Star Command: Naivety And Overambition Lead To A Kickstarter Warning

Before Tim Schafer brought mass exposure to the potential of crowdfunded projects with his Double Fine Adventure Kickstarter, a game called Star Command was successfully crowdfunded its $20,000 that was being asked for by developer War Balloon, and another $16,967 was thrown on top too. That was back in October 2011, and the original release of the game was touted as Holiday 2011. But that didn’t happen, of course. And then, less than a year later, War Balloon were back with yet another Kickstarter, asking for another $100,000, and the release was then being said to be around “Late Summer.”

Today is May 2nd, 2013, and Star Command has just been released onto the App Store. It is described as letting “you build your own ship, hire your crew, explore the universe and battle alien civilizations across the galaxy.” Take a note of that.

You may question what caused all of the delays on the release of this game, and what happened with all of the money that was invested in it by the crowd. Fortunately, for their sake, War Balloon previously outlined where the money from the first Kickstarter had been spent. It turns out that the development team didn’t really calculate the costs of the rewards, plus taxes and hiring attorneys, and the result was that they ended up with just $4,000 after receiving nearly $37,000. If anything, you could attribute this to naivety. Not ideal when you’re taking on a lot of people’s money and they’re relying on you to do with it as was outlined to them.

Star Command

Luckily, no fuss was kicked up when the second Kickstarter came around due to previous backers being told they were being given the newly planned desktop version of the game too. That seemed fair enough; sure, they’d have to wait longer than hoped, but at least they’d get a little more than what they supposed they were getting with their original pledge.

Then another update arrives, this time on the “Part 2″ Kickstarter, and this one reveals some information that could be a little dismaying. The update outlined how War Balloon had been working on Star Command full-on for the past couple of years, but ultimately, they had to admit that what the original release was going to deliver would be about 30% of what was originally planned and promised for the game. That’s not a particularly high percentage.

Lo and behold, the reviews started to come in today, and guess what they were saying? Let’s take a look:

Pocket Gamer acknowledged the point I want focus on in their very first paragraph of their review, it reads:

“I don’t want to dwell too much on what Star Command isn’t. It might not be the game we’ve all been hoping for, and it might lack a lot of the features originally promised, but you can’t judge something on what might have been.”

Star Command

Now let’s look to see what Kotaku had to say on the topic of the content being delivered against what was promised:

“The game that was promised back in 2011, however, isn’t the game we’re playing here. Star Command’s original Kickstarter pitch says quite clearly that, in addition to combat, you can do this:

“Once you build a ship and hire your crew, you can travel deeper into new sectors to explore the mysteries of the universe. Players can discover strange planets, conduct away missions, explore derelict ships and conduct diplomacy with strange civilizations.”

Nope. That’s not in the product available today. What was billed initially as a sweeping space epic is now “just” a space combat simulator, albeit a pretty damn good one.”

False Advertising?

Aliens: Colonial Marines

Keep in mind what was just discovered about Star Command – that the initial iOS release is missing about 70% of the features originally planned. I’d like to bring up the context in which Star Command was released today.

Just three days ago, Polygon ran a story regarding a lawsuit that is being aimed at SEGA and Gearbox that purports them to have falsely advertised Aliens: Colonial Marines and to have misled members of the press, and therefore the players who bought the game. The problem, it is said, is that they showed game footage that wasn’t part of the final product for press to write about and for feedback to be given to their readerbase. Adding to the pot is that a release day embargo was placed on the game, meaning that reviews couldn’t go out to inform those who had already pre-ordered the game, or were thinking of buying it. The problem erupted when the game was slated across the board, and it became apparent that the previously praised footage was never part of the released game.

Ben Thomassen of law firm Edelson LLC said the following to Polygon:

“We think the video game industry is no different than any other that deals with consumers: if companies like Sega and Gearbox promise their customers one thing, but deliver something else, then they should be held accountable for that decision.”

