Months ago, long before gamer gate and internet vitriol reduced the words “games journalism” to an epithet, I pitched a story idea to a handful of prominent video game websites about Mechwarrior Tactics, a browser-based version of the popular Battletech tabletop war game. My pitches were met with silence and one form letter rejection. After discovering something new about Mechwarrior Tactics on Sunday morning, I thought I’d write up the story here.
Much like Mechwarrior Online, a free-to-play mech combat game, Mechwarrior Tactics raised funds for its production through the use of a “founder’s program”. Potential players could become “founders” during the game’s seemingly perpetually closed beta. After parting coin from hand, these early access players would be able to play the game through the remainder of its development, with the promise of a few additional in-game perks once it launched.
For those who don’t know, I’m a complete and total Battletech junkie. As much as I love Battletech, I hate the very principle of free-to-play games. So roughly a year ago when I found out about Mechwarrior Tactics, primarily through banner ads, and only later through Rock Paper Shotgun, I was reticent to buy in. Something about the game made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end.
So I put on my hackneyed 1930’s detective hat and started digging.
I first turned to Infinite Game Publishing, Mechwarrior Tactics’ publisher. Their twitter feed was sparse, and the section of their website devoted to the game was similarly devoid of any meaningful details on the project’s development. I checked Mechwarrior Tactics’ and IGP’s facebook pages, thinking that facebook, rather than twitter, may be their primary point of social media contact. The MWT facebook page hasn’t seen an update since November of 2013. IGP’s facebook page is likewise an assemblage of nonsense and staff photos, last updated on July 3rd of this year.
Unsettled by what I discovered on IGP’s website, I dug into Blue Lizard Games, Mechwarrior Tactics’ developer. Therein, I found almost nothing. Blue Lizard’s website devotes almost no real estate to Mechwarrior Tactics save for a picture and a paragraph containing a link to the Mechwarrior Tactics website. Links to some of Blue Lizard’s other games, like Rally Mania Online and The Gullitones led to broken webpages or dead links. Among the links that did work, most led to download pages on Big Fish Games, a website that describes itself as “the world’s largest producer of casual games.”
Finally, I checked to see what the rest of the gaming world was saying about Mechwarrior Tactics. Kotkau had precious little (i.e nothing at all) to say about MWT. Rock, Paper, Shotgun had a few pieces, but the most recent was from July 2013.
Nobody, including the publisher and developer, seems to be talking about this game. All of that brings us to Sunday morning when I thought to myself, “I wonder if there’s anything new from Mechwarrior Tactics?” That’s when I found this on the game’s website.
Note the part in the second paragraph where they talk about finding a new development partner. Didn’t IGP’s website tell us that Blue Lizard was developing this game? Apparently that is now longer the case.
For all the corporate blandishment that IGP puts up on their website, you’d think that they might say that they fired their developer almost a year ago. Isn’t that something of a big deal?
Nevertheless, it is common enough to hear about games slipping into development limbo and their product being reduced to vaporware. Developers and publishers rise and fall with the tides. However Mechwarrior Tactics isn’t just another game. IGP banked on the success of Mechwarrior Online in soliciting funds from their audience in the form of a founders program. People parted coin from hand to help make Mechwarrior Tactics a reality. How sad that they now seem to be paying the game’s hospital bills as it languishes on life support.
While we can invoke the age-old maxim of Caveat Emptor – let the buyer beware – I imagine that would be cold comfort for the people who invested in the game. Yes, I said invested. Let’s drop the language of early-access, for a moment, and call this practice what it is: an interest-free loan, underwritten by nothing, absent any collateral, and accountable to no one.
If any other industry tried to do what the games industry does in the form of “early access” I imagine government regulators would step-in and remind them that investors are entitled to some form of compensation for their money. You can’t just sell stock in a company and then run away with a briefcase full of cash. I believe that’s called defrauding the investors. Naturally, all this raises the question: what can the people who invested in Mechwarrior Tactics do now? Games like Mechwarrior Tactics put people squarely on the line between consumer and investor. Though I’m sure end-user licence agreements clearly delineate between the two, I think this is a case where spirit of the law and letter of the law are probably at odds with each other.