Metanalysis: Early Access

“Buy Before You Try”

Think back to a time when you had the perfect business idea, one that was so seemingly flawless that it boggled the mind that no one had thought of it before. Have it in mind? Good. Were you successful? Yeah, me neither.

I’ve had my share of too-good-to-fail ideas (i.e. a haptic feedback vest for FPS games that make the bullets feel real so you know EXACTLY where the bullets are coming from, an idea I swear I came up with first during middle school). These ideas often never come to fruition, and the barrier that you and the countless others who have had the same, similar, or totally unique ideas winds up being because the idea is not possible, probable, or feasible. The time and resources required to bring your dream idea to life reveal themselves to be unreasonable and the idea gets buried shortly after the conception. Video game development especially must contend with these limitations.

Video games provide a fertile ground in which to sow clever ideas., and they allow people to experience media in a unique way. However, if your life does not already revolve around making games for a living, how do you go about bringing your dream game to life? That’s where early access steps in.

 

The Framework

Early access games are pitched as a panacea, a fix-all solution meant to bypass the inherent difficulties of becoming a game developer or make a “good” game. Some , like Minecraft, blur the line between what it means to be early access. Other difficult to label examples include episodic games, as they technically are sold in pieces, with the full release being billed as the complete season, such as the Telltale games or Life is Strange.

In this piece, I will define early access as such: a game intentionally released in a state of near completion, to be defined by the developer, who justifies this feature complete state as what they would ideally like the full experience to be. In other words, if I release a game that appears to be finished but want it to have more feature/levels/etc…, I can call it early access. Another way of looking at it is to say that an early access game is one that normally a player would criticize as being not lengthy enough, with not enough to do to get me to finish the game or that I would not normally pay whatever the price point is for that amount of content.

Minecraft, for example, was originally released as an early alpha build, with few differences between blocks, few mob types, and stability issues. When version 1.0 was eventually released, it was considered to be a complete experience, with an ending and ready for a full review.

Altogether, early access is an arbitrary state, completely dependant on what the developer feels a complete game is, and what the player base feels is a fair price for what they get upon purchase.

If you were looking to release an early access title, the basic idea behind it involves these steps:

  1. Coming up with a hook for a game.
  2. Develop it to the point where it is playable and the hook is showcased.
  3. Market the game and sell people on the idea of the hook.
  4. Release the game online so people can purchase access to the unfinished game.
  5. Promise to update the game and use the funds to finish the project.
  6. Finish the game and release it as a full title.

The first couple of steps are altogether somewhat fluid, and its easy to blur the line between when these step. You could almost get all of them done simultaneously (not taking into account total development time for the playable early access version you end up releasing, as this varies wildly from project to project).

The most difficult and immediate hurdle is, in my opinion, step 1 (can’t make a million dollars without the million dollar idea). Depending on how appealing your hook is, you can either let your idea sell itself once you’ve released it onto your favorite social media platform or you can aggressively market it using text, video, or perhaps a playable demo. The more successful you are at spreading the word from the beginning, the better your chances of mass adoption. Once you’ve gotten people hyped for your game, the fans can almost take over from there, allowing the developer to focus on the game and trickling out updates to feed your (hopefully) now ravenous player base. The more successful you were in getting people into the idea, the more likely it is that you’ll get free marketing from people playing it on Twitch or YouTube. The developer can also opt to to give away free copies for review in the hopes of getting praised by popular news sites or prolific and established personalities.

Launching the game can be done on a number of platforms, with the most prolific being Steam. At this time, Steam no longer offers the Greenlight program, where players can vote on what games they want to see on the marketplace. Now, you pay a larger fee up front, and are allowed to release your game after a simple process laid out by Valve (the basics are that Valve makes sure the game plays and that you have set up your store page properly).

However, after launch, the game enters a limbo state where the burden of finishing the game and marketing it the full release becomes the developers sole responsibility for the remainder of the game’s lifespan. The developer usually sets a date or can give a schedule (some less specific and exact than others) before continuing to finish the game, both fleshing it out and fixing bugs/crashes.

One of the appeals of early access to existing or potential developers comes from high costs that are associated with game development. Short of working on a project in your free time, game development, especially from smaller or single person teams, is a labor and time intensive project. It is difficult to get a shortcut to pay off, as eagle-eyed players will eventually find shortcomings if you, say, used pre-modeled assets or copied over programming or scripting from an existing game. The age we live in also encourages innovation and creativity (even if it doesn’t reward it appropriately). If you’re attempt is seen as “lazy”, you can rest assured knowing that people will tear into your game, mercilessly, and nitpick it to death. Therefore, by adopting the early access model, you can hopefully subsidize the cost of development in its entirety and spend the greater part of your time getting the game made.

I am very optimistic about the idea of early access. Part of the appeal is the chance to live out childhood dreams that some of us have grown up with. Being a part of early access can give us the opportunity to “beta” test a game or be a part of the development.

These aren’t the only reasons to buy into an early access game, and many gamers will find different reasons to partake. From being able to play games first to simply supporting a particular developer, many reasons exist for waiting to support this process. I personally like seeing a game take shape and flourish over the course of its lifetime.

