Quote of the Day – What Should Early Access Be?

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.

Warning: Not a finished product

Warning: Not a finished product

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.

15 thoughts on “Quote of the Day – What Should Early Access Be?

  1. Tony

    I think Early Access (on Steam) needs stages PreAlpha, Alpha, Beta, RC… Some games I would like to get in at a PreAlpha level; I am excited about them and I want to get my feedback in from day-1. Others I wouldn’t want to jump on until RC.

    The thing I don’t like about the Early Access program is that games start out on there at the retail rate and 1/2 way through they usually have a sale that is 50% off. And the release price is usually lower than it was when it entered the program. I know that’s all up to the individual developer. But it seems that those that are willing to put their time, effort and money into an unfinished Early Access project should get a better deal that those that jump in only after it is completed.

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  2. bhagpuss

    As a consumer I find Early Access very appealing. I loved Landmark when it started its Early Access run as little more than a tech demo. I played the heck out of it for about six weeks and as i have said many times my reasons for stopping have more to do with a fear it would consume my leisure time entirely than with any dissatisfaction.

    That remains true even today, although I’d need a better PC to enjoy it fully. I could play with Landmark for hour after hour. I say “play with” advisedly. Landmark is not a “game”, let alone an MMORPG. It’s a toy. Specifically it’s a construction set and a very good one. It doesn’t need to be any better than it is to do what it does and if it was marketed differently (and optimized to run better on older machines) it could, i think, be very popular.

    Early Access is like beta used to be. You know how people always claim MMOs are better in beta? Well, they are, or at least they almost invariably have been in my experience. Very, very few games I have betaed have ended up being more enjoyable after launch than they were at some sweet spot in beta.

    Early Access stretches the possibilities, both ways. It gives you easy (if not free) access to what used to be a restricted experience and extends it indefinitely. If you don’t like the way the game plays now just wait a while – it’s going to change, probably a lot. As for whether most of these games will ever launch, as a customer I kind of hope they don’t. They have more potential while they remain “in development”.

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  3. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Tony – Having gone through all those Steam queues, I found a pretty wide range of what qualified for Early Access. Some better labeling would be nice. And I have run into the sale problem myself. I recall one game selling the same package I got for my Kickstarter bid at a much reduced price. Annoying people with that is a hazard of these methods I suppose.

    @Bhagpuss – Two things on the “beta better than live” front.

    First, I cannot recall very many people saying that about anything but the very last bit of beta where things have matured and settled down and mostly work and (this last is my main impression) the population was full of people invested and genuinely enthusiastic for the game rather than just new players showing up and wondering what is really going on.

    Second, while I have had the “beta better than live” experience, I have to say that for me, live was diminished largely because much of the mystery and many of the new experiences were taken by beta. One of my big un-regrets was not taking advantage of Aradune recruiting people from TorilMUD for the EQ beta. My first days in the game would have been irrecoverably tarnished by any foreknowledge I might have gained.

    On Landmark, I can hardly criticize a building sandbox game given all the time I have spent with Minecraft in the last six months. But I go into online games (and MMOs specifically) with an eye towards persistence of things. They have to get to some sort of stable state before I will commit. I am okay with Dave Georgeson’s past statement (if that can still be considered valid) about Landmark being forever in some state of development. That comes with the MMO territory. You could say the same about EQ over the years. But they have to get to a state of not wiping or breaking my stuff before I want to be a customer. Their Early Access statements allow for no guarantees on that front.

    As for never leaving Early Access… I am not sure that is a viable business plan. We’ll see I suppose. As with H1Z1, I am sure Columbus Nova Prime considers Landmark a shipped product.

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  4. Fenjay

    It seems to me like the long run for this model will be yet another differentiator between game companies. Any developer making ongoing changes to their product has to walk the line between what features are good and which are bad, and public feedback can’t do that for you, only give a hint. Sometimes the right answer is to go against the public desires, and sometimes you have two fanatical factions on opposite sides of an issue and you can expect to annoy 50% no matter what you do.

    For a pre-release product, add to that the confusion of which bugs are important and which aren’t, which unintended features should be kept and which should be fixed, what direction the game should take, when to freeze the design and ship, and myriad other issues usually decided by a small team or one person. I think it’ll take a special company to sort through that morass successfully, let alone more than once.

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  5. bhagpuss

    I’m not really sure I even agree with myself on this, to be honest. I can name specific MMOs I beta tested where I enjoyed the game more at a specific point before launch than I ever did after – Rift and City of Steam are top of the list. EQ2 was also a lot better in late beta (not *very* late beta, though, when they ruined all the good bits) than it was at launch. On the other hand there are others that I liked more and more after they launched – Vanguard, for example, was at its best between the two big difficulty passes (i.e. the time it was easiest).

