Early Access: The Case of Caves of Qud

As you might have seen, @esprite_bay asked me to compare two games — Caves of Qud, and Halfway — and suggest which one I thought was better for streaming. This was the first I had heard of either title. I offered a response but, as is the risk of opinions on Twitter, the review was brief to the point of being dismissive. In particular, I contrasted Caves of Qud, an Early Access roguelike, to the fully released turn based strategy Halfway by pointing out Qud that Qud’s main selling points seemed to be on its potential. To my (pleasant!) surprise, Brian Bucklew (aka. @unormal), programmer at Freehold Games, respectfully weighed in by pointing out that Qud had been in development for 11 years. Any team that takes the time to engage an online presence as minor as mine is worth more than a single tweet, and so I committed to providing more thoughtful feedback. Given that Early Access, and game development in general, are topics that we’ve discussed on the stream more than occasionally, I thought it might be instructive to post an elaboration on that decision making processes.

What’s Good About Qud?

I’d like to begin in a slightly unexpected fashion and talk about the things I found interesting about Caves of Qud. This is partly to address an imbalance that is created by comparing two games where there has to be a winner and a loser (or a non-committal ‘I like, or hate, both’). While online discussion of games can seem predicated on the assumption that a preference of one title precludes the enjoyment of another (see: Dota 2 vs. League of Legends), this certainly does not align with my experience of gaming, and I’d hazard a guess that this assumption does not hold for the majority of gamers in general. In addition, by first articulating the value of the title, we’ll be in a better position to see the ‘tax’ that Early Access places on otherwise worthwhile games.

By its published description, Caves of Qud is an RPG, Adventure, Strategy game. Genres are much more fluid than they seem to have been in the past, and so such a description may not give you a very clear idea of what the game is like (while I have not played it myself, I don’t think I’m being unfair in saying that the adventure in Caves of Qud has very little in common with the adventure in Grim Fandango or Full Throttle). Roguelike certainly does a lot to combine and clarify these genres, and it’s worth noting that the game really seems to wear this origin on its sleeve. With the revelation that the game has been in development for 11 years, it’s hard to talk about inspiration (even on a shorter timeline, anything I have to say on the inspiration of a game I have not had a hand in the creation of is simply a matter of conjecture), but it seems that Dwarf Fortress either has had some influence on the title through its ‘deep simulation’ (not that Dwarf Fortress has a monopoly on complexity. How many titles have we connected with Dwarf Fortress that may, in fact, have their origins in a game like Starflight?), or at least provides a point of comparison. The ASCII art, pages of text, emphasis on scope and complexity, and enumeration of cultures, mutations, casts, and kits all invite this comparison as well.

On this front alone, Caves of Qud is worthy of attention. Certainly people who like digging into lore and unwrapping rich, complex worlds are well represented among lovers of fantasy/sci-fi settings, and the game certainly promises to deliver on this front. In fact, it seems that this story is uncovered through interaction with the environment so, if you’re like me and thought the way the story of Dark Souls was slowly pieced out through interactions and reading descriptions was a positive feature, extended time in the game’s world appears to be rewarded. The emergent gameplay features heavily in the trailer’s narration as well as the Steam descriptions.

Emergent gameplay is a feature that interests me specifically. Those who have enjoyed the Crusader Kings II playthroughs, and specifically the House of Rose session which has no historical precedent (other than a lot of religious war), will know that I tremendously enjoy ‘filling in the blanks’ during streams of games like this. I’m also delighted when games hand me unexpected, but dramatically satisfying chance events, such as encountering a relative who surrendered his birthright in order to join a military order on the road to Jerusalem. I can’t imagine these kinds of games are easy to do, and yet Caves of Qud seems to offer this (perhaps a bit over enthusiastically on occasion if the bug reports are to be believed).

All in all, Caves of Qud seems to appeal to anyone who is interested in complex games with a large scope. In many ways, this is the bread and butter of my stream because, at the risk of being immodest, a common compliment I receive is that I have some ability to make more complex (to the point of being unplayed) games enjoyable to watch. As such, it’s not just worthy of my consideration, but also of anyone who happens to have similar interests to mine.