The general consensus about this symbiotic relationship is such that we imagine that its a win-win. The developer gets to fund or improve a project that they otherwise might never have gotten a chance to, and if successful enough, a developer can then try and turn their passion into a career. Meanwhile, the player can sometimes get access to earlier builds of a game and see the evolution of an idea into a full release. Imagine being on set while they filmed The Lord of the Rings, or Star Wars, or the Avengers. Some fans would kill for a chance to visit a movie set during the filming of their favorite blockbusters.

In other words, early access promises the following:

  • alpha/beta test a game (all you have to do is pay the price of admission)
  • bonus goodies (typically doled out by developers as thank-yous to those who participate so players can wear them as badges of honor)
  • the chance to have your voice heard and mold something you like into something you’ll love
  • get insight into the development process and glean more info than your average gamer
  • game updates delivered in a timely fashion
  • first dibs when feature complete version launches

 

The Execution

Unfortunately, if we look back at how successful early access has been, I can safely say its been fucking awful.

Rust, a title that went on early access in December 2013, has recently become a painful (if humorous) reminder of how badly early access can get. Developer Gary Newman responded to criticism on reddit for how long the game has remained in early access by “recommending players stop playing.” For those who adopted the game early on, the ire towards the developer is rightly justified.

Early access is, above all else, a relationship. If players don’t buy in, good luck recouping losses let alone turning game development into a career. But when we pay money for a game, it’s done with the understanding that a developer will follow through. Over the last few years we’ve seen the rise of the word “entitled” thrown around in reference to how consumers expecting anything is “unfair” or “wrong”. If you take a quick stroll through Twitter, YouTube, Twitch, Tumblr, or really any platform where you can upload content, you will find individuals bitterly fighting it out in message boards, comment sections, and reply chains about whether gamers are entitled or not.

The Dream Daddy development team, for example, had to issue a small delay on release day, and people went crazy. Fans went nuts and began tweeting and replying angrily about how they had been waiting weeks or longer, and how betrayed they were. The developers had promised to release it on a certain day and certain time and how they should be ashamed or punished for keeping people hanging and changing the release time.

Clashes like these have set the stage for a  volatile “us vs them” mentality, where players feel cheated by developers and lash out in order to retaliate. Being ambitious is a good quality to have as a developer, but games like Towns are grim reminders that early access is still not a guarantee of anything, and the only thing you can be certain of is what you get to play at the moment of purchase. A writer at Cracked provided a humorous list of 5 other games/developers that handled their early access period very poorly.

Horror stories like these give credence to gamer’s attitude toward diving in to early access. Why bother buying a game that might never be finished when plenty of other games are sold as full releases, negating the need to take a chance at all. Fortunately, as of this writing, we do have a few shining examples of games and developers that have taken the format and seemingly figured it out. Honorable mentions go out to Dead Cells and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, two games I have personally had a great deal of time with and that have consistently been positively reviewed. Dead Cells is a game that launched feeling like it didn’t need any more content, but the developer plans to double the length of this already meaty indie title. PUBG has set a strict timeline for themselves with regard to a full release, and has thus far proven to be a game that doesn’t need anything else to appeal to players. It has been so universally adopted and critically acclaimed that it has topped numbers in terms or streamers,viewers, and concurrent players.

 

The Verdict

Besides the honorable mentions, where does early access leave us? We determine whether something is good or bad based on how often it was one or the other. If a game had flaws but was generally fun and we kept coming back to it, we forgive the missteps and give the game a favorable opinion or score.

For me, early access has been a disappointment. The number of disappointed experiences have thus far greatly outnumber the the times a game was able to use early access to its advantage. Not only do I have what feels like a graveyard for a Steam library, there is a non-insignificant number of games that I will likely never install again. My entire experience with Ark was frustrating and it doesn’t matter to me how “cool” or “fun” the trailer makes it look (now that they are miraculously out of early access”, I will never install it on my computer (short of me playing every other game I’ve ever owned or a miracle). I have almost never given a game a second chance, and while it is a shame, there are always dozens of new releases around the corner, and I can’t give every game a chance to surprise me during the finale. It is important to remember examples like No Man’s Sky, who altogether was not a bad game, but one that allowed the hype to carry it far beyond the scope and ability of Hello Games, leading to perhaps the most disappointing game of all time.

Games are an escape and are able to provide an element of fun and critical thinking that I struggle to find elsewhere. I get to be a Spartan super soldier, or a Horde-aligned Orc Hunter, or a light-defending Keyblade wielder in games. I can’t commit to a boring experience on the hope that it might get better.

Contradictory to my disappointment, it is easy to be optimistic about the future of early access. It is a powerful tool. but one that requires practice and care to maximize your gain/outputs. If we use early access to nurture the seeds of ingenuity and promise, we as gamers will all benefit. It can take an already good concept and allow it to become the most played game of the year. But to try and use it as a test for whether or not you’re cut out to be a developer is a mistake. We should look towards other avenues to give opportunity to would-be creators, and use early access on serious attempts at game development.

But hey, I like to be proven wrong.

 

-Brian Perez

 

The Brief

PRO:

  • good tool for a product that is 85%+ complete
  • players can be involved in the direction of the project
  • a way to fund ideas that are more “outside of the box”

CON:

  • lack of accountability to meet deadlines (especially if you make most of your revenue early on)
  • player expectations are set at the beginning (so downscaling is met negatively)
  • game may never get finished