Published on January 12th, 2013 | by Fraser Brown8
Towns is more building site than urban centre
Have I ever mentioned how much I love Steam Greenlight? If not, I ought to. The draconian nature of Valve’s approach to adding games to their titanic platform was very much at odds with the open and transparent nature of PC gaming, leading to critically acclaimed titles being left by the wayside while utter shite got slapped on the main page. Thus, giving real people, decent people, terrible people, the ability to choose what games end up on the platform was a very welcome move. Mostly.
Towns was a game I was very much looking forward to. I often spare a thought for the towns in which I buy health potions and armour before delving into trap and goblin infested dungeons in the arse-end of nowhere. What was the settlement like before I arrived? After I fill my bags with loot and gear before moving onto pastures greener, what happens then? It looked like I was going to get my answer, but then reality got in the way and a significant flaw in Greenlight reared its head — Valve’s interpretation of a finished game is extremely loose.
Towns was launched on November 7th, not long after the Steam community voted for it to appear. Its page revealed nothing untoward, briefly describing the interesting features which prompted so many people to support it in the months before. However, for those who had been playing the beta, there was a strange surprise. In October, not long after it had been greenlit, the game’s version leapt from v.06 to v6. By the time it launched, it had some more updates, and the “finished” version was v8. In reality it had yet to even be updated to v1.
To say this was a case of the developer pulling the wool over people’s eyes would be a tad unfair. Steam doesn’t accept 0.xx versions as launched titles, since it implies that the game is still in alpha or beta. However, changing the number does not make the game any more complete, but it does make it appear that way to consumers.
Excited early customers quickly realised that the game they had just purchased was at best in early beta, and was riddled with bugs, AI problems, lack of direction and a hideous UI that was barely usable. They took to the Steam forums en masse to complain about the less than honest promotion of the title. This prompted developers Xavi Canal and Ben Palgi to request an edit of Steam page a week after it launched, and added this disclaimer: “Towns is continually being developed and updated to bring you the best experience possible!” It could hardly be complimented on its clarity, and it could easily be interpreted as a promise to continually support and improve the game rather than an admission of its unfinished state.
And then there was silence, at least from the developers. The players, on the other hand, were extremely vocal in their discontentment. The forums continued to be bombarded with complaints and warnings to potential customers, while the user score on Metacritic plummeted to a bright red 4.1. Few outlets bothered to review it in such a sorry state, and those that did criticised it’s lack of polish and many, many bugs. Instead of fixing the myriad of problems, the devs were nowhere to be seen — the last patch occurred the day before launch and it certainly wasn’t fixing itself.
Finally on December 2nd, almost a month since the game went live, Ben Palgi took to the official Towns forum. So what was the reason for this severe lack of communication? He’d been on holiday. This led to more consumer backlash, as they criticised him for taking a break and ignoring a game people had already spent money on. The post mentioned some new features, and a fix that would stop saves being deleted when the game updated. Hardly the response many were hoping for.
A couple of weeks later the next update was announced, v9. Note the use of the word “announced” — development had just started. And remember, before they changed the version number to accommodate Steam, this would have been 0.9. Vague allusions to personal problems were made along with an apology and an admission of guilt. Development was still not at “100%” and one of the developers had even contemplated leaving altogether. Now over a month since the game had launched, it was not even being developed full time.
Righteous fury turned into sympathy yesterday, when Xavi Canal made a post on the Steam forums, apologising again, and clarifying the personal problems he had alluded to in his post on the official site nearly a month ago. A few months ago, Canal’s wife was diagnosed with cancer, leading to the couple making daily trips to the hospital. A few days ago they were given a date for the surgery, this coming Monday. While it may seem disingenuous coming from a complete stranger on the internet, especially one given to bouts of rage, spewing vitriol at developers when they cock up, I do wish the couple the best of luck and hope the surgery is a success and devoid of any complications.
Despite the fact that few could condemn him for being more focussed on his wife than the game, he still took full responsibility for the lack of communication. He confessed that development would continue to be slow in the mean time.
So where has Steam been during this whole mess? It has never been a platform eager to offer refunds or admit mistakes, and this case has been no different. Requests for explanations and refunds have gone ignored, and an increasingly irate community has been left with little to do but twiddle their thumbs. Palgi and Canal are just two men, and clearly — in part due to personal reasons — out of their depth. But Steam is owned and run by Valve, a large AAA developer and publisher with a massive customer services department and PR department. They could have put on the breaks, they could have communicated, but they opted not to.
As it turns out, the developers may have had even less control over their game than one might imagine. A log of a private chat featuring Canal (supermalparit in the log) reveals that as soon as the game was greenlit, it was out of their hands. Canal explained that they couldn’t just change the description of the game on the Steam page at will, and that Valve were completely happy with it on release. Changes that the developer wanted to make were not approved by Valve, on top of this.
Last month, Steam and Hammerpoint Interactive came under fire for a similar situation, where the undead MMO The War Z was released in an unfinished state, lacking many of the features advertised on the platform. The only difference being that The War Z wasn’t actually voted for on Greenlight.
It strikes me that while the positives of Steam Greenlight outweigh the negatives, it’s far from the transparent platform we wish it could be. It was a pragmatic move that allows Valve to look like a supporter of the “little guy” and get more diverse content with minimal effort. Where they should be vetting the games more thoroughly, regardless of community votes, they instead let incomplete projects get sold to unaware consumers and then, apparently, impair the developers’ ability to give a genuinely honest appraisal on the state of their title for all to see.
The lesson here is a less than satisfactory one — do your research. In an ideal world you shouldn’t have to, sure; you should be able to trust that a developer isn’t going to lie to potentially millions of people who are going to figure it out pretty damn quickly, and we all want to believe that Valve is our friend. Reality is a hard pill to swallow.
I do own Towns, mainly because I didn’t take my own advice and thought that it just might be in a playable form. I had hoped to review it, too, but I won’t be — not yet, anyway. Perhaps when, or, indeed, if it reaches v10, I’ll give it a shot.