EarlyNinja platform draws criticism amid attempt to 'revolutionize' Early Access

Early Access isn't perfect. It's produced hits like Darkest Dungeon and Kerbal Space Program, but also fizzled disappointments like Spacebase DF-9. EarlyNinja, a game platform meant to reduce the risk gamers take on when buying Early Access games, just launched its website alongside its own Kickstarter campaign today. However, the program has immediately come under fire from game developers.

It works like this: developers partner with EarlyNinja to have their games sold on the platform. The game will then be assigned a project manager and "adhere to a detailed roadmap" with predefined development milestones. EarlyNinja will collect all funds made from sales of the game through that platform, keeping 15% of each for itself, and "each time a milestone is satisfactorily passed, a predetermined funding percentage will be released."

Why this graph is a circle leading back to step one, I have no idea.

Players will also be able to ask for a refund if milestones are missed, which are paid back based on the percent of development completed. "For example, if development stops 50% of the way through a game, then you get back 50% of what you paid upfront." It's an interesting system, but it doesn't stop someone from playing a game for hundreds of hours then and refunding it just because a single update was late, a common event in game development. 

While we definitely agree that Early Access has problems that need solving, EarlyNinja seems like a bad way to go about fixing them. It's essentially selling game insurance by withholding a developer's own profits and using them as a carrot on a stick—all while taking a cut and telling developers that it is doing them a favor by keeping them on target. I don't think it's a situation any developer would want to put themselves in, especially if it threatens the livelihood and restricts the creativity of those developers while doing it.

So it's no surprise that some developers are crying foul against EarlyNinja, which is itself asking for early crowdfunding on Kickstarter. A group of prominent independent developers and publishers took to Twitter to criticize the business model, while others pointed out some concerning practices already being used on EarlyNinja's website and Kickstarter promotion:

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Featuring games without permission on the site is bad enough, but other misleading things can be seen on the Kickstarter campaign page and pitch video. Early Access game data shown is primarily from 2014 rather than more recent years. Quotes about Early Access from years-old videos of prominent gaming Youtubers like TotalBiscuit and Boogie2988 are presented as endorsements of the EarlyNinja idea. 

While I agree that Early Access developers should be held more accountable, an untested third party inserting themselves into the process as a pseudo-publisher seems like the wrong way to do it. It shifts risk entirely onto developers who often can't afford to carry it all, without giving gamers any real protections beyond more liberal refunds. Either EarlyNinja becomes popular and certain developers are punished by being seen as unreliable because they don't want someone garnishing their wages, or it doesn't become popular, which means being part of the platform doesn't actually mean anything in relation to the reliability of a game finishing.

For now, EarlyNinja is asking for $93,788 (€75,000), having already received just over $14,151 of that goal from 29 backers, an average pledge of about $488. There aren't specific deliverables listed for when the campaign meets its goal and, ironically, EarlyNinja's own milestone timeline is extremely vague, only listing a "Public Beta" launch sometime between now and "Q2 2017," and then "Steam keys" and a desktop client as stretch goals.

Tom Marks
Tom is PC Gamer’s Associate Editor. He enjoys platformers, puzzles and puzzle-platformers. He also enjoys talking about PC games, which he now no longer does alone. Tune in every Wednesday at 1pm Pacific on Twitch.tv/pcgamer to see Tom host The PC Gamer Show.