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LONG BLOG

The ethics of selling an incomplete game

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A couple of days ago, We Happy Few was released on Steam and XBox One; it attracted a lot of attention because of its familiar but still attention-grabbing themes, such as survival horror and 1960s dystopia elements. Comparisons were drawn, quite understandably, with Bioshock Infinite and to a lesser extent Lisa: The Painful RPG (because of its similar use of "Joy" as a happy drug). However, a lot of the reactions to the game were rather muted or even negative, for one important reason: the game is far from finished. And intentionally so: the game is an Early Access release on Steam. The problem seemed to be that even for an Early Access game, there was barely anything to go on, a criticism touched upon by Shane of Rerez in his review

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The plan sketched out by the developers of We Happy Few is that you have the option to stump up 28 Euros (or your regional equivalent) now, and hopefully receive the full experience piece by piece within the next 6-12 months. If you look at the Steam page for the game, it's clear that Compulsion Games are showing diligence towards their fans and encouraging them to get involved, and sincerely hope that Early Access will make their game better. This is not unusual for a Steam game; Early Access is slowly becoming common practice, and I've previewed a game before in these stages (Super Cane Magic ZERO). There are clear parallels with Kickstarter campaigns for games and even the positively elderly practice of pre-ordering games.

 The practice of putting forward hard-earned money for something that might not materialise as you hoped, on the day which you hoped it would be released, or even at all (with the more dubious projects on Steam), perplexes some gamers. Some even question whether it is morally sound for publishers to do this, and whether it exploits people's trust in the product. Exactly how ethically sound is selling an incomplete game?

On a slight tangent, there are instances in which games are not sold under an Early Access or beta label, but nevertheless are blatantly unfinished. One game which I reviewed (but shall remain unnamed, because I'm feeling nice) even cut to text at a certain stage of the game to state that the ending sections would be added in a post-release update. Besides this, there are games which arguably look unfinished or according to their lore had to be released as only a fraction of what was intended (a prime example of this being Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, which was apparently cut short in the development process by Konami). Here, there is not only an ethical question, but a question based on contract law. Are you actually breaching sales contracts if you release a game purportedly as a full experience, but part of it is missing?

There is a very strong argument that a publishing company that sells a clearly incomplete game under usual circumstances, without making any special announcements to that effect, would be breaching contracts of sale. "Incomplete game" here would, however, probably be interpreted narrowly, otherwise anyone who was displeased with a cliffhanger ending or a game that seemed to end a bit too abruptly could bring a claim before the court. If the game is sold as a full game, but the game itself admits that updates will finish the game, then there is a clear admission that an incomplete game has been provided in breach of contract.

The consequences of this would probably be a minor amount of damages to cover the reduced experience as a result of the game lacking an ending for a set amount of time, rather than anything more drastic (unless a publisher did this on a high-selling game to clearly scam huge amounts of fans, in which case considerable punitive damages could be added on top of that). This is because providing a "full" game is probably a more minor term in the contract. If what you are provided with does not resemble a game at all, or is just one level when a 60 Euro blockbuster was promised, then it is possible that the bare bones of the contract aren't being fulfilled at all, and then the purchaser would be able to "undo" the contract (i.e. receive a refund in return for handing the "game" back).

However, Early Access games differ greatly in that both parties know (or should reasonably know) on concluding the sales contract that the game is incomplete. That's part of the deal, which may include a price cut (as We Happy Few does) and other bonuses. As a result, the question isn't a legal one, but rather an ethical one. Should people have the freedom to buy games at whatever stage they please? Or does it encourage a dilution of the games industry, in which it is OK to collect people's money based on promises and something that resembles a functioning game?

Referencing the Mighty No. 9 catastrophe, as there are possible similarities with regard to taking consumers' money but not necessarily providing what was promised.

 

You could argue that Early Access is baffling by drawing a comparison with the film industry and DVDs. The idea of putting money on the table - a considerable amount of money - for an unreleased direct-to-DVD film, and receiving production stills and small clips while you wait, seems alien to most of us. When we buy a film, we buy it to consume it as a final product, from start to finish, and if we want to look at how the film is made, it is as an afterthought rather than as a key part of the whole process. Whether you agree with Early Access or not could be said to hinge on how similar you think the consumption of a game is to the consumption of a film.

