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A reflection on Early Access

Early Access has been around for a while now, and we’ve seen a number of success stories pass the review, with games such as Prison Architect, Audiosurf 2 and the somewhat bigger Godus kicking up quite a lot of dust. Reviewers flock to review games that haven’t been finished yet, gamers throw their money at unfinished products, and in the meantime the games’ developers have a revenue stream to keep developing until they can finish the game, without ending up in financial trouble on the way, or at least minimizing the risk of doing so.

This, essentially, solves the big problem that makes game development as risky as it is: making a game eliminates an income until the product is finished, which takes an average of two years, depending on the size and experience of the development team. For AAA games, this has resulted in a model for games design that is based on reiteration of a product that is highly likely to sell – this is, to them, the only guaranteed way to make back their investment. But what about games with smaller budgets? Shorter development cycles? Smaller teams and a smaller scope? This is where Early Access comes in.

“Early Access, essentially, is meant to solve the big problem that makes game development as risky as it is”

First, let’s have a look at what Early Access actually is: it’s a way for developers to put their game on Steam before it’s actually finished, and start making money before they’ve actually delivered the final product. In essence, it provides smaller developers that don’t have the budget to develop for two years with no form of income and no guarantee they’ll make their money back when they deliver, with an opportunity to not only lower the risk they’re taking in continuing development, but also to ask for feedback from the massive community of no less than 60 million users that is Steam.

AAA studios as well seem to have gotten the message in this, and have started to adopt much the same marketing techniques: games like The Mighty Quest For Epic Loot and many others provide players with the opportunity to buy into those games’ betas, which, while showing the game in its unfinished state, provides the developer with the rare opportunity to change specific features about the game by asking for feedback from the community before it’s actually released.

But there are arguments to be had against this practice: in recent months, developers have started to put their games on Early Access in ever increasing grades of “not finished”. This means that those games are being exposed to the public not only before they’re done, but before all of their features have been implemented. If this sounds technical, a perfect analogy would be to release a new Assassin’s Creed game, before any gameplay involving climbing buildings and otherwise traversing the world in that typical Assassin way was implemented.

Think of this, but without, well, this.
Think of this, but without, well, this.
credit: Ubisoft – game: Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag

It would not only be boring, frustrating and unnecessarily punishing, it would also harm the franchise as a whole, since that all-important first impression of the game would be supremely underwhelming compared to what it would have been had it been finished. This first impression is the whole reason why we see developers spend exponentially larger amounts of time on introduction areas to their game than they do on the rest of it (case in point: The Elder Scrolls V: Skryim – E3 first gameplay reveal). In most cases this is perfectly justified: resources are limited, and while there should be a consistency of detail throughout the game, the first impression should never be underestimated. Hence, decisions are often made to work extra hard on that first half-hour of the game.

This then results in a piece of the product that can be shown off for demos, conventions, presentations and other promotional purposes such as trailers and a pre-release “beta” period. This period then serves the purpose of allowing word to spread of the game’s quality, and for developers to both test their servers and gather precious feedback from early players in order to fix whatever game-breaking bugs might still be present.

a good example of an Early Access game that is using valuable feedback from players to improve.
a good example of an Early Access game that is using valuable feedback from players to improve.
credit: 22Cans – game: Godus

Early Access here is an extension of that approach: in essence, players are already paying for a product that hasn’t yet been released on the market, providing developers with the valuable opportunity to perform a “field test” before releasing the finished game. If servers crash during a beta, for example, people are a lot more forgiving, since the product they bought was clearly marketed as being in “test phase”. This creates a certain anticipation, if not an expectation for things to eventually go wrong – if they do, players generally don’t mind. If they don’t, that’s fine too: this communicates competence from the developer’s side. Either way, the developer wins in this scenario, making it an attractive marketing strategy for almost anyone.

Here we have the main thing that makes Early Access both wonderful and dangerous: while providing a valuable opportunity for developers to start generating revenue, gather feedback and stress test their product before releasing it as a finished product, it is vital for both developers and consumers that these products are properly marketed as actually being unfinished. One sign of this possibly being abused, or abused in the future perhaps, is the recent appearance of Early Access games in sales listings. This communicates to the customer (who is putting down money) that the product they’re buying is in a certain state of finish, which may or may not be the case. This goes without saying of course, that it’s in the best interest of developers to properly judge whether their game is ready to be shown to the world or not.

In conclusion, I would simply like to state that Early Access is a wonderful tool: it solves the problem of not having a revenue stream while developing a game, and limits the risk of releasing a bad product by gathering feedback practically in real time, changing features according to player feedback as they’re being implemented. But while this is all great, it is also a tool that should be properly managed, monitored and otherwise kept under a constant check to make sure that consumers are not being exposed to a wave of games that stay in extremely lengthy Alpha or Beta stages. Already, some examples can be seen of this, but so far cases of this happening have remained fairly limited.

Final words? Whether Early Access will prove itself to be the ultimate tool for indie developers to have easier access to the market or not, it remains to be seen whether it might not also be damaging to said developers, for the above-mentioned reasons.

  • Early Access is definitely a great thing for indie devs, though as you said it does need to be managed carefully. I’m considering Early Access for the game I’m working on right now, so I hope we can figure out how to manage it.