Under The Ocean spent more than a year on Steam Early Access, but—despite steady progress and a relatively fun experience—the survival game's creator yanked it from Valve's service. His reasoning? He's not sure if he can deliver on his promises anymore, and he wants to make sure he's not being dishonest with players.
Under The Ocean is a colorful yet daunting island survival game that's been in development for years. Recently, however, it hit choppy waters when its lead developer, Paul Hart, and programmer, Michael Reitzenstein—who'd been living and working together for much of the game's development—decided they didn't see eye-to-eye. The two parted on amicable terms, but in the great survival game that is game creation, good programmers are drinkable water—or at least conveniently placed bags of potato chips. In other words, vital. This leaves Under The Ocean in an awkward place.
Hart plans to continue development (he knows how to program; it's just not his specialty), but he asked Valve to pull Under The Ocean from Steam Early Access nonetheless. This in a time when some developers—Double Fine and the people behind notorious indie game Towns among them—have elected to swerve away from game development's rockiest shores by slapping a "finished" tag on their unfinished games and moving on. Meanwhile, big publishers have started a disturbing trend of releasing thoroughly unfinished games and patching them to completion. So, why didn't Hart follow suit? He explained his rationale to me via email:
"Because fuck that," he said. "Firstly, I am way too stubborn to quit, but secondly, we promised the player-base that a game would be delivered—not a broken alpha product. It isn't even about money or lack thereof at this point. It's about pride and finishing what we started. Despite Mike leaving, I still feel strongly about what this project could be, rather than what it is currently."
So he got in touch with Valve, and that was that.
"I emailed Jason at Steam to take it down," said Hart. "I can't in good faith keep the store page up without something decent to show. Jason was very understanding, and I just told him if/when I have something worth selling I'd shoot him an email again to ask to revive the store page. But until that time, I will be starting again by myself, and the game will not be available until I am happy with it."
Hart admitted, however, that he was hesitant to shake things up for a while. Despite smoke and the beginnings of a fire between himself and Reitzenstein, he didn't want to let people down. "We didn't want to disappoint the players with failure, we didn't want to admit we failed, and that took a long time to come to grips with," he explained.
Reitzenstein echoed that sentiment in a post on Under The Ocean's Steam forums, adding that he would've also been more than willing to continue making the game solo, but it was Hart's game first. "We both take our obligation to finish the game very seriously, and it's not the first time we've spent thousands of hours finishing up a project with no expectation of future sales," he wrote.
Fans are saddened by the news, but they're also largely understanding of the situation. Despite some lapses in updating, Hart and Reitzenstein have been pretty open with the game's development since day one, so they've engendered a good deal of trust from the community.
The only question remaining, then, is what's next for Under The Ocean. For now, Hart plans to release builds on his own—separate from Steam—so players who bought the game can still be involved in its progress if they want. He also plans to offer refunds when he has the necessary funds to do so.
Hart isn't fooling himself, however. He has no programmer and almost no money; getting the game back on track is gonna take a while. He's also decided to essentially start from scratch, or at least pull a lot of the work he previously did into a new 2D version that better emphasizes his strengths as a designer, artist, and programmer. Some fans are upset that Hart isn't releasing what he has of what would've been the 3D version's ninth major alpha update, but he just doesn't think it can stand alone. He probably could've pulled a Double Fine or even a Towns and gotten some support for it, but that idea just doesn't sit well with him.
"I think the concept is sound, but [the last alpha build that Mike and I worked on] is a buggy mess and definitely not fun by finished game standards," he confessed. "I think I can do better, I think I can make something more focused and refined solo, and I don't care if it takes another few years of my life. I am not quitting until it reaches a point where I am happy with it."
To some, that might sound like the beginnings of a lengthy slog—a finger-scraping, back-breaking mountain climb with no end in sight—but Hart is feeling strangely optimistic about it all.
"Hitting rock bottom has its perks," he said. "When you've got nothing, you've got nothing to lose, which basically sums up my mood. I feel oddly positive and freed from the expectations despite basically everything self destructing in my life right now."
"We tried to make something grand. Unfortunately, we failed, and thanks to Early Access our failure has become public. I am okay with that, as that is exactly what we signed up for. Shit happens, basically."
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