There is a hardcore contingent who see huge differences between how they consume films and games, and that is probably at the heart of why they're willing to pay for Early Access. Being in on alpha or beta stages may give you the opportunity to provide feedback in a meaningful manner, and the developer may take heed of your complaints if you shout loudly enough or enough others experience the same problems. This feedback process happens with films too, but with test audiences and not with the end consumer. However, games are inherently interactive media, whereas films are traditionally more passive, so being part of the development process is arguably a natural step in the evolution of gaming. Early Access is a way of offering this progress, and thankfully that is something We Happy Few has taken on board.

However, there is a "suspension of disbelief" issue which seems to apply to both films and games. With both, there will be some fans who are fascinated by how the media is made, perhaps because they want to get involved in the industries themselves. For others, looking behind the camera or into the coding instead pulls them out of the illusion that is being created and lessens the power that that media has over them. Seeing Robert Englund out of his Freddie Krueger costume or seeing Early Access NPCs muttering random nonsense: either can leave an impression that reduces the atmosphere when experiencing the medium in its full glory. As a result, it could be argued that the gradual, piece-by-piece access to a game doesn't build hype, but rather lessens impact.

This is Robert Englund, by the way. Feast your eyes.

 

Whether a game is to be consumed in one linear go, like a film, depends on the player and also depends on the game; so it's arguable that Early Access makes more sense for certain people, and it makes more sense for certain games. What seems unethical is to attach it to games without thought being put into whether it will work with that particular game, and marketing it at all players. This leads me onto a second point: Early Access should not be used as a means to fund the game. The reason for this links back to all my legal jargon that I brought up earlier.

When a person usually buys a game as Early Access, I would argue that they believe they are paying to see a game which will definitely come out in its early stages; there is not the same level of implicit risk attached to a Kickstarter game. If a company simply needs money early to finish the game, they should instead turn to Kickstarter for that, as this is not implied by an Early Access relationship between consumer and developer. In fact, there is an even higher level of trust with developer and consumer on Early Access projects compared to normal releases, as if normal releases fall through for whatever reason, they have fans who are simply disappointed, and not ones who have put down actual money for little gain.

Furthermore, the ethical code for Early Access developers would dictate that they can rely on the game being released within a reasonable time frame (or the exact one agreed, if it is far into the future), and the basics of an interesting game should already be there on the first launch. This is unfortunately what seemed to be lacking with We Happy Few and would possibly put the game on my naughty step. The "co-developers" (i.e. people paying for Early Access) don't have much room to participate if what they are given doesn't really play as a partial game; this kind of framework (mutual exchange of ideas between developer and consumer) is also why I think Early Access simply works better with less linear, open-world games, as it is easier to release those games piece by piece without sabotaging quality at each step.

So, is it ethical to sell an incomplete game? It depends. Selling incomplete games is only really ethical if both sides expect it and gain from it; the consumer will gain if he or she gets the ability to pay a diamond in the rough early, or where the game is not that impressive or great from the off, where the consumer gets to contribute to the development in a meaningful way. It is therefore a more ethical practice with gamers who are interested in games development rather than simply playing them, and with sandbox games that can be meaningfully released in chunks. The standard stance of the law is that the consumer deserves extra protection compared to business sellers, which is why it's appropriate to be wary of practices that can be seen as greedy.

This is a different question from whether Early Access should be outright banned, since it is ultimately every person's choice about how they spend their money. This is instead an issue of how harshly we should judge companies for their use of it and how we should hold these companies to account. Keeping a cautious overview of Early Access is important, otherwise in 20 years' time the overexcitement of fans could see people handing over money to see trailers or stills from upcoming releases.

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About Charlotte Cuttsone of us since 3:50 PM on 07.05.2016

Likes games, loves speedrunning. Ships herself with the PlayStation Vita.