The Kickstarter/FarSight/Pinball Arcade debacle

A few months ago I defended Kickstarter projects, saying I hadn’t had any problems that would justify the skepticism I’d seen regarding this method of funding. Well, get me a plate, because I’m about to eat my words. 

Back in May I backed FarSight Studios’ project for digitizing the Twilight Zone pinball machine into Pinball Arcade. From the Kickstarter page:

Our latest project is called the Pinball Arcade and is currently available on a wide variety of platforms: the iPhone, iPad, Android phones and tables, the Kindle Fire, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PS Vita, and Macintosh, with versions coming soon for the PC, Nintendo 3DS, and Nintendo Wii U.

I am a longtime pinball enthusiast, and while I do not own a real machine, I do own iPhone, iPad, Xbox 360, PS3, PS Vita, PC, Wii U, and I figured I’d buy the core game for Macintosh and maybe 3DS too before this came out. I pledged the $100 level, which would entitle me to the Twilight Zone table (with a “Pro Mode” bonus operator’s menu and a special texture for the pinball itself, plus entry into a special tournament) on every platform they support instead of paying $10 per platform as a regular customer when it came out. Seemed like an easy blanket solution and, of course, I really wanted to help that table get made, so even though I didn’t own Pinball Arcade on all the platforms listed (I don’t even have an Android device), I was happy to accept the difference in projected cost of finished goods versus my total investment. I also talked it up on social media and generally did my part to spread the word. Before TZ was delivered, FarSight started a second project for Star Trek: The Next Generation, so I backed that at the same $100 level. Both projects were ultimately funded, reaching their respective $50,000 goals.

Prepare for a comedy of errors. Unlike many KS projects, Twilight Zone shipped in November as promised, which is great. The iOS version launched first and…I couldn’t play TZ. The app simply wouldn’t recognize that I owned it. Backers didn’t get redemption codes; you had to login with your email address, and the system was supposed to have you whitelisted. If your FarSight email and Kickstarter email didn’t match, there was trouble. My email did match, but I still couldn’t play. Hundreds of users rushed to Kickstarter to complain, during which FarSight remained largely silent.

To add a little insult to injury, normal players who did not back the KS project were able to buy the table error-free for $5 ($8 for the operator menu “Pro” version) instead of the $10 estimated during the KS campaign. Quoting from the FarSight email newsletter:

We want to acknowledge the amazing support our Kickstarter backers have shown in funding the up-front licensing costs for this table. Thanks to you we’re able to offer this table for only $4.99 (instead of the $9.99 we had planned), despite having to pay a royalty on each sale that is several times higher than most other tables.

“Yes! Thanks to you, everybody who came late to the party gets it for less, and it works great for them. You Kickstarters paid more and the table doesn’t even function. You’re the tops!”

I know Kickstarter is not a traditional shopping experience, so investment vs. final retail price is not really apples to oranges — but this did sting more than a little bit.

It took two days before I was able to get the iOS version of Twilight Zone to operate as advertised. It involved a lot of logging in, a lot of logging out, sometimes with Facebook integration and sometimes without, a few device resets…just everything you can do with an iPad as an end user in a mad scramble for functionality.

FarSight did fix some things on the back end ASAP that eased the problems with TZ for many Kickstarters, but followed up with this distressing message:

If you still cannot access the table, please attempt the following fix: Please try force closing the app, and restarting the app. From the table select screen, do not move the selector from the first table shown and log in, then restore purchases. It may take a few tries to unlock it. Please force close the app between tries.

“It may take a few tries to unlock it” is the part that I find unsettling. If it was fixed on their end, I’m wondering why it wouldn’t work the very next time it was tried. Every time I launch the app now, I honestly am not sure if all my tables will be available.

Then I suddenly realize…oh, wait, I have a claim on the Mac OS X version, and I never bought Pinball Arcade on my Mac. So I bought the game. Unsurprisingly, Twilight Zone is not unlocked when I log in under the same FarSight account and Apple ID that (eventually) worked on iOS. I guess I’m not flagged as a Mac owner, even though it is one of the valid platforms. I dropped a note to customer support on December 5th, asking about it.

I should note at this point that I do not think I am in the wrong for expecting to own the game on all platforms, even if I had not purchased that platform at the time that that the KS tables were awarded. Like, if I buy an Android device tomorrow, I take the wording of the KS campaign to mean there’s a copy waiting for me:

Get a special version of the Twilight Zone pinball table with access to the table operator’s menu on every platform (again, except the Xbox 360). You’ll also get an entry into the Pinball Arcade Supporters Tournament!

(They later clarified that Xbox 360 would be included after all.) So buying the Mac version of Pinball Arcade’s core program for $10 a few days after the KS rewards rolled out was, I thought, no big thing. And besides, I bought yet another version of Pinball Arcade on yet another platform — that’s another $10 FarSight made from me, right?