On Recommending Games

At this point it’s worth commenting that I generally don’t follow gaming news. I usually follow streamers, developers, and fellow gamers, then learn of things that might interest me that way. For instance, I did not know about Bloodborne until people started actually streaming it. As such, I’m not sure if I’m supposed to have heard of Halfway or Caves of Qud before, but the fact I find both interesting is something of a testament to the effectiveness of being able to rely on the advice of friends and other like-minded individuals.

Now, the context for my comments on Caves of Qud were, as identified above, in response to a recommendation as to which I thought would stream better. I took this to imply that the person asking was considering something that they would want to stream for themselves. When dealing with other people’s money it can sometimes translate into just being less careful overall (esprite gets and plays Qud so I can see if it’s something I’m interested in myself), but there is something of a reputational factor to consider (my opinions don’t count for much if I make too many chancy recommendations), in addition to the fact that I want to be as honest as I can in my estimations of people’s enjoyment of games. This means game recommendations are closely aligned to how I choose my own games. It’s hard to cry poverty when I have a machine capable of streaming, and can attend school, but the fact I’m embarking on the master’s means I’m adding another year of no employment while seeing the time I can spend on gaming shrink appreciably as the course material becomes more advanced. As such, while my tastes are already sensitive to maximizing the enjoyment I get out of the scare resources of time and money, this effect is amplified by my strong aversion to the possibility that I am causing someone to spend money on something they won’t enjoy, meaning I am going to be fairly conservative in my recommendations. To put it another way, if I were giving a gift, I’d feel safe going for an ‘out there’ pick, because at worst I give a gift that won’t be used, and at best I give someone a game they may not have otherwise picked up. If, on the other hand, someone gave me some money with which to buy them a game, I’d become a little more cautious because all of a sudden a ‘0 return game’ has a negative value given that some worldly resources were given up in obtaining it.

With this in mind, let’s consider some of the reasons why my personal interest in this game did not translate into a recommendation.

Selling Qud

Given that it spawned the exchange that inspired this article, let’s deal with the elephant in the room: Early Access. Caves of Qud is presently in Early Access, which is a state that has earned a certain degree of infamy in the gaming community. While I think this reputation is largely deserved, it’s important not to be too dogmatic about these things. I have been severely burned in Early Access with games like Starbound (which I actually purchased before a playable version was available based on my enjoyment of Terraria), and found myself a little burned out on Don’t Starve by playing it before it was done. I’ve also enjoyed Dungeon of the Endless through Early Access, and am presently enjoying The Darkest Dungeon. Whether we think it’s right or wrong, and whether or not the model could use improvement (personally, I’m inclined to seeing early access funds held in escrow until the exit from EA, allowing developers to borrow against them, but providing an incentive to deliver a finished product in a timely fashion. But elaborating on this is probably best left for another time), Early Access is part of the landscape and now factors into our decisions to purchase.

I think it’s fair to say that there is a ‘tax’ on Early Access at this point. That is, seeing a game in this state is going to have a negative impact on the game’s perceived value. I think in many ways this is appropriate because the proposition is that the game is being purchased in an unfinished state. Certainly Valve states “This is the way games should be made” in terms of the idea of involving customers, which implies that Early Access is adding value, but it’s also worth noting that none of their own titles are in Early Access. The additional value through community input is also something of a public good, given that everyone benefits from the feedback, but only those who purchase in Early Access are in a position to give it (which, suggests that we will see a less than optimal production of feedback). Whatever promise the original conception of the system had has long since been overshadowed by its present form which seems effective at generating fairly lucrative vapourware. This is the environment in which Caves of Qud is currently operating.

