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Early Access Considerations for the Digital Market

Continuing from our previous post on Early Access, today we're focusing on the specific considerations designers need to understand when using Early Access for their titles.

In a previous post, we examined the differences between kickstarter and early access when it comes to funding and developing a video game.

PrisonArchitect (3)

For today's post we're going to continue this examination looking at how developing a game on the early access model is different from traditional development.

Going onto Early Access:

In our previous post, we talked about how consumers on Early Access are not looking at games on there in the same way as games being pitched on dedicated crowd-funding sites like Kickstarter. Because Steam is a storefront, people view any title on it as a product and have expectations that go with it.

When they're buying an early access title, those expectations are higher as they are more critical of a game that is being sold unfinished as opposed to something that is done. With that said, there are several factors that you need to be aware of and become accustomed to when using the Early Access model.

Keeping Busy:

With traditional game development, designers have a habit of going dark for months at a time while working hard on their title. This is considered normal as they are busy working on their game and don't want to keep making updates.

However when you are trying to keep funding going by your consumers and have pitched your title as a work in development, you cannot go dark while developing your game. Consumers expect progress and if they don't see it, they may assume your game is dead and if word spreads you can say goodbye to anymore sales.

This is why one of the biggest shifts when on the early access platform compared to traditional development is being able to produce improvements on a set schedule. Ideally you should be putting out new builds of your game at least once a month. And when we say the word "builds" that means completed, tested, ready to go versions of your game that will be the new official version for anyone who is playing it.

2013-04-25_00002
Klei Entertainment's Don't Starve finished out its development in an early access state and released numerous builds during it.

There are exceptions to this rule and we've seen developers release builds on a shorten schedule in the early stages when the game doesn't have much in terms of content. If your game is considered "feature complete" and the next build will take it out of Early Access into release, you can postpone the once a month builds at that point.

The reason is that the version that people are playing is the game considered done from a mechanic point of view. In most cases going from this version to 1.0 won't show a huge difference in terms of content and quality, but there are of course exceptions depending on the developer's work.

Producing monthly builds is important as it shows your fans two things -- You are improving the game and that work is being done on it. And part of your work each month should go towards our next point -- informing your customers.

Communication:

Part of being able to produce updates for your game is also providing information as to what is going on with your title.  Constant communication is vital as again, if people think your game has been abandoned it will cause a massive backlash from your consumers.

As with builds, you should be communicating monthly as to what is going on at the studio, what you've worked on, what's going to be in the next build and what you are planning to do for next time. These are basic questions that your customers have the right to know if they are providing you funding thanks to early access.

And while this point should be obvious, it needs to be mentioned -- You need to make use of the Steam forums if you're on Early Access. It doesn't matter if you have forums and a website of your own that you update, people who buy your game on Steam are going to look at your forum page to find the latest information. It's a bad sign if people have to search to find out any of the basic questions in the paragraph above.

SpacebaseDF-9 (2)
A lack of communication from Double Fine's part was one of the big killers of Spacebase's development.

In the previous post, we talked about how Double fine messed up on these fronts -- they delayed builds for multiple months without communicating their progress to their customer base while expecting to work on the game based on funding from their sales. And what happened was that sales took a nosedive because of their issues.

Before we end the post, there is the perfect counter example of Double fine's situation from an Indie developer who has done things almost perfectly right.

Introversion Software:

Introversion Software has been working on the game Prison Architect for over two years. The game originally started as being crowd-funded directly through their site which is still an option and then moved to Early Access.

Introversion has committed to a once a month schedule for new builds and has kept to that with exception to one month due to personal reasons. And to make sure that their customers know what's going on, they release 30 minute videos monthly detailing the new build, what's in it and a brief idea of what they're going to be working on for next time.

2014-08-04_00002
Prison Architect's constant updates and communication has made it one of the most successful early access titles.

The only thing that Introversion could work better on is making use of the Steam forums. They do most of their actual discussions on Prison Architect from their own forum that is locked to only people who bought the game. Regardless, they have definitely succeeded in making a profit with the last tally reported in 2013 was that the game has raised over nine million dollars and has earned enough for them to continue working on the game.

Not so Open Ended:

While Prison Architect is an example of crowd-funding done right, it has proven to be the exception to the norm. For our next piece, we're going to revisit Double Fine's concept of open ended production and why you should always plan ahead.

(Reprinted from the Xsolla Blog)

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