This is going to be an essay if you don’t want to invest the time to read the whole thing there’s a tl;dr at the bottom of each section.
I’ve worked in software development for 10+ years and additonally have decent knowledge and insight into in the internal workings of games studios from friends/colleagues. I’ve been a gamer for 25+ years but never really engaged in any gaming community outside of in-game chat. I only signed up to fatshark forums to log a bug (no software is bug free, this is a core maxim in software QA) and then got sucked down the rabbithole of commentary about the game and the studio behind it. The two most prevalent things I noticed were:
- People are invested - you don’t get amped up for/against something if you are indifferent to it.
- For most of the things being complained about (and I share the feeling that the game is not currently as I would like it) I could identify a probable cause that wasn’t the speculated motivation behind fatshark decisions’s - greed.
My core observations is this: People are up-in-arms over the state of the game because it is not all they hoped it would be but in not appreciating the probable reasons why it is in that state they are not as sympathetic/understanding as they might be if they did. Consequently, the negativity around the game/service reduces the chance it will be able to grow into what people would like it to be.
From what I’ve seen tempers runpretty high on this forum and I fully expect to get slated for ‘simping’ for fatshark and there to be unporductive sh*tpost memes in responses. I’m in no way affiliated with fatshark - my investment in Darktide is just I’m a 40K fan, the 4 player co-op FPS genre has been my favourite since L4D came out and the core gameplay of Darktide is the best I’ve seen in the genre.
To help people maybe understand why certain decisions were made I’d like to offer up some observations, knowledge of software/game development practices, analysis and speculation to address some of the frequent complaints I’ve seen/heard.
tl;dr - I know about the realities software development and a some about games development. I’d like to suggest some alternative reasons for fat shark’s decisions and the state of Darktide that you may not have considered.
Developers vs. Designers
A minor thing that rankles me is the fundamental misunderstanding of what a games ‘developer’ does. Developer can refer to either a) a games studio (of whatever noun you choose for a company that produces games) or b) a coder who builds games. Most of the creative decision people do not like that they blame the devs for are made by designers. Designers are the architects of games and developers are the crafts people who take their plans and build the actual thing. Devs will get to feedback on the game during studio playtests and will dictate how to implement a designer’s planned feature on a technical level but the big decisions around gameplay, monetisation, mechanics etc. will be made by designers and ultimately the Creative Director. There are also artists and animators who contribute to the look and feel of the game but again ultimately most just implement decisions they don’t make them.
The Economics of Software/Games Development
Since their invention games have progressively become more and more expensive to make. The pace of this trend has only accelerated as time goes by and AAA title cost tens of millions to produce. All businesses need a steady stream of revenue to operate, the traditional model for making games - spend years making a product put it on shelves (digital or physical) recoup costs and make enough money for to finance next product does not produce a steady revenue stream - hence so many studios which fold due to cashflow problems whilst producing their ‘next’ game.
Following the traditional model requires you to have deep pockets, this is why studios like fatshark making AAA games without a publisher (I’ll address Tencent’s majority stake below) are rare and most indie studios make smaller games with lower production costs.
The reality of this in general software gave rise to the ‘Software(game) as a Service’ model - hate it or not it provide smaller/mid-sized companies to trade larger up-front investment in a product for a more even and consistent revenue stream which increases the company and product’s chances of survival long-term.
tl;dr - Games are increasinly expensive to make and the traditional model increasingly only works for big companies with deep pockets. SaaS models are one of the few alterantives for mid-sized studios who want to produce AAA titles.
The longer a piece of software is expected to be live and in continuous development the more time required to be invest in the foundations of that software.
In the traditional model whre a piece of software was expected to have a lifespan of 2-5 years you don’t need to worry to much about its long-term maintainabilty, future development or changes to hardware environment it runs in. At most you game ship it, make some updates/bugfixes and maybe throw some additonal DLC content out there (this is often subcontracted to outside/co-dev studios).
Software expected to have a longer service like needs a carefully thought through and solid foundation. It needs to be scalable, easy to maintain/update and malleable enought to updated to utilise new and better hardware. Overall the retun on investment for this time/effort is greater but the initial cost in time/effort/money is greater.
tl;dr - While service models may help mid-sized studios viability long-term the up-front costs (financial/effort/time) are much greater.
Financing a Game’s Development
As a start-up/scale-up you only really have two options or grow your business and produce new products:
- Organically - you invest your own money and all the profits from your existing product(s) (if you have any) into developing new products.
- Outside investment - you add to your organic growth by selling a stake of your company (pre-sale or share) to an outside investor to help finance growth. The obvious advantage of this being you can grow faster and more ambitiously than competitors who rely entirely on organic growth. In games this outside investment is commonly - sell your comapny outright to a larger company (business daddy Microsoft/Sony/Tencent/EA etc.) bankroll your development costs, crowdsourcing, banks/venture capitalists/larger organisations.
Other important conecpts are financial runway and of Minimum Viable Product. The financial runway is how long you can absorb the operating costs involved in making a new product before it starts making money and paying for itself. A Minimum Viable Product is the bare minimum/core features required for a product to what it is intended to do at the most basic level. So if you are operating at a loss devloping a new product you need to get your MVP to market before you run out of runway so it can start financing its continued development.
tl;dr - Most studios want to release the best game possible with the resources available. If a game is not as polished/feature rich at release as you’d expect it most probably was not relesed in that state because they wanted to but because they had to i.e. they were out of money and no viable option to get more.*
Fatshark sold out to Tencent and Tencent are the worst
If you own a company and want to literally sell-out you generally sell the comapny outright hang around during the transition for the minimum time you are contractually obliged to then sachet out the door and into the wide blue yonder with your cash. This doesn’t seem to be what happened with fatshark and tencent.
