Perils of Greenlight: how the developer of Towns enraged a community by selling an unfinished game
Towns was one of the first submissions to Steam's Greenlight program. It won the community over with its light-hearted nature and interesting premise: Instead of playing as the medieval fantasy hero who strolls through town on his/her way to fight monsters, Towns asks you to create the kind of village that will attract said hero. You'll manage your community from a top-down isometric perspective, crafting everything from houses to weapons to booby-traps which fend off the occasional monster attacks. In other words, it's a city-building sim with RPG elements thrown in the mix. It was also released at a $15 price tag before it had reached version 1.0. It's important for developers to establish trust and a sense of reliability with their community, and the ensuing controversy gives some indications of what happens when that trust is broken.
Try the demo (demo not available)
Towns was added to Steam via Greenlight on November 7. Almost immediately, the game's forum pages began filling with customer complaints. “We didn't expect all the negative reactions. From the very beginning, early 2012, the game had a lot of extreme reactions. Some people hate it and some love it. The release on Steam multiplied the effect in a way that overwhelmed us,” Canal told the Report. On the Towns Steam page, there is a notice: “Towns is continually being developed and updated to bring you the best experience possible!” This is only a recent addition to the page, and it fails to reflect the exact state of the game. At the time of this writing the game being sold is version 0.80a. The original listing gave no hint that the game was anything but finished and polished. Customer complaints about the rough nature of the game play began almost immediately. I asked developer Xavi Canal to explain. “We entered Greenlight a few hours after it was up. As far as I know, Valve didn't check the status of the games submitted. So, Greenlight was a really good place to advertise your game and see the community reaction,” Canal said. “Each build of Towns - since Towns 0.36 - is fully playable and offers hours of entertainment. If we don't call the current build Towns 1.0, it's just because we plan to release more patches with new content and features.” That problem is that people were complaining that the game simply wasn't done. It was rough, people had technical problems, and it has been presented as a finished product. The developers encouraged players to try the demo first, hosted on the game's website. But that tip might have been more helpful if it had been advertised on the game's Steam store page instead of the forums, and not been posted three days after the game's release. There was a demo added on November 15th, but it's just a button; there is still no suggestion telling players to try the demo on the game's main page. There are even disputes over when the Greenlight banner was added. Some users say it's been there since the beginning, some are saying it was only added on November 11th. Miscommunication seems to affect even the Towns team. In a thread titled, “Please read,” Canal wrote, “In the past week we talked with the Valve staff and we will include a statement in the Towns store page. It will be something like this: 'Towns is continually being developed and updated to bring you the best experience possible!'” The same sentence mentioned above. Yet tommykent1210, community moderator for Towns, wrote that the sentence was “added by Steam,” not by the developers. Such statements only compound the confusion surrounding Towns.
The Towns website is similarly confusing: it says the game is available for pre-order, and the accompanying text makes it clear the game isn't finished yet. Canal said that was a mistake, and that it will be changed soon. That was four days ago. There are links to Steam on the Towns website, but not directly to the game's Steam store page. There are forums where fans have created maps for the Towns version 0.50 MEGA Build Contest, several of which now function as screenshots for the game on its Steam store page. The kicker is that some of these images were created using mods or were altered from what the game naturally creates, such as the image of the temple in the desert. From the MEGA Build Contest forum where the temple originally appeared: “The screenshot is brightened up a bit to remove the height-shadowing, as it otherwise looks quite depressing,” wrote user fbu. “I indeed built the whole thing in a nearly [emphasis added] unmodified towns game; starting from the usual desert map, I increased the number of above-surface layers (and I now know why it is just 12 usually), moved the river out of the way and removed the snake crabs.” When I asked Canal about the screens, specifically that of the temple, he said that all store images come from in-game. “That image has been not modified in any way, so, all you see in them can be performed in the game.” The description of the image, from the creator himself, contradicts Canal's claim. I downloaded the demo and while city-building has never been my forte and it's clear the game needs some work, as a sometimes-DM for my roleplaying group, I enjoyed the flavor and RPG elements. In fact, many posts on the game's forums stress that while they enjoy the game, they would have appreciated being given a heads-up about the unfinished and evolving nature of the game before they spent the $15. tommykent1210 said on the Steam forums that the game was finished, there was nothing misleading about the store page, and that the team does not intend to deceive people. His aggressive advice speaks volumes of the debacle: “If you bought the game and don't like it, then maybe you should have done more homework,” he wrote on the game's forums. He would later apologize for such statements, which Canal said were “unfortunate phrases during these stressful days.” Stress or no, the customers aren't the only ones who have some learning ahead of them.