The Problem with Open Ended Production Models

Double Fine's recent problem with finishing Spacebase DF-9 frames this post examining why open ended development has its problems.

Double fine’s announcement of being unable to finish Space Base DF-9 has caused an increased in people's distrust of Early Access. And while we've talked about Early Access recently in another piece, there is more here to look at from Double fine.

SpacebaseDF-9 (2)

In a post explaining the situation, Double fine owner Tim Schafer said that they were using an "open ended production" to create the game or in other words, working on the game for as long as there was money coming in. This type of development model may be popular in the days of crowd-funding and Early Access, but is not the best for creating a video game.

Stretching out Development:

Open Production from what Tim Schafer described it as was being able to continue working on Spacebase for as long as they wanted thanks to the intended income from Early Access driving development. Money as you can guess is one of the major factors with any game development regardless of the scope. While there have been many Indies who work on a game out of passion when there is no more money, it's generally not something that a company can afford to do.

Double fine like any studio that was backed by a publisher obviously knows the constraints with income and it can be very frustrating to work on a game and be forced to release it early due to not having the funding. The dream of essentially having "infinite funding" to work on a game of your choosing is one of those lofty goals of game development and at this point, the only studios who do have that would be Blizzard and Valve.

Thanks to Steam, Valve will not be worrying about money anytime soon and can work on whatever they want.

Blizzard just recently announced the cancellation of their MMO and that they rumored to have lost 50 million dollars from it. But with the sales of their other games, they're not going to be hurting for money anytime soon.

But studios like Blizzard and Valve are the exceptions and for most of you reading this, you're not going to have a blank check to work on your games. Even with the intention of using Early Access as a way of providing continual development, it's important to realize the constraints and why complete freedom is not a good thing.

Set Plans:

Creating a video game is a very complex process and one that we don't have the time to spend on in this post. But what you need to know is that developing a game requires a plan and structure, regardless on if you're working on a game for six months or two years.

The problem with this idea of open ended development is that you're basing your game design on the hope of getting money, not what you already have. Double fine reported after Space base was released that they made back their initial funding of 400k and everyone assumed that meant that the game was a success. And more importantly, that every feature that Double fine promised on the now altered homepage would make into the game.

In his post, Tim Schafer commented on hoping to make enough money to work on Space base for five years of development and why they had so many features planned. But it's not smart business to assume that would be the case and pitch an idea on the hope of it, especially considering the lack of communication and updates on their part.

Stretch goals and crowd-funding in general make the temptation to continue working on a game with no end in sight greater.

They were trying to copy Prison Architect's development structure and success which we talked about previously. But the difference was that Introversion from the start knew what they wanted to make with the funding that they needed and they had a plan of attack. While the additional funding from sales have certainty helped Prison Architect's development, it's hard to tell at this point if the features that are being added now were part of the original plan or added after the success.

Regardless, Introversion knew not to over promise, in the same way that you need to be careful of how much you commit to with a kickstarter and stretch goals. Game development is not an exact science, but you should never take on more than you can chew.

Having all the money in the world to work on a game sounds great as we've talked about with Blizzard and Valve, but time has shown that not having any constraints can doom a project just as having too many.

Forever Designing:

Planning to work on a game for as long as money coming in is not ideal for adhering to a schedule of game development as the temptation to keep changing things and take it easy is very great when you don't have to worry about money.

As we talked about, Double Fine's lack of updates and communication also doomed the project and the thought that people would continue buying Space base. But there is one other example that is the poster child of having too much time and money to work on a game -- the Infamous Duke Nukem Forever debacle.

PrisonArchitect (3)
A key to Prison Architect's success has been having a plan of what they want the game to be and working towards that goal.

A game that was in development for over 10 years with postmortems reported that the developers never stuck to a plan and kept on changing the game due to the freedom of their production model. Part of being a designer is being able to make and keep to a plan as if you just keep working on a game and making constant changes without having a set end, you're never going to release anything.

In the end what Double Fine has learned and what you reading this should take away is that you shouldn't base your present day development on future funding.

(Reprinted from the Blog)

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