    My view is very much affected by the fact that I really prefer very simple mechanics, especially for combat and gear, and the longer an MMO is in development, including post-launch, the more complicated the systems tend to become. Also by the fact that I really like chaos and things going wrong so I find an environment that’s prone to bugs and glitches highly entertaining. Up to a point of course…

    These days, though, I completely agree with you about both permanence and not spoiling the finished experience. A lot of my affection for betas is historic. I tend to avoid them now for MMOs I plan on buying at launch, although curiosity does still often override self-preservation there.

    That really makes Early Access a better option, though, since by and large there is some degree of permanence included and you can consider that you are playing the game not just testing it. I would definitely be very wary of Early Access that also included frequent and sweeping wipes.

    In the end I think it has to be a case-by-case decision. Do you want to accept the potential downsides later to sate your curiosity and have fun now? If you play Early Access for six months or more and enjoy it, does it really matter if you’re burned out on that game by launch? Maybe that’s as long as you’d have ever lasted anyway…

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  6. Mabrick

    Nice write up. :) Over the last few years I’ve been involved in two early-access (Star Citizen and Landmark) and one open beta (World of Warships) game.

    Landmark was fairly playable out the gate, though there was still work to do. Major bugs, if they occurred, were quickly dealt with by the devs in my experience. As outlined above, I lost many, many hours voxelizing.

    Star Citizen isn’t playable. The seamless experience they are building is incredible, but it is not a game yet. It won’t be a game for at least year, and I’m betting on at least two. When it is a game, it will possibly revolutionize the MMO experience with MMO, FPS and social finally integrated into one seamless client. Or not. Only time will tell.

    World of Warships was already mostly complete when they went into open beta. And it is a F2P game regardless. Come to think about it, I’m in one other open beta right now: Armored Warfare.

    One thing I’ve stopped doing is pre-order on a promise. Even though early access isn’t perfect, and sometimes doesn’t really have a playable game, it’s far preferable to shelling out $60 on a game that turns out to be nothing but marketing hype.

    I’ll continue to embrace early-entry so long as the end result is a better game that does not disappoint. If developers start to use it as a “take the money and run” scheme as pre-order seems to have become, developers will quickly see the masses turn against them – I hope.

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  7. halycon

    I’ve been burnt enough times now that in general I’m completely anti early access. I’ve had a couple where not long after giving them money the company closed up shop. There are some games out there which I think use it correctly, to solicit feedback. But those are few and far between. Often when I look at the state of games in Early Access I just think it’s a cashgrab. They’re nowhere near far enough along to be showing it to anyone, and from my cynical perspective it’s the developer trying to get money now before rolling up the project. The worst about this are episodic games. For every Telltale which actually ships a finished product, there seems to be 20 who don’t.

    I don’t think all the developers doing that are evil people. There’ve been more than enough stories where small indie developers toss something into Early Access to try to alleviate tension inside the development team. The money doesn’t make the problems go away and they fracture before the game’s completed. They put it on Early Access with the best of intentions, it just didn’t work out. And I’d personally at this point just rather them not.

    I’m on the old end of the gamer spectrum now and I just do not have the time or patience to invest in something which will never be. If they have something that’s playable on it’s own merits and just needs a little bit of polish. Sure, go for it. None of them will be getting a penny from me though.

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  8. SynCaine

    I like the system overall, since whether you give money to a EA game isn’t much different than whether you pay for a released game. If you don’t do your homework you are going in blind, and if you do some research, you should have a pretty good idea what you are buying. In the case of an EA game, you are buying what it is today, not what it might be. If what it is today is something that interests, buy, otherwise wait.

    On the game dev side, I think EA has allowed more than a few titles to succeed that without it would have never even been made, or wouldn’t have shaped up the way they did. ARK is likely the poster child for this, but it’s not alone.

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  9. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Bhagpuss – “I’m not really sure I even agree with myself on this, to be honest.”

    I know the feeling.

    @Gevlon – That is where I came from in the early 90s. However, not to align myself too closely with Derek Smart, he is right in that “free” attracts free loaders. I remember running betas way back when and being happy if we heard back from 10% of those we sent it out to in any way, shape, or form. Even a simple acknowledgement of receipt counted. Most people clamoring to be in beta just want something for nothing.

