The news that North Carolina-based game maker Boss Key was closing both was and wasn't a complete surprise.
Sure, the developer had a rough time of it with team shooter LawBreakers, but when the firm announced its next project - 80s-themed free-to-play battle royale Radical Heights I honestly figured it would be at least a year before the studio bit the dust.
But no, just over a month after Boss Key rolled out the new title, founder Cliff Bleszinski announced that the developer would be closing.
When Radical Heights was first announced just days after the studio revealed it was ending work on LawBreakers, it was hard to not look at it as a last-ditch effort. That - in itself - is fine. When you're fighting for your business to continue, it's fair enough that you might get a bit desperate. Looking back now, however, this does look like the wrong last kind of last-ditch effort. It's looking incredibly likely that Boss Key was hoping that this game would be what saved its studio.
In this way, Boss Key went about Early Access all wrong. The project it released felt much like those that came out when Valve's alpha programme was new. Games like DayZ and Rust released in incredibly unfinished states, but that worked with the idea that Early Access would allow consumers to advise developers on what their games should look like. As time has gone on, what consumers expect from Early Access has changed. Perhaps burnt by projects that rolled out, unfinished in the truest sense of the word, barely functioning titles that looked incredibly unlikely to ever be completed.
Now, consumers expect more. Developers I speak to say that you need to have the core game loop sorted and in a polished state, with other aspects to follow. Where in 2014, a game could come out in Early Access and not be finished until 2018, now users anticipate that a game will be done in a year, maybe less. Playerunknown's Battlegrounds is a fantastic example of using Early Access effectively. That game was - at its absolute core - complete when it rolled out in March 2017, with the next nine months being used to fix bugs, as well as balance and tweak.
There's a lot we don't know about Boss Key's demise. But releasing a game in this manner with a company that was seemingly hanging on by a thread was irresponsible
The same could not be said for Radical Heights. The project released in a very rough state, which - considering the battle royale game only began life in October 2017 - is fine. That, coupled with the fact it very much looked like a cash grab, trying to capitalise on the success of PUBG and Fortnite, didn't lend itself to creating a huge level of consumer confidence. Perhaps Boss Key should have waited a few months until the title was knocked into shape. It's likely, however, that this was time the studio just didn't have.
There's always danger in the me-too title - and nothing wrong with trying to follow in the footsteps of successful titles. But you need to carve out your own niche. Back when Ark: Survival Evolved launched into Early Access in 2015, I must admit I rolled my eyes when I got an email about another crafting and survival game in the wake of Minecraft. But kudos to developer Studio Wildcard for putting its own stamp on the genre. Radical Heights did not do that. Well, it tried. There were BMXs and.. they did... actually, I'm not sure.
Then there's the technical performance. My time with Radical Heights is limited, mostly by the fact that a screen flicker glitch nearly gave me a seizure before hard crashing my PC. Obviously, bugs are par for the course with games development, but users - again - expect more from titles in Early Access now.
That's without talking about the business model. Free-to-play games are incredibly difficult to get right; Boss Key tried this before with LawBreakers but ultimately found it harder to make a project in this way. It requires an entirely different mode of development, one that - one way or another - tries to compel the user to splash some cash. Then there's the fact that you need to be in a pretty good place financially to wait for consumers to spend. With a 'regular' game with an upfront price point, developers will start to get money the moment that users start buying. With free-to-play, it's when consumers feel like spending, which is a risky thing. You may end up with a sizable number of players, but even then, only between five and ten per cent of users will actually spend money.
For a company which was clearly in some financial jeopardy, free-to-play was just not the way to go. That, coupled with an Early Access launch that was - frankly - way too early in game's development was a recipe for disaster for the North Carolina studio. There's no mention yet of consumers who spent cash getting a refund, but Boss Key should be looking into that at the moment.
There's a lot we don't know and it's entirely possible there were talks happening behind the scenes. Maybe Boss Key was relying on funding coming from somewhere and this fell through - for the time being we don't know. But releasing a game in this manner with a company that was seemingly hanging on by a thread was irresponsible. It's likely further tarnished Early Access as means of releasing a game and damaged the careers of an incredibly talented group of developers.