There are some admirable ways in which Qud has decided to go about Early Access. You may notice that a lot of EA games appear to have put the art assets front and centre in order to make a particularly enticing product. For instance, I’m interested in Satellite Reign, but a casual review of the feedback over the course of the game’s development reveals a very good looking, and decidedly unplayable game for a fairly significant period of time (this is certainly a title I’m waiting for a full release on). All of Qud’s promotional material (on Steam, the only source I based my decision on) displays the game in its ASCII form (I take the commitment to ‘tile art’ to mean that there will be a visual overhaul of the game at some point, though I’m not sufficiently versed in developer lingo to know if this is the case). Unfortunately, proverbs about books and covers notwithstanding, it makes the valuation of the game quite difficult as there’s no indication if this is a fly-by-night cash grab with ambitions that will only be fulfilled with a sufficient number of sales, or if the game will be seen through to completion. Even with the (not unwarranted, given Freehold’s past success in shipping quality games) assumption that the developer will see the project though to a timely completion, there’s no indication as to what the final style will look like.

This dilemma is extended through the game’s trailer, even though I actually really like its style. For someone who enjoys emergent gameplay, and thinks that Caves of Qud has a chance of being something very interesting, it’s neat to see a promotional video that focuses entirely on the experiences that happen, rendered in an attractive voiceover over gameplay (and, as someone who hopes to maybe one day lend their voice to some kind of game, special commendation for providing a link to the actress who provided such a memorable voiceover). The challenge is that there is still quite a bit of good faith that I as a consumer need to place on this game so far as entertainment is concerned. This is to say that while it may be true the game contains a staredown with a mother bear, whether this experience is enjoyable or dramatically satisfying in the current or future versions of the game is highly speculative in nature. Even knowing that the game has been 11 years in development (something unknown at the time of the recommendation) does not necessarily mean that all of this hard work will be actually felt in the experience of the game. That is, it’s possible that all of these encounters may simply feel like random draws from a fairly extensive library of prepared scenarios, and so miss out on component that creates the appeal emergent gameplay. Here it may be worth mentioning that the new Steam returns policy creates the possibility to return games that fail in this regard, though for the purposes of the reputational risk of recommending a bad game, a returned game is still a costly game.

These are primarily what I mean through the game being sold on ‘potential’. Clearly there is something of a leap of faith that must be taken on any game (Darkest Dungeon has some cool voice overs, but ‘does the world need another dungeon crawler?’), but based on the available information it’s very hard to discern whether I would be experiencing a personal narrative emerging out of this massive world, or just pushing around an ASCII character and reading flavour text with varying degrees of unenthusiastic detachment. The intention here is not to be overly pessimistic, but rather to counterbalance the ‘ideal version’ of the game (the version that gets sold to us and we usually never see) with the ‘disappointment version’ (the one that at best is what we encounter in EA and gets fixed, or at worst is released as a full product after which everyone talks about what a scam EA is).

The real kiss of death for a recommendation of Caves of Qud came in the ad copy though, which is one area in which I think there can be some improvement. I think it’s safe to say two things about the game:

  • The developers face an uphill battle regarding early access (evidenced by the need to differentiate it from “EA hot air”)
  • The people who are on board are really invested in the world (as evidenced by particularly strong reviews)

Here are the first words I read about Caves of Qud: “Caves of Qud is a science fantasy roguelike epic steeped in retrofuturism, deep simulation, and swathes of sentient plants. Come inhabit an exotic world and chisel through layers of thousand-year-old civilizations” (with tags Early Access, Rogue-like, RPG, Indie, Strategy). Given the ‘tax’ of Early Access, it’s really hard to read the blend of two genres (science fantasy), and the terms: roguelike, epic, retrofuturism, and deep simulation as anything but buzzwords. Obviously my opinions are my own, but I remember thinking “Well gee, why don’t you throw zombies, open world, and crafting in there too?” Under ‘About the Game’ there’s a lot that is written about the setting, then finally a list of features in the game (which sort of gets covered in the preceding paragraphs: the fact that there is a system that allows me to get my limbs hacked off may simply mean there’s a very complex system inside an otherwise uninteresting game). In my own case (arguably the worst case), the suspicions aroused by the short writeup coloured a lot of the features as further evidence there was no real substance to the game (for example, procedurally generated is a commonly advertised feature that no longer holds a promise as to the quality of a given title).

