Buying an early access title on Steam is something of a gamble. The current system makes no distinction between a title requiring a bit more polish and one that is years away from working as intended. You can (and should) do your research before paying anything to make sure you know what you’re really getting.
Unfortunately, “caveat emptor” doesn’t help when you choose to fund the development of a game that may or may not be complete. This is the current situation for backers of the voxel-based city building game, Timber and Stone. Robert Reed’s complex management game surpassed its Kickstarter goal raising $88,577 in October of 2012.
His intention was to create a sandbox RTS experience with more depth than typically seen in similar games. At the time of the campaign, Timber and Stone was already playable in Alpha. Reed estimated that the game engine was 85% complete and release of a Beta version was planned for the end the year.
Eligible backers got access to Beta 0.1 of Timber and Stone in December. After several more years of updates and bug fixes the game was Greenlit and available on Steam.
Sadly, this seems to be where development hit a wall. Timber and Stone is tagged as “early access,” but hasn’t had any updates since going up on Steam. That was back in October of 2015.
On May 15th of 2016, Reed finally published an update to the Timber and Stone website, but not the Kickstarter or Steam pages. In the post, Reed apologized for the lack of updates before admitting that he would no longer be able to devote much time or attention to the game.
“Your support has allowed me to follow my dream for the last 4 years, and I hope I delivered something worthwhile in turn. I stretched that as far as I could, and it’s now painfully apparent that, for the time being, that I have to find new ways to support my family.”
Reed maintains that he hasn’t abandoned Timber and Stone. He hopes to return to active development in the future, but for the time being, its an anticlimactic end to an otherwise solid looking game.
Backers did receive the game they’d pledged money toward and Reed had always been upfront about the need to keep adding more content and features long after the initial release. Timber and Stone is fully playable, despite some bugs and gameplay issues. Still, it raises the question, at what point has a developer fulfilled their obligation to backers? Is early access enough by now? Do developers need to release a final version, even if it they hope to update again in the future?
I don’t have an easy answer here. The Timber and Stone forum users seem equally perplexed, though not overly negative. The game’s Steam page boasts mixed reviews. Most of the negative ones cite the lack of future updates while berating the developer for continuing to sell the game for $12.99 in early access.
If there won’t be any more updates, isn’t this technically the final version of the game? At the same time, by purchasing an early access title aren’t you accepting the fact that the game may never progress beyond what is currently available? I reached out to Robert Reed for comment on Timber and Stone’s status, but have yet to receive a response.
Clear communication is necessary during development. By documenting both triumphs and setbacks backers have a clear idea of what the final product will look like. Otherwise, projects can continue to haunt their developers long after the game has launched and the funding has dried up.