    So I can see the point of putting some barrier to entry on beta/early access/whatever. How big should that barrier be and what people should expect for it is the question. Asking for $99 to get in, as with Line of Defense, regardless of what goodies are promised, seems extreme. At that point it feels like you’re also filtering out anybody who might have an objective view, leaving only dedicated fans in the running. (And even then, look at the LoD reviews on Steam. Mostly Negative.)

    @SynCaine – I am not necessarily against Early Access. Some teams out there are clearly doing it right. However, in the life span of Early Access as a “thing” we seem to be into the “everybody is jumping on board” part of the story. Judging from all those queues I went through during the recent Steam sale, Early Access has as many meanings as there are studios using the term. The Steam disclaimer seems almost comically naive.

    At some point Early Access issues are going to piss enough people off that I think Steam is going to have to change the background of their little disclaimer from light blue to red, add little 90s GeoCities web page style rotating police lights to it, and move it far enough up the page that you can’t buy a game without it appearing on the page. Either that, or maybe stop selling Early Access and released games side by side.

    I know, Caveat Emptor should be a thing, but with Early Access meaning whatever a given dev wants it to mean, with no way to inspect the goods before purchase, and with video games often being impulse purchases, something is going to cause a storm eventually.

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  10. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    Also, I am mildly surprised/dismayed that, according to the WordPress.com stats, assuming they are correct, which I admit is a pretty big assumption, only one person has clicked on the link to the story from which I drew that quote at the top of the post. Does everybody just take it for granted that I am not quoting stuff incorrectly or totally out of context? This is the internet after all.

    Also, the treat, if you do click on the link, is the first comment, from another dev, which basically takes the opposite view and declares that Early Access means exactly what each individual dev says it means and should never be judged in any other frame of reference… or something like that. Basically, in my opinion, it was a big “Nuh uh! This random shit will never come back to haunt us!” which I found kind of amusing. (Though the dev in question seems to be doing okay with his own Early Access game on Steam from what I can see. Better than Line of Defense, anyway.)

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  11. Gevlon

    Why would you want to hear from a beta tester? A word of mouth opinion is useless crap. Sometimes you get a factual bug report, but otherwise just rubbish ranging from “awsom” to “utter sh!t”. The interesting info is in the logs: which features they use and which features wall them off.

    Finally, a beta tester is offering you a service (help to finish your product), so why on Earth should he pay you?!

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  12. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Gevlon – Back in the day the operating theory was that if we gave people something of value… a free copy of our software or, at one company, a piece of hardware with a list price of $500… they would repay that by giving us feedback and finding some of those bugs that only show up in the field on customer systems. Word of mouth had little to do with it, unless we were seeding beta units with some computer columnist or somewhat, and that was usually a post-release activity.

    On a good beta, if I sent out 200 units, we’d get useful feedback from 5 people, insanely detailed and very useful feedback from maybe one fellow dev at another company, crap feedback (“I don’t like it” or “it doesn’t work” end of response) from maybe a dozen people, and then a couple of angry demands from senior execs who bullied their way into the beta program because they wanted to be seen to have the latest cool new toy.

    I once had to drive across town in rush hour traffic to “fix” a unit that was installed in the then CEO of Octel’s PowerBook, which involved me actually following the instructions to install the software. Not an especially good use of an engineer’s time… and actually two of us went because I grabbed a guy out of the lab to go with me so I could use the car pool lane to get across town faster. But said CEO was an investor in our company and on our board of directors. Investors feel entitled to get stuff. A senior partner in Kleiner Perkins, another investor, came into our lab one day, handed me his PowerBook 540c, and basically told me to upgrade it by stripping out lab systems. Venture capitalists are always happy to point out that you’re their bitch.

    The now former CEO of Octel is currently on the board of directors at King. I wonder if he has his assistant call up King and have them send over a developer to beat particularly difficulty levels in Candy Crush Saga? Or does he just have them unlock unlimited boosts for his account?

    I have since moved into enterprise software where terms like beta have even less meaning, but that is another story.

    Why charge somebody for beta? I think I covered that above, to weed out the slackers and limit access to people who really, really want to be there. And then when most of even that group turns out to be whiny flakes you at least got some money out of it. The “service” they are offering has almost no value in most cases, so forcing them to provide some value in the form of some cash seems okay to me. I wouldn’t pay it, but somebody will. And anybody who gives good feedback or is especially helpful can be rewarded in some other way.

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  13. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @anon – Landmark with 51 players on a Friday night. This is why I am more worried whether Landmark will go live than EverQuest Next. At least EQN is still a mystery, not something people are tired of already.

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