So far as I can tell, anyone who is invested in Caves of Qud will like the description for the game, because of the focus on the environment and its lore. In this sense it’s quite effective, and so if the average member of the game’s potential audience is already invested in the world of Caves of Qud, then my under-enthusiastic response is simply a reflection of my individual preferences and, so it’s just a matter of a mismatch between the game I was recommended and my responses to its ad copy. If, however, the aim of the ‘about the game’ sections are intended to convert neutral readers to sales, I feel like more work needs to be done in communicating how these interesting mechanics translate into rewarding gameplay.

In one sense, I feel the exit from Early Access will already be a strong shift towards making the existing writeups more effective. Where Early Access immediately creates suspicion for some of the terms used, the absence of this label allows a potential consumer to view the game with less jaded eyes. It’s almost a weird Orwellian world we live in now with Early Access where legitimate descriptions of the game in question arouse suspicion simply because the abuse of those same terms through lesser titles (that is, I think Caves of Qud is giving an accurate description of itself, but one that carries unintended meaning through previous misuse of these words). Whether developers should adapt to the potential that others have abused these terms, or attempt to let their games stand on their own is clearly a matter for them to resolve. It’s worth remembering that my thoughts in this regard are only going to be informed by my individual experience of buying and recommending games, while a developer’s living is inextricably tied into navigating these kinds of decisions. However, I felt the fact that the team was invested enough to correct a misunderstanding on my part merited the best attempt to give as honest of an accounting as I could of the reasons why I rated the games the way I did.

In the end fact that the alternative (Halfway) had a smaller price tag meant that even posted concerns about past bugs (which were also noted as being fixed), and a more straightforward, comprehensible presentation meant that Halfway was ultimately a safer choice, though the better choice could only ever be determined by playing both. In addition, given that I was recommending the game to another streamer who may not derive the same pleasure from ‘filling in the blanks’ on stream, Halfway seemed to be a bit more appropriate in terms of a more general ‘game to stream’ criteria.

Conclusion

Having put down the specific decision process of making a recommendation (or lack of one in this case) for a game like Caves of Qud has strengthened my opinion that the current practice of Early Access has largely hurt the games that it should have been built to support. Caves of Qud seems to come about the enterprise honestly: it has reserved any visual polish for the end, opting instead on to build (what appears to be) a sprawling world of experiences that now require actual players to iterate through the encounters to uncover any problems. In an ideal world the question is if a player is invested enough in the potential of the game that they will play an incomplete version without a discount, but this has long since been replaced by the question as to whether or not the game being sold bears any relation to what the finished product will actually look like.

So divorced from the context of recommending a title to anyone else, what do I think of Caves of Qud? I’m interested, but not enough to take the plunge yet. In the end, I really only can gain from waiting to see how the game turns out. Waiting increases the likelihood of tutorials being written, bugs being ironed out, and feedback from people not so invested in the game already being presented (that is, both positive and negative reviews. Though in general, I heavily discount Steam reviews simply I have no frame of reference for the individual’s comments). Do I think this should be a universal response? Hardly. My benefit from waiting derives entirely from people willing to take the plunge. While I may not have made the decision to purchase the game for myself, I can say that  any development team that shows the kind of dedication to their product that Freehold has stands out. Hopefully anyone who’s been good enough to read through to the end will be able to take this elaboration and give this worthy title its due.

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4 responses to “Early Access: The Case of Caves of Qud

  1. I’d never heard of either the games in question. While I too am not going to take the plunge on Caves of Qud just yet, I fully intend to keep an eye on it during the EA period. It seems promising and I want to see how this plays out. Will it be one of those rare examples of EA done right? Or will it be another of the countless tally marks for EA done wrong? I sincerely hope it’s the former, because the game sounds interesting.

  2. Pingback: I Will Now Opine About Mad Max: Fury Road and Movies in General | SystemTalk

  3. Pingback: Streaming Other People’s IP: Are Streamers Any Good at Selling Games? | SystemTalk

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