The question is whether this can be applied to Kickstarter projects such as Star Command, which has been released in a state that only contains 30% of what as originally planned for the game. And let’s not forget that it was these promised features of War Balloon’s that the backers pledged towards. Have they not, like SEGA and Gearbox, delivered a game that does not fulfil what was promised to their customers?

It’s more complicated than that. Being a Kickstarter project, the development progress and plans of Star Command have been publicly available, and those who pledged to the game have been made aware of changes along the way. It’s also common knowledge that with the majority of Kickstarter projects you are funding an unfinished product, and that many of the initial promises or ambitions for the game are likely to change over time. Whereas with Aliens: Colonial Marines, evidence suggests that the companies behind the marketing of the game were knowingly being deceptive. They could be guilty of that, but the only thing War Balloon may be guilty of is being over ambitious and naive. Fortunately for them, they’ve managed to create and release a pretty decent game if the reviews are anything to by.

I asked War Balloon what they made of the reviews today and what they had to say on the topic of missing content and the hypothetical situation in which they are accused of “false promises” or “false advertising.” Jordan Coombs got back to me, saying the following:

“Our original pitch did contain those ideas, along with quite a bit more. To be fair, those are all features we still want to put in the game. Away teams, a sandbox universe and a robust diplomacy model would be our next focus. We have always loved the way Valve approached Team Fortress 2: you buy the basic game and you get years of support and free content from the developer. That’s our goal as well. We are not done with Star Command, not by a long shot.

The bottom line is we wanted a good core game, and as we went into development, some things had to go. I think people should evaluate the game based on its current merits and understand that they will likely see those extended features in the near future.

The best analogy we can give is the way George Lucas made Star Wars. He got done writing and realized that the story he had was way to massive for one film, so he (wisely) broke it up and shot what he could. We had a similar approach. We just couldn’t get everything we wanted into the game in a timely manner. But there is a larger vision we would love to bring to life, assuming the game sells well.”

So here’s what I take away from that. War Balloon have shown naivety before with their poor calculations of costs after their first Kickstarter money came in. It seems that it strikes again here, as the game they originally planned was far larger than they realized they could achieve in due time. Far larger! It’s fine them saying that they now plan to release Star Command in phases, with many updates on the way, but heed those last words – “assuming the game sells well.”

Nothing is guaranteed here. And so if the game doesn’t sell as well as it needs to, Star Command could remain as the 30% game it is right now. Now that is where things start to get interesting when you bring up the idea of “false advertising” once again. But considering that we’ve seen fully funded Kickstarter projects cancelled after the money runs dry, nothing can likely be done about it.

Star Command

It’s not really the developers that cause this issue to arise, but how crowdfunded sites are set-up in the first place. They guarantee absolutely nothing. There are so many crowdfunded projects started up every day, and while we’re getting better at understanding how to pick out the more reliable ones, there’s still a grey area that isn’t talked about that much. People need to be aware of that, instead of blindly throwing their money at the screen at the sight of a game that looks like it could one day be a pretty neat game. It’s the same with game pre-orders too, arguably.

Personally, I have faith that Star Command will eventually become the game it was originally supposed to be, or something close to it. War Balloon seem to have learned a lot through past mistakes and are looking to rectify them in every way they can. Saying that, if it depends on how well the game sells, then the game’s further development could quite easily be halted. A shame, for sure, but a lesson to us all regarding the perils of crowdfunding games. It’s a topic that’s going to come up again and again as more crowdfunded games come to fruition. Or don’t.

No one would have predicted a legal case to erupt around the marketing of Aliens: Colonial Marines, but it shows that a push-back against dodgy and deceptive practices in the games industry is starting to occur. Kickstarter seems exciting and new still, and the law is yet to catch up with it, but maybe the open money box that it is will come with more punishing rules of abidance in the not so distant future. Unless, of course, developers learn to calculate costs and risks more accurately off their own backs, as I believe that is becoming the case the more used to crowdfunding we become.

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