Hello, I’m Pablo Videla, game designer at studio This I Dreamt, a small indie studio from Santiago, Chile, and I wanted to share a bit about our experience using Early Access on our recently launched title Long Gone Days.
This I Dreamt is a three-person team, which consists of artist Camila Gormaz, Camilo Valderrama, our programmer, and myself. So, as you can imagine, finishing a game like Long Gone Days, which is a story-driven, turn based JRPG, was a really big task, and doing something like releasing our game on Steam Early Access was a very important step for us in order to successfully launch it not only on PC, but also on all major platforms.
So, why Early Access?
Well, the short answer to that question is that we needed funding. The long answer is that our development cycle extended as we decided the game needed to be longer to tell the story we wanted to properly.
Long Gone Days began as a short demo made in RPG Maker by Camila, our artist and founder, to be used as a portfolio piece that she hoped could land her a job in the game industry. The main idea for the characters and story were in her head since she was 12, so it was a natural choice for a small project being made while in between jobs. What was unexpected though, was that the demo caught the attention of both players and press, creating the possibility of turning it into a full fledged game. Camila embraced that possibility and channeled that early enthusiasm into a successful crowdfunding campaign on IndieGogo, which in turn enabled her to expand the team to 3 people.
But, as expectations about the game grew, the project also grew in scope, and the funds raised finally ran out.
At that time we were at a crossroads. We needed to look for a way to fund the rest of development, but launching a second crowdfunding campaign would have been a PR disaster. Back then, we had already finished developing the first arc of the game, so we considered either selling it by chapters, like Life is Strange, or launching it on Early Access.
In the end we decided that Early Access was the way to go because we didn’t want to charge players several times, and that meant that we could iterate on the already released content to make it even better. Fortunately, our launch on Early Access was successful, so that strategy worked for us.
What does it mean to be on Early Access?
If you’re planning on releasing your game into Early Access there are some things that you need to take into consideration, which we learned first-hand through our time working on Long Gone Days.
The stigma of Early Access
Even though there have been a lot of successful projects that first launched on Early Access, like Hades, Darkest Dungeon or Slay The Spire, there are also many projects that were never fully released, leaving players frustrated and skeptical about games released with this model. For that same reason, press may decline to cover your game, so it’s up to you to build the faith of your playerbase and show that your project is worth the wait. We believe the best way to do it is with constant communication.
Communicating with your audience
Aside from working on the game itself, keeping up communication with our playerbase was one of our major efforts. What we did (or tried to do) to was:
- Use every tool you can to communicate with your players
For Long Gone Days we created an official Twitter, Instagram, and a Tumblr account, a Discord server, a devblog, a mailing list, updates on our crowdfunding page and constantly used the announcement feature and discussion forums on Steam. Just like when you’re working on building an audience for the first time, you need to keep your user base engaged throughout your time in Early Access.
- Show development progress
Many players who invest in Early Access games do so because they want to see a title come together from the ground up. So, as the developer, you should reward this by telling everyone what you’re working on. Are you adding a new character? A new feature? Take screenshots, make GIFs and share them. Progress creates hype, and hyped players are happy players.
- Keep an active community
Don’t just use communication tools to advertise to players. Instead, use Early Access as an opportunity to build a passionate audience through direct conversations. Engage with your players, answer their questions, and make your Discord server a place not only made to discuss your game, but also a nice place to hang out. One of the most rewarding things during our process creating Long Gone Days was interacting with our players, and they will also be grateful that you’re taking the time to participate in the community with them.
- Find the time to do it, even if you don’t have any
Being a small team, with everyone doing more than one job, it’s pretty hard to find the time to create content for your audience on social media, but not doing so can be very detrimental to having a successful Early Access period. Radio silence can kill your game’s momentum. Players may think your game is simply dead, or that you’ve just taken their money for an incomplete game. On the flipside, fostering your community and energizing fans can actually be energizing as a developer, too. So, in the end, it can be better to take a break from dev work and put on your community manager hat for a few hours every day. It’s a hard thing to do, and it requires a lot of energy, but it’s vital for you or your team to find a way to do it consistently.
Story driven games on Early Access
One of the first things we found out during this process is that Early Access can be challenging for story-driven games, because, as expected, players who love narratives will want to wait until the main story is complete before starting to play, so it's important to take this into account when planning your launch and subsequent content updates. Releasing the story using a chapter structure, or adding content that adds replayability while waiting for a major story update to drop can be useful strategies to use, but for them to be effective you will also need a consistent release window so players don’t lose interest in your game.
When we first launched Long Gone Days, it was near the beginning of our development. This meant that a large part of the story still needed a lot of work. We had plans for releasing content in chapters, but because of the lack of a proper structure in our release strategy, and also because of shifting dynamics behind the scenes (from major life events to a global pandemic) it meant that we had long gaps between releases, which in turn made it harder for us to keep our fanbase fully engaged with our game.
Player feedback and issue fixes
As a small team, getting live player feedback can make a huge difference for the final quality of the game, and this is a major benefit of Early Access. Player feedback helped us a lot (and I do mean A LOT) in fixing different kinds of bugs and issues that we missed because of our limited capabilities for testing the game. Early Access meant that we could get feedback from players, learn about their accessibility needs, and even consider how to tackle certain issues in ways we had never envisioned. Thanks to their huge help, our QA process was pretty straightforward, and by our full release, there were almost no major issues that needed fixing.
During Early Access, we were also able to identify the players’ favorite characters and the kind of side quests they enjoyed the most, so as a thank you gift, we made sure to give those characters more screen time.
So, should you try Early Access for your project?
Whether Early Access is a good fit or not depends on many factors unique to your game and team. It can be a great opportunity to let people know about your game and get an active community of fans. It can also become an amazing way of getting valuable feedback that can help your project get to the next level. But at the same time it requires a lot of hard work, as you not only have to try and finish your game, but you will also need to find different ways to grab and hold the attention of players who, ideally, will also become fans and champions for your title.
Personally, I believe that Early Access really helped us finish Long Gone Days. Game development, especially for indies, can be taxing. But when things didn’t seem to go our way, one of my main motivators was to think about our players who had already fallen in love with our characters and the setting! We think that’s something that will motivate our fellow devs as well, and hopefully this article will help you make the decision whether to try it or not.