For us, Early Access is not something that should be taken lightly. It should be considered a final release in the sense that you’re on a path to finishing the game and you’re going to get it out there.
Studio Wildcard co-founder Jesse Rapczak over at gameindustry.biz
We are in the age of early access for video games, and Steam has been a huge enabler on this front. When going through my queues during the winter sale I saw this plastered on many a page.
Steam has a statement about Early Access (that “Learn more” link), but it is really up to the developer as to when they go for early access and what it means.
The interview with Rapczak linked above represents the world from which I came… more than 25 years ago at this point… where you don’t give half finished items to customers, that you let them in only when you think you’re ready to ship but want feedback before the official launch.
And this seems to have worked out pretty well so far for Studio Wildcard’s game Ark: Survival Evolved. They wanted/needed feedback as opposed to funding to finish the project and, judging from what I have heard about the game, things have worked out very well for them.
Of course, not every developer has the luxury of delaying funding until the game is nearly ready to go. There are some indie projects out there that need the dollars to just keep going.
But there are established companies out there that ought to be able to get further along without the cash infusion. Derek Smart said he was charging $99 to be in the Line of Defense early access program because he didn’t want any freeloaders using his resources. A $99 barrier to beta so that only the truly motivated would join in.
Then there is Daybreak (née SOE) and its two Early Access children, Landmark and H1Z1.
Landmark is two years in with no release in sight, while H1Z1 will be a year in Early Access next week. Certainly Landmark seems to be the poster child for how to build some excitement quickly and then let it dissipate slowly as development grinds on for years. I am actually much happier about the state of EverQuest Next. Yeah, we’ve been talking about it for more than five years now, but at least nobody has paid for it only to lose interest in a less than half done product.
Meanwhile, I don’t think it is unreasonable to be concerned about the future Landmark. What happens if too many Early Access customers lose interest before it launches? Do you ship a product that can’t keep enough of your truly dedicated fans?
And then there is H1Z1, which at least seems to have some excitement around it now and again… there is at least enough activity to keep its subreddit aboil. Then again, according to the official statement on Steam, it was supposed to go “live” last year. Of course, Daybreak apparently told their lords and masters at Columbus Nova Prime that they had shipped the product already… like 11 months ago. There were probably some revenue recognition issues which lead to that, but at least somebody there thinks the game is live already despite the soon to be year old Early Access banner on its Steam page.
We live in interesting times when it comes to game development funding, with crowd funding and Early Access, and variations on the theme all looking to get money up front for project to be delivered down the road… often much further down the road that originally estimated.
Sometimes it works… and even works well. As noted, Ark: Survival Evolved seems to be doing well, and of course Minecraft started out that way and is now so ubiquitous that I see references to it or related products everywhere I go. (Your favorite game may be popular, but it likely isn’t on the shelves at Target, doesn’t have a series of LEGO kits devoted to it, or its own market segment devoted to hosting servers. Minecraft has quietly taken over my daughter’s generation.)
But sometimes Early Access just seems like a good way to make a quick buck as your product peaks too soon. Community involvement and growth is one thing, but too long in that pre-launch state can take the bang out of the eventual go-live. And if you’re charging money, you reap the press response you sow with your state of readiness, which may set the tone for your product.