The EarlyNinja pitch sounds simple: If developers sign up to sell their early access games through EarlyNinja, the company gets to control the revenue of those developers, and cut it off if milestones aren’t reached, while keeping 15 percent of the game’s sales. Players who purchase games through EarlyNinja can get a refund if the game isn’t finished or if content comes late.
There are some ... interesting ideas here, but that pitch is bad news for both players and developers. Here’s why.
Why is this a big deal?
It’s really not. EarlyNinja is only a threat to developers if a developer were to sign with EarlyNinja, and there’s not a lot of evidence that anyone is going to be willing to do that.
The Kickstarter for EarlyNinja — because of course a service for early access games has a Kickstarter — has only reached $14,531 as of this writing, out of a $93,857 goal. It’s mostly being talked about in game development circles on social media as being a very bad idea for everyone involved.
The idea of giving money for someone else to open a store to sell you things is already strange, although the rewards feature things like “free” games from the service’s catalog and a lot of physical goodies. Fulfilling orders for things like “premium” hoodies and bobbleheads is already a tricky proposition, and is another red flag. It’s hard to make and ship physical items, and doing so will take a decent chunk of whatever money is raised on the Kickstarter.
You can watch the pitch video below if you’d like some more information.
Why are people so annoyed?
Well, part of it is the fact that EarlyNinja is asking what games it should offer in a poll, while leaving out the fact that it can’t really promise to offer any of them.
.@EarlyNinja is a scam. They promise to promote transparency, then feature 20XX on their website without permission or asking us.— Fire Hose Games (@FireHoseGames) January 24, 2017
Not having permission to use any of the likenesses, IP, or names on that kickstarter. Pretending it has a catalog when it does not...etc— Video Game Attorney (@MrRyanMorrison) January 24, 2017
“We apologize for any use of material that might have caused offense,” the company responded on its official blog. “It was not at all our intention and it was done with the aim of gathering user feedback through a simple poll. The message was unclear from our end, but the scope was of getting hints regarding which developers we should have contacted first among the thousand in the early access genre available on the market to start our screening process.”
The company has no business connection to any of the games shown on the site. “To be clear: as of today, we are not selling, promoting or hosting, any of the games on our poll,” the post states.
The Kickstarter also uses quotes and images from some rather large names on YouTube, while the fine print says the quotes likewise have nothing to do with EarlyNinja.
“None of these quotes and influencers are directly linked or endorse EarlyNinja and serve only as inspiration for our work,” the Kickstarter states, although they look like discussions that promote EarlyNinja itself. The company told Polygon it will remove anything copyrighted after the copyright holder contacts them.
The actual business model is horribly flawed
This graphic is supposed to explain what EarlyNinja actually does to “fix” early access.
So a developer who signs up for EarlyNinja is paying the company to control its revenue, which EarlyNinja can take away if the agreed-upon milestones aren’t completed. The development of signed games will be guided by what EarlyNinja calls “Sensei,” who will act as project managers and provide each team with “a detailed roadmap.”
“This roadmap will include key milestones and, each time a milestone is satisfactorily passed, a pre-determined funding percentage will be released,” the Kickstarter states (emphasis original). “When the project is completed, the last amount of funds will be released meaning 100 percent of your money will be given to the developers.”
Thomas Was Alone and Volume developer Mike Bithell wrote a detailed blog post about why this is such a terrible idea:
Holding milestone payments is one of those ideas that makes a lot of sense to a fan of games who’s never made one, and I suspect is the idea this was built around. Except it doesn’t achieve the outcomes you state. Crucially, milestone payments are front loaded, because in real game dev, the most important thing in the world (besides making something awesome) is steady cash flow. Even a month with no cash coming in can kill a team *gestures to every story about a studio shut down ever*.
Milestones work pre-release and in private because there is room for both parties to work together, adjusting plans, so that a game actually comes out the other end. Publishers don’t generally use milestones as ransoms, because it’s in their best interest to get a game out at the budget planned for. Your system doesn’t encourage that, you are genuinely asking a studio to hand you the power to shut down their production immediately.
And pay you 15% for the privilege.
EarlyNinja tried to argue that this is a system that provides accountability to the process, but there is no reason to believe that EarlyNinja can provide developers with enough value to justify taking 15 percent of all game sales while also controlling that flow of revenue.
“It is true that EarlyNinja’s team does not have specific background in game development, but we can boast great successes in digital and media marketing (and a very vast knowledge as gamers),” the company’s response states.
The system will only bring value to the player if developers sign on, and no sober developer would place its fate and revenue stream in the hands of a company that lists its “knowledge as gamers” as any kind of substitute for actual game development experience. Without games, the storefront is useless to the players who are being asked to fund its creation.
This is also really tricky legal ground
The idea of one company holding the revenue for another and dispersing it based on both sales and milestones is much more complicated legally than it sounds, and it’s unclear whether EarlyNinja even understands why that would be the case.
“Your milestones are going to have to be maddeningly specific if you want to cut a project off from their cash, or you’re going to have to make the contract favor you so much as to be genuinely predatory,” Bithell writes. “Assuming good faith and a genuine desire to treat devs well, you’re going to have to put together some massive contracts, and each dev is going to have to get quite a bit of legal aid to parse and commit to what you’re asking for.”
“All of our documentation is perfectly fine from the legal standpoint and we have dev contracts ready to be signed if you are interested,” EarlyNinja’s response states.
That doesn’t really answer the question, so I reached out to EarlyNinja to see if a lawyer has looked over the contracts.
“Hello Ben, the reply referred to our documentation in relation to developer onboarding and regulations for milestones (developer contract),” the company told Polygon (italics original). “These are regular contracts that would be signed when a developer chooses to be part of the platform. What other contract would there be?”
I repeated my question about whether a lawyer has looked over the documentation.
“Our lawyers edited the contracts, that are ready to be shared with the developers willing to join our platform (those are the [terms and conditions] which you would regularly find when you join a new platform),” was the reply.
There is nothing about these terms that would be regularly found in other platforms, however.
So why pick on this company?
EarlyNinja is being discussed in a number of places, and even negative buzz could get people looking into the company and thinking that these ideas have merit. Holding revenue for a developer as a way to get them to work harder or in a more responsible manner isn’t the quick fix that EarlyNinja seems to think it is — although it may seem as though it could help, if you’ve never actually made a game before.
EarlyNinja is describing a service that is part publisher, part consultancy and part storefront. This is enough to tie anyone in knots.
“Steam is not a competitor. Perhaps this wasn’t clear in the [Kickstarter] campaign page,” EarlyNinja’s response to Bithell states.
“The challenges that EarlyNinja might face during and after the funding campaign mainly deal with the presence of big, strong and mature competitors like Steam and GOG and EarlyNinja does not want to fight giants like them,” the campaign page says. The latter is more believable.
Early access is tricky, but the system is likely as stable as it’s going to get. Buying a game before it’s finished is always going to be risky, and the internet is ruthlessly efficient at spreading information about which games to play and which to avoid.
EarlyNinja’s system is a bad solution to a small problem that rises to the challenge of being a terrible idea for both developers and players.