Embodiment of What’s Wrong with Crowdfunding and Early Access Games

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I’m going to pick on Smed and Hero’s Song for a second. I don’t mean to be cruel, but these issues require the scrutiny.

Smed left (was kicked out) of SOE (or Daybreak, or whatever it is now) and started his own little studio (Pixelmage Games) to make games. The first game they worked on was Hero’s Song, an open world roguelike fantasy action RPG.

They tried Kickstarter, but cancelled after 1 week when it was obvious the game would not reach funding.

Hero's Song Kickstarter

Then they proceeded to launch and Indiegogo campaign and seek funding that would be easier to grab quickly. It fell rather flat.

hero's song indiegogo

After a few months of development with not much more than hype, they went to their next stop: Steam early access. On November 7, Hero’s Song was on Steam and available for players to purchase for a whopping $20.

To the complete shock and dismay of those who purchased (I was not one of them), the game was far from complete. In fact, it was in a very rough state. A few patches came out, then Pixelmage went quiet on the updates.

Just 3 hours ago, Smed put the following on the Hero’s Song reddit:

Hi folks,

Sorry for the lack of news or updates. To put it bluntly here part of being a startup means money is tight and funding is a major part of what we have to do as a startup. We’re working through some things and I appreciate your patience. Sorry for not being more transparent on this particular issue but the simple truth is sometimes there isn’t much that we can say. More info soon.


The Kickstarter failing was the first red flag. That should have been an indication to rethink your premise, marketing, and honestly the game you’re making entirely.

What irks me the most is that companies like this know they are going to fail. They know they won’t have the cash to properly finish the game, but they release it in “early access” on Steam in an effort to try and get enough cash to patch the game to the point where someone influential might say something nice about it to drive just a few more sales in order to keep the lights on. It doesn’t happen.

I feel that this behavior is akin to fraud.

The studios end up hemorrhaging what little talent they had to begin with — you know, because people like to know they’ll be able to feed their families when they suspect the next check won’t clear.

The whole early access and crowdfunded game movement wreaks of cash grabs and dishonesty. It’s exactly what the F2P movement was just a few years ago. I hope this too shall pass.

  • I agree it’s borderline fraud. However, I feel a big part of the problem is the indiscretion of gamers and their gullibility that allows this to keep happening. Quit pre-ordering games and quit paying for early access. Companies get away with this stuff because people keep throwing money at them. People are so desperate to get their hands on the next game, which they will play for 30 days or less then abandon, that they just throw money away.

    I’ve watched friends pay for early access to F2P games. I just can’t even comprehend this.

  • First reaction : how can anyone still have confidence in Smed ?

    My second reaction was : hey could have been worse. The law was changed lately, it’s now legal to offer shares/equity of your company thru a crowdsourcing financing camping; as far I know, Indiegogo has jumped on the wagon, while Kickstarter hasn’t. I’m not a US law expert, but as I understand it, you before this change, you couldn’t sell equity to individual people, you had to go to institutional entities only. So, yeah, it could have been worse, Smed could sell equity of a really bad company doing a really bad game.

    Finaly, I’ve started thinking about new products often lacking funds to start production beyond a few prototypes or early models, going through rounds of new financing to get things going. I guess in some cases, video game makers are trying to do this with crowdsourcing or Steam early access. I’m not sure I really want to prevent this entirely, it could be a useful strategy for a small indie studio. Maybe the only appropriate answer is having people make better decisions, not buying in game projects that are way too early to confirm there will be a go live date.

    I know, I know, gamers are generally bad at decision making and speaking with their wallet 😉

  • “Sorry for not being more transparent”

    Yeah you say that, but…

    I hate when people use the word sorry when they clearly don’t mean it, using more like a way to seemingly address a glaringly unavoidable problem and immediately dismiss it., as if acknowledging a problem equates to resolving it, or even remotely taking responsibility for it.

    In what place is Smed not directly recognized as a con man? It seems like every game he is associated with is a form of Ponzi scheme just meant to survive long enough to provide him an income until he moves on to another doomed project.

    Who are the people who still willingly give him money, perhaps they aren’t familiar with his history?

  • In a way it reminds me of startups with no revenue stream and no immediate path to one collecting cash from investors.

    But on the other hand, those investors know that their investment could be worthless, or the startup could turn out to be a “unicorn” and make them rich.

    When gamers buy into these early-access shenanigans, the worst case is the same (you’ve flushed your money down the toilet), but the best case is simply.. you get the game you paid for. There’s no “unicorn” case.

  • I am torn on this subject. I see your point and I agree, a lot of times these crowdfunding campaigns are nothing but a joke. I cant remember how many stories Ive read on Kotaku about games having a successful Kickstarter and the devs just going silent with the backers have nothing to show for what they invested. However to be fair, we have also had some really great games because of crowdfunding.

    On the other hand I feel as if your pretty much saying that any game thats in early access is garbage and the devs are dishonest thieves. Players hate being lied to and kept in the dark, No Mans Sky is all i have to say. The key here is keeping players updated on whats happening with your game, whats in the next update, whats coming down the pipeline. Obviously Smed felt that just throwing his name on the game was enough and that he wouldn’t need to answer to anyone, which just isn’t the case.

  • @Wonderwyrm: No, I won’t go as far as saying any game that’s in EA instantly makes the game garbagae or the devs thieves. I think it’s just like F2P, though. A few successful early successes see a huge opportunity with low barriers to entry which drives the garbage and the thieves. Crowdfunding and EA are independently red flags, but when you combine them these days it’s ALMOST guaranteed bad news.

  • There have been good crowdfunding games though.. Pillars of Eternity was crowdfunded off kickstarter as an example. Can’t say all crowdfunding is bad.

  • To echo Bartillo, not all EA or Kickstarter games are bad. A lot have actually been awesome. The problem, like with almost anything, is you have people like Smed who jump in and abuse it for personal gain and tarnish the whole thing.

    Pillars was awesome because of Kickstarter, and that then got us Tyranny (and since they had the money, they didn’t double dip back to Kickstarter). ARK was and is awesome, and a good example of EA (if perhaps not a little too long under the EA banner). Mordheim benefited from EA and is now a great game, same for Darkest Dungeon. I could go on for a while.

    The solution isn’t to outright stop using Kickstarter or buying EA games, its just to be smart about it. No different than a ten years ago when someone walked into a store and bought Superman64, even though that was complete garbage.

  • I’ll reiterate that they aren’t all bad. A few successes (which you guys have listed) created the carrot. These games were created by smart people with a plan. The games were inherently good ideas. They were run like real businesses. Kudos to them.

    We have people making garbage and stealing people’s money without using early access or crowdfunding. It’s not unique to those vehicles. But crowdfunding and early access create a perfect opportunity for this type of rampant fraud to flourish. There’s zero accountability. Until that’s fixed, the models do more overall harm than good.

  • Some people have clearly done early access right. I think Minecraft might be the poster child for that. But that has led to some people thinking they can ship any level of crap and charge for early access. There clearly needs to be a level of interest-generating content there that will grab people and keep them engaged. Unfortunately, that is something of an intangible. Having seen Hero’s Song early releases, you could argue that it has way, way more going on in it that Minecraft has even today. It just isn’t unique or compelling enough… my opinion… to make Hero’s Song something I want to invest my time in. It could be, some day… but given Smed’s statement, that day may be further away than they planned.

  • I think initially this was a great means by which a few non mass market games could get off the ground. Now it has developed into a scam.

  • Interesting timing on this post, as yesterday Smed announced that they were shutting down development of Heroes Song.