Customer support got back to me a full week later via email, saying:

We are updating our database to make sure you get Twilight Zone. It may take up to 24 hours for this to take effect. Thank you for your support.

Okay, that makes sense — if they see your email address in the database on their end, you are granted unlocks for any tables on record when you log in. To be safe, I gave it more than 24 hours; I waited three days before trying again. Guess what? No TZ unlock on my work Mac or my home Mac. I wrote back to customer support on the 20th. I have not heard anything yet, but in the meantime, Pinball Arcade was updated to include STTNG as an option. I am happy to report that I have access to that table — but still not TZ.

So, I fire up STTNG on Mac. It plays terribly on my MacBook Pro, crippled by a slow frame rate, even though no extra fancy visual effects are turned on. The only requirement listed at the Mac App Store was OS X 10.7 — that’s it. I am running 10.8.2, which is Mountain Lion, on a mid-2009 laptop with 4GB of RAM and 256MB on the NVIDIA 9400M. It’s barely playable. It is also incapable of running full screen, from what I can tell.  The graphic options in the menu are not explained and it basically looks and feels like a port of the iOS version — to the point of running in an iPad-sized window.

But wait, there’s more. The updated Pinball Arcade apps on both iOS and Mac come with the same new interface, which they intend to use on all platforms to unify things. Okay, even if I dislike the new interface (it looks unprofessionally simplistic rather than elegantly simple, to me) and I think The Who should sue them for their new and terrible soundalike of “Pinball Wizard,” a single UI for all platforms makes sense. However, on iOS, the interface only appears in landscape (for now, they say, so…okay) and it forces you to play the tables in landscape as well. When you tilt the iOS device to portrait — which many pinball players prefer, because you get to see more of the table’s playfield — the image does not rotate.

No, it’s even worse: When I attempt to play in landscape, I cannot play at all, because the machines (somewhat ironically) tilt. I have nudge turned off, and it still tilts within a few seconds of launching the ball, as if I am violently shaking the iPad when I’m holding it dead still. I currently suspect that the app thinks it’s supposed to be running in portrait mode, so tilting the screen 90 degrees to landscape would be interpreted as not so much aggressively nudging as trying to flip the physical machine on its side.

Thankfully, another user suggested a portrait workaround: launch a table, hit the Home button to return to the Apps screen, rotate to portrait, double-tap the Home button to bring up the list of apps currently running, select Pinball Arcade, and it will reappear in portrait. This is not documented anywhere; it is not a menu option; it does not happen automatically like it does with other pinball apps. Were it not for finding that other user’s advice in the iTunes Store reviews, I would simply not be able to play the iOS game at all.

By the way, The Pinball Arcade is X-Play’s 2012 Mobile Game of the Year. I’m guessing they didn’t back the Kickstarter projects and probably awarded this based on the app as it appeared in the first half of the year.

So let’s recap and check the status of my $200 investment so far.

iOS: Twilight Zone and STTNG are released and available to me. However, the landscape/portrait tilt thing is still an issue that makes it unplayable without a user workaround. With new bugs and a clunky interface, the app seems to be devolving.

Mac: STTNG is available to me, TZ is not. The game runs but is not enjoyable due to speed/framerate issues, and due to few and cryptic menu options, I have no idea what I can do to optimize it. Customer support has been slow in responding to my existing query, so I haven’t even posed this question yet.

Xbox 360: This is my main gaming platform, but Pinball Arcade on XBLA hasn’t been updated in months; this week, the email newsletter contained the following update:

We are happy to announce that we’ve selected a new publisher for the Xbox 360 version of the Pinball Arcade! We are in the final stages of contracting, and we will make an announcement when we know when new tables will be released for the Xbox 360.

Naturally, due to this being on hold, TZ and STTNG are unavailable.

PS3: In late December, FarSight said TZ was submitted to Sony for approval. This could take several weeks, especially with the holiday. STTNG is not part of this update, so as of today, TZ and STTNG are unavailable.

PS Vita: FarSight has supported the “buy for one, own on both” system that many Sony game devs are using, so with luck, I will get both tables on both platforms when Sony approves the PS3 version. But as of today, TZ and STTNG are unavailable.

PC: FarSight has not actually released a PC version of Pinball Arcade. When asked during the TZ funding, the team said the following on the Kickstarter page:

We are currently evaluating different options for distributing the PC version of the game, but that should definitely be resolved by the time the Twilight Zone is finished.

Last updated: Wednesday Jun 6, 4:51pm PDT

Six months later, no PC version has appeared, which means I backed and now have a claim to DLC for a software platform that does not exist.

