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TUG: Stalled Early Access or Vaporware?

Kickstarter game deliveries often lag far behind the estimated delivery date. Companies need to stay focused and keep their customers informed; otherwise, they may be dismissed as failures--and discourage future crowdfunding throughout the industry.

It's never a good sign when a company that based its appeal on transparency and charm goes quiet. It erodes player trust; worse, it sends a bad signal to crowdfunders.

It's not like this is a great surprise: a successful Kickstarter needs to make promises, and deliver value in increments, preferably on a cadence that is both reliable, and communicated to the would-be userbase. That's a market dynamic no one is escaping from anytime soon. Similarly, in a rapidly-changing game market where go-to-market strategy NEEDS to change, that imposes additional challenges for a startup gaming company. Plans change. But not talking about those changes raises alarms. Being caught between these competing tensions is an existential fact—unpleasant, but inarguably real. How a company copes and communicates their changing strategy to their userbase and crowdfunders reveals the strength—or weakness—of the company.

TUG is a voxel-based sandbox survival game with multiplayer options by Nerd Kingdom. It was funded on Kickstarter in May 2013 at $293k (136% of its $215k goal), with an expected delivery date of Jan 2015. The initial impression is "Minecraft with realistic artwork + magic." It's got high ambitions to be a groundbreaking game with an original engine… but it's stalled out almost two years after it was supposed to be released. It has big plans but no actual roadmap.

After the Kickstarter, NK lost one of its funding sources and scrambled to find another. Possibly because of that delay, all 7000+ backers on Kickstarter – whether they'd signed up for alpha, beta, or final release – was given access to the early version and a Steam key. It was also released on Steam as an early access game. So far, so good: some delays/setbacks; backers got access to the unfinished version while waiting or the public release version. But I have doubts there will ever be a "final" version.

Currently, it's been pulled from sale at Steam while they rewrite the code to make it compatible with OpenGL instead of the previous DX11 requirement. They expect this to take about a year, during which development for everything else is on hold.

My most cynical interpretation is that they're waiting for the existing playerbase to forget they exist so they can start fresh with new players who don't expect them to deliver on past promises. I think it's more likely that they're just working without any actual goals.

Almost the only similarity between the concept video and the current version is the avatar art style. There are no musical instruments; crafting is not done in the hands at all; initial activities are not so much "stroll through the woods" as "rush around frantically trying to find the supplies you'll need to make fire and build a barrier between you and the giant creatures that will attack you." Players do combine vines and sticks and such to make objects, but they do so by placing those objects on the ground near each other and clicking "G" on the keyboard. (No, it doesn't make sense to us, either.) That's not too bad - most players understand that the initial concept art is non-binding, and meant to capture tone rather than specific activities. It doesn't fail at that.

Where it does fail: It's been three years since the Kickstarter, and no actual release is in sight. This is a problem with many "early access" games, where the traditional release cycle has been disrupted.

The traditional dev cycle gets turned on its head with an early access game; what's released needs to be functional, which may not be the best way to develop the game. TUG, like many early access games, had fallen into the pit of tweaking existing content instead of furthering development on the game as a whole, to satisfy existing players and encourage more sales.

The intended scope of TUG is indeed groundbreaking. Between the Kickstarter and various press releases, it's been established that TUG should eventually have the following features:

Structure:

  • Procedurally-generated, infinite-size voxel-based world
  • Multiplayer servers, hosted by NK, with two modes: "survival" (PVP, "hard" settings) and "adventure" (no PVP, easier to survive)
  • Private server ability
  • Mod-friendly: accessible code and assets; easy to make adaptations
  • A "mod marketplace" where people can trade and sell mods

In-game content:

  • Both cubic and rounded voxels, allowing creative approaches to building
  • Trainable (or at least, domesticable) animals, including giant cat mounts
  • Vast underground caves to explore and mine
  • Magic – alchemy, golems, magic-enhanced weapons, spells
  • Multiple tech levels: Stone age tools, bronze age tools, more
  • Avatar appearance changing based on player actions: lots of running, and the avatar gets slender and wiry; eat lots of meat, and it gets chubby; build lots of tools, and the arms get muscular
  • Reincarnation feature tied to a spirit-"wisp" that has limited agency, rather than "poof; you're back at your last spawn point"

Look at those lists! Company-hosted servers like WoW; voxel building like Minecraft! Alchemy and combat spells! Endless exploration, and survival difficulty levels chosen by the playes! Mods of all types! That would be an awesome, unique game ...Too bad we're not likely to ever get it.

