elegant, quietly special thing in a world of noise and blood.
The full post is here.