As a games studio you next game will inevitably cost more to make than your last so the fact your last game turned a profit does not mean you will be able finance production of your new game. I’d guess knowing all this fatshark shopped around for investors to finance Darktide and Tencent gave them the best terms (Tencent have a bad rep but at least they are in the industry most VC firms have no real stake in the games industry when they invest they are literally all about the money).
Then reality stepped in - I don’t have first of second-hand experience of any software project that has come in on time and on budget, I know it happens but it is the exception not the rule. Even where projects are not optomistic there are always unexpected issues no one foresaw (or reasonably could have forseen) and then there are once in a lifetime occurences like Covid.
I would guess the 2021 deal that gave Tencent a majority stake was made because fatshark were out of runway and it was either that or the company goes under. Even after this I would imagine they had to scale back/missed their MVP (a possible reason behind the lack of crafting).
tl;dr Fatshark probably needed outside money to fund an amitious project requiring lots of up-front costs. Tencent gave the best (least-worst)deal. I suspect fatshark neared/hit the end of their financial runway multiple times whilst developing Darktide and had to look for additional investment/funding.
Fatshark released an unfinished game because they are greedy
In additional to all of the above reasons - from what I know very few who work in games do it for the money - you can easily get 10%+ bigger salary working in enterprise software. Most industry professionals I know do what they do because they love games and would love nothing more than to make games with no consideration of monetisation and financial concerns but we live in the world we live in.
*tl;dr - My suspicion is that fatshark released Darktide in its current state because they had to.
I don’t think fatshark wanted to release an ‘unfinished’ game - if this were a cynical cash grab the attention to detail a reverence for the source material in Darktide would be absent. *
The cosmetics shop was finished on day one whilst other features were not
A cosmetics shop is what is referred to a ‘solved problem’ - something easy to implement on a technical level based on an established template and pattern of design (another example would be a login page). It is the sort of thing you assign junior teammembers and can be completed in a relatively short time span.
tl;dr - it’s a solved problem and easily implemented, building it likely did not pull senior staff away from the more important technically demanding stuff
Fatshark doesn’t communicate well enough
After the 2017 EA Star Wars Battlefront 2 lootbox debacle where studio employees tried to justify design choices on social media makinf the situation worse most big studios/publishers banned employees from discussing their games on social media. Especially for games based on liscenced IP where the licence holders want to protect their brand image communications with fans are vetted heavily and are strictly one-way.
Combine that with studio employees getting doxxed, abuse and death threats it’s arguably a wise policy. It must be dispiriting to put years of your life into a project only to get blamed for decisions made for you by bosses or circumstance.
tl;dr - most major publishers and studios now have strict NDAs, some of which forbid employees even disclosing who they work for in many forums. Those that do have any community outreach do so through strictly vetted official channel. That fatshark employees communicate with players outside press releases and chaperoned interviews is unusual.
Fatshark said feature X would be in the game but it isn’t
The original design and feature set of any software never survives production. Things designers thought might be useful/fun end up not being so, others turn out to technically unviable from an engineering standpoint and others turn out to be game breaking in terms of the meta to the extent no amount of quantative balancing can rectify. I don’t know amuch about the alleged deletion of forum posts and commitments to certain things so I won’t comment on that.
tl;dr - No plan survives contact with the enemy - designers are not prescient Gods just because something was intended at the outset doesn’t mean it worked or was viable
Darktide should have been released as an Early Access Game
It seems logical that if Fatshark could do this they would. Based on the public facing Steamworks documentation I can see a couple of criteria where the wording has more than on interpretation depending on how you define certain words (i.e. the sort of stuff the entire field of contract law is based around debating). Then you have the questions of what the early Access contracts and criteria not publicly available look like and what conditions exists related to agreements they have with Microsoft.
Based on the little info available it looks like there would have been zero downside for fatshark making use of the early Access program (maybe Steam take slightly higher percentage of sale, I don’t know) would have been a no brainer and Fatshark probably didn’t do it because they couldn’t do it. Maybe they couldn’t because Valve wouldn’t allow it, Maybe because Microsoft wouldn’t allow it maybe for some other reason prevented it.
tl;dr - If they could have they probably would have?
There’s not enough content and no endgame
Simply put, afaik fatshark never said Darktide would be anything but a GaaS and I didn’t purchase thinking I was somehow getting a AAA title for just $/£/€40 i.e. almost half what they usuall cost. I struggle to think of a similar service-model title that was well received at launch (maybe Deeprock Galactic but, as much as I love it, it is not a AAA title with the same technical ambition and scope as darktide).
The difference between your No Man’s Skies and Anthems is if the core gameplay is solid and Darktide’s, imo, really is. Although my initial surge of enthusiam has waned and I’m jonesing for more content and progression, once it is feature complete and they rev up the content treadmill I’m invested in where it goes. I hope to return to this game multiple times to find new content and developments
tl;dr - it was always billed as a GaaS title and I’ve paid $/£/€70 on games that have had a fraction of the shelf life. Assuming it doesn’t get smothered in its crib this game will hopefully build on the solid foundation that is the core gameplay.