Some of these, it has – it now allows private server hosting; the goats can be domesticated; there are cubic and non-cubic voxels allowing for some amazing structures. Some alchemy and other magic works. Stone-age and bronze-age tools exist, with appropriate limits on use (can't build bronze-age tools until you've got enough experience).

Right now, TUG is at a reasonable (if much delayed) beta stage for all these goals: it's got some of them covered, some partially implemented, some roughly outlined. Players can at least see the structure that will support all these features… but we can also see some of the problems with implementing them. NK may have signed up for an impossible task.

NerdKingdom is refocusing their entire approach – they've directly admitted they're less focused on building a game, and its gameworld, than making a platform to allow modifications and the sale thereof. This is a huge problem for those of us who just wanted a game to play.

They've also realized that a hosted server that allows voxel-based worldbuilding is a HUGE expense and has incredible lag problems. So they've discussed the public servers not having voxel building, or rather, for the terrain not to be voxel-based – players could get wood from trees and stone from boulders, but not flatten mountains.

This was met with exactly the kind of enthusiasm one might expect when a game dev announces "we're thinking of removing one of the major features of the game you purchased." Also, the procedurally-generated world can create unclimbable mountains and uncrossable deserts—except that players can chop the mountains down and fill the deserts with dirt and plants, if they want. Remove the building, and the world generation needs to be a lot more considerate.

Nerd Kingdom had also considered—and possibly still are—a "free to play" approach, where money comes from mods instead of charging people for access. This was met with a resounding "HELL NO" from the gaming community, and while they haven't said "ok, we won't do that," they have noted that any F2P approach would mean building a fanbase from the ground up rather than relying on any support from their several years of active players.

There's a huge cluster of other problems, from funding and company affiliation, to dissatisfied Yogventures players, to the "unique" controls setup (read: incomprehensible without a written guide), to the intended total lack of moderators on the public servers ("we're doing this as a social experiment")… but all those are secondary. Those are all either fixable or negotiable issues; they're not what's causing TUG to fail.

What's causing TUG to fail is lack of a plan. There is no list of "beta" vs "alpha" features. There is no list of features that mean "when we have XYZ done, this will be ready for public release, even though development will continue for years." They've been working on this game for 3+ years and they don't know whether the release version will have caves that were mentioned in the Kickstarter. They don't know whether it will cost money to play. They don't know whether it will have ladders, carts, or in-game writing. They don't know how the lighting will be done. They don't know whether their voxel-based multiplayer world will actually have voxel terrain.

Of course they can't get TUG delivered on schedule; they don't have a description of what they're trying to deliver. They're developing a new kind of game engine (um, yay, I guess?) and are refining it for current hardware standards--but not focusing on delivering the product they already sold.

I don't think they'll ever actually deliver the game I paid for on Kickstarter. I'd love to be proven wrong. I want my baby sabre tiger companion and my thaumcraft wisp and my mask-of-the-beast, in an improved version of the basic low-tech limited-resource world I can currently meander around in. The people who ordered stickers and t-shirts and wristbands and the art book would love to get their rewards, too. But they, like me, are mostly marking this up to another "meh, don't fund k'start games at more than the minimum level" lesson.

On to the part that's relevant to devs of other games:

Since TUG, I've funded several Kickstarter games – almost all at the basic "final release version only" minimal level. $10 for the finished game instead of the $40 "beta access plus bonus wallpaper art" level; $5 for the PDF instead of $50 for the drafts + print book + signed postcard level. And my Steam queue filter now blocks early-access games. It'll take me longer to get new games, but I don't care – I'm not paying to be a beta tester, and I'm done with throwing more than afternoon-coffee money at projects that have a good chance of never finishing.

You can't revolutionize the gaming world with a product that never gets past late alpha because you haven't figured out what it actually does. I want gaming companies to build complete games, not make keep looking for the magic key feature set that will make them outshine Blizzard or Nintendo. Do one thing; do it well; then move on to the next thing. Vaporware is nobody's favorite game.

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