FarSight’s current plan is to go through Steam Greenlight, and let users decide if they want the game. The game was posted to Greenlight in mid-September. Three months later in mid-December, the team sent out this update:

We are at #83 on Steam Greenlight! We need to get to the top 20 to be published. Please tell your friends, family, dentist, podiatrist, grocer etc. to vote for us using the link below! If we keep spreading the word, we will get there!

So for me to obtain the product that I own, I need to tell everyone I know, gamer or non-gamer, to create a Steam account and vote in a software popularity contest; together, we can wish this product into existence, so I can then buy it for an unknown price and, in theory, claim my free tables. I am not filled with confidence.

Wii U: Oh boy, who knows. Pinball Arcade was not available in the Wii U eShop at launch and I haven’t seen it appear yet.

3DS: Never mind. I think we have enough problems.

Backing anything on Kickstarter is a risk, and I respect that. I am not buying things, I am backing projects — and I got my knickers in a twist when Kickstarter tried to clarify the difference and I hastily misinterpreted their clarification. Snarktastic LOLz! But they’re totally right. Also, due to my job, I have a bias toward empathy — I am inclined to cut game companies slack, because running one, let alone self-publishing as a developer, is harder than it looks. When things go wrong — I accept that inevitability as a rational and reasonable adult — I’m rarely the first person to take to the internet with a hateful screed. I’ve seen people do it to my employer and/or take it out on me, so I certainly don’t want to dump on FarSight’s version of me with a bunch of vitriol just because I can’t play with my toys right away. And even outside of my professional life, I try to have patience and consideration and empathy because I am an adult.

That said, I’m baffled. I’m baffled that the iOS launch could go so wrong with so much at stake and still have the whiff of “maybe it’s fixed, keep trying.” I am not sure why the company wasn’t more communicative with its KS backers once things went wrong. I don’t understand why the applications themselves don’t work correctly at this stage in their lifespans; they were fine, now they’re problematic. I don’t know why I can’t get a timely answer from customer support, and I don’t know why my name has only been added to half of the Mac user database. I have no idea when or if I will see these two tables on any of the other platforms to which I am entitled. Even though the interface is the developer’s visual design call, I can’t really tell why that design call was made. I don’t know why the in-game options menus are not more helpful or clear. And I truly cannot comprehend why the existence of the PC version is being left to the whims of the public if the developer has already sold content for it.

So…is this truly a cautionary tale about backing Kickstater projects? Am I really eating my words? Ultimately, I do not feel this is Kickstarter’s fault, but FarSight’s. Still, I can’t see how or why I would use Kickstarter to purchase DLC again. I got less content and communication for my money than I expected, and what I got doesn’t work as advertised.

In hindsight, it would have been vastly cheaper and far less hassle for me to simply wait until the standard release of these tables and buy the content like a normal consumer instead of an investor. I feel like backing this developer in its time of need and risk was actually the wrong thing to do — which is the opposite of the feeling I’ve gotten from most Kickstarter projects I’ve backed. Other projects have made me feel valued and very glad that I supported a scrappy upstart. This debacle makes me feel like I supported a crappy downturn.

It it with no joy or malice that I say this has been a colossal disaster so far. While I believe the team at FarSight truly loves and can replicate pinball, I think they’ve overextended themselves to the point of failure. And with so many unresolved issues, I don’t think the tough times are anywhere near over.

Irony demands that I remind you that the development studio is called FarSight.

UPDATE 1/9/13: I am very happy to report that, as of tonight, I can now play Twilight Zone on Mac OS X. I logged out and logged back into Pinball Arcade before I hit send on another email to FarSight, and I’m glad I double-checked, as someone did update the database with my login as originally promised. So, one month. three customer support emails, and one admittedly long-winded blog later, I am grateful that I now have both tables on two of the platforms. I now wait with the rest of the investors for updates on the other platforms, and I’m still curious to know how “retroactive purchases” (which is what caused my Mac OSX troubles to begin with) will work for other systems. I still believe FarSight is simply overwhelmed, so I am not expecting info to arrive quickly.

No matter what, this experience has been very educational. I keep asking myself new questions about it, and I see crowdsourced funding differently as a result.

UPDATE 1/17: The iOS app has been updated and has addressed two of my concerns — the portrait/landscape issue has been resolved, and the menu has been improved so it is less clunky. It’s not even a dramatic change — pretty subtle, really — but vastly improves the experience. These two things go a long way to making me feel better about the app itself and my fear that it was devolving. This is the nice thing about software — it can always change, and hopefully, for the better. This time, it did.

UPDATE 3/20: This morning I got my STTNG voucher codes for PlayStation 3/PS Vita; the TZ codes came through in early February and I forgot to update the blog. So that’s cool, one more platform down! Here’s hoping there is news by E3 about a new publisher for the Xbox 360 version, and the PC version will hopefully find its way into the market soon as well.

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