Re-thinking early access

September 10, 2016 | Filed under: business

When steam started doing early-access, I was not a big fan. I disliked the whole idea. To be honest, it sounded like everything I hate about kickstarter, in the ‘selling future promises’ style. There is a common phrase among older, grizzled game devs, that goes something like this:

“I’ve finished the first 90% of the game. Only the last 90% to go”.

In other words, getting something that looks ‘ok’ and plays ‘ok’ and runs ‘ok’ is fairly easy. Finishing something that is reliable, bug-free, polished, and high-performance is MUCH harder. There are a LOT of unfinished games out there. To make my concerns even stronger, it came around the same time as unity became widespread and everyone and their dog was releasing their first unity game. Behold, a huge swathe of ‘early access’ games that are basically a stock terrain engine, some stock 3D Models, some stock sound effects and a lack of anything new but its ok…amazing new features have been promised and will show up one day! In the meantime, we want your money…

I dislike anything that promotes making promises you can’t keep, or that makes game development look dishonest. We are already plagued by gamers talking about ‘greedy devs’ despite the fact that 75% of us are struggling or in debt:

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The last thing we need is more excuses to tarnish game development as a field full of broken promises.

But…

Over time I have re-evaluated things. A case that stands out to me is prison architect. I think they handled early access superbly. In the early days I thought ‘how the fuck can they get away with charging so much for an unfinished game?’ and yet they did, and they developed a core fan base. And as the weeks and months and eventually years, decades and aeons went on, I’d regularly bump into the introversion crew, tease them gently about the game *still* being in early access. Every time we met I was selling a different game, they were continuing to promote and sell the every expanding, ever growing Prison Architect. Eventually it made its way to release, and has proven to be a well known commercial hit.

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High sales figures and vast piles of cash are great, but hardly the main motivation for most devs. What encouraged me more about the PA story is the way their relationship with the buyers seemed so close, and so good. I was slightly nudging in this direction when I took pre-orders and offered beta play for a few of my games, but nothing like on the same scale. I’d offer beta copies in the last month (or two) before release. That was nothing like early access. As a result, I’ve shipped games that had bugs, and far far worse, poor design decisions.

The truth of the matter is this. I am not a particularly good low-level game designer. By low-level I mean the stuff about how each mechanic is implemented, what level design looks like, what the cost of each unit is, or how many options of X and Y the player has. I’m probably about average at it. Nothing remarkable, nothing clever. I’m good (it has taken me about twenty years to realize) at two things:

  1. Coding really complicated bespoke engines and simulations from scratch and
  2. Top level ‘big picture’ ideas for how a game will work, and feel.

Given this slow realization, I reckon early access might be awesome for me. I know what my next game will be called, what its about, and generally what the art style will be. Its ‘sort of playable’ right now. I think its shaping up really well. But should there be X options or Y options? should feature A be prominent or optional? Does it need procedural maps? does it need difficulty options? does it need a minimap or a ‘schematic’ view? how much should tech-trees be part of the game? how much focus should there be on the money side?

I’m not sure yet.

And this is why I intend to do something ‘like’ early access. More like introversions model than the normal steam system. I’d like to keep things small and community-like before appearing on steam, at least until a lot of the early stuff is worked out. I may even start my whole early access thing with some *shudder* coder art in there (as placeholder). There probably wont be music, and placeholder SFX. When a game goes into Early Access on steam, too many journalists and gamers treat it as ‘released’ and start to form judgements about the final game. I’d like to spend a lot of time with me coding and implementing stuff whilst having an honest open dialog (probably through this blog) with the kind of gamers who would be interested in the game, to work out how it should develop. I quite enjoy video blogs now and would enjoy doing regular video progress reports on the game as it develops.

Part of me is even thinking about making the game a negligible cost during EA. There is nothera part of me considering making it free, and supported by DLC. Everything is up for re-evaluation. Whatever happens, it should prove interesting.

 

4 Responses to “Re-thinking early access”

  1. Bram Stolk says:

    For my next game, I will go early access.
    Either via itch.io or via steam, or maybe even both?

    Look at what this INDIEvidual of 16yo managed to do:
    24M downloads, without having released yet!
    Kudos!
    http://www.pcgamer.com/unturned-how-a-survival-game-made-by-a-16-year-old-racked-up-24-million-downloads/

  2. Martin says:

    I generally favor the “higher price during EA than after release” model, simply for the fact that it weeds out anyone who’s not genuinely interested in the game. If you want valuable feedback during the first few months you a.) want high quality feedback from people that actually care about and understand your idea and b.) not too many people playing the game yet because you don’t want to be wasting your time on support for the people not in the group described in a.).

  3. Charles Thompson says:

    As always, I’ll be following your blog and waiting until you slip up and invite people to your next game via EA. I’m normally not a fan of EA for the exact reason you weren’t but you’re one of a handful of developers I’d trust with my money before a game was finished.

  4. Steve says:

    I feel that a big part of Prison Architects success was that the first alpha they released was fun, playable and felt complete (even if it wasn’t), and frankly if that had been it, if that version was the full game, I think I would still have have been happy with my purchase!

    Although as a dev I’m used to looking past flaws and working around incomplete features, so perhaps I was a little too forgiving of that early version…

    But I still played it for a good 10 hours or so before really running into the limits of the early code; it helped that it was hard as nails with the fixed intake, meaning it was quite likely that your first few prisons were going to fail quickly forcing you into perfecting your early game and hiding the fact the late game was where that early code was most lacking.