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To use or not to use: The benefits and challenges of offering early access during game development

Multiple success stories and discouraging instances of development drama have raised both potential benefits and concerns surrounding the use of early access during game development.

          The convergent nature of modern media platforms, as well as an increasingly participatory techno-culture have disrupted traditional approaches to many creative media industries. One such production sphere which has undergone significant change in the last decade is the video game industry. New game development models, such as those offering paid alphas (commonly referred to as early access), are challenging the rigid production approaches typical to traditional game development. Although some titles have found enormous success using an early access option, other developers have encountered problems using this approach, which have helped to identify critical production issues surrounding quality assurance and community rapport. When considering the strengths and weaknesses of the early access development model, the diffusion of innovations theory and expectancy violation theory are useful in analysing the importance of early adopters during game development.

            Traditionally, video games were developed with comparatively little player involvement and were play-tested in-house during several fairly common development milestones: first playable, alpha, beta and finally gold-mastered release. The affordances offered by digital distribution platforms, as well as a significant increase in independent development studios have disrupted this traditional approach, instead allowing player communities an increasingly participatory role in game development. Paid alphas allow players to pre-purchase and play games during various stages of the title's development while communicating aspects of their experience to the developers. This communication normally involves bug reporting, feature commentary and community-building whilst also providing varying levels of financial support. The majority of developers using early access options are from independent studios and are attempting to build original games based off new intellectual property; 85% of the 367 games released through Steam's early access option have been based on new IP. Paid alphas are not the only, or first, development/production option to incorporate community participation. Crowd-funding options such as Kickstarter have also been prominent options for developers either seeking financial support or audience data, yet it has been proposed that early access is a more beneficial approach to audience participation. This has been supported by a projected decline of approximately 53% in video game monetary backing using the Kickstarter option from 2013-2014 (the period within which Steam launched their early access option in March 2013).

            Minecraft is an important example when discussing the potential of early access development models, as it is arguably the most successful independently developed title to use this approach. Before continuing, it is important to note that there are many dimensions to Minecraft's success, yet for the purpose of this discussion only the use of early access will be considered. The original concept of Minecraft was developed by Markus Persson (also known as Notch), who had left his position within an established game developer to purse his own project independently. What began as a one-man project quickly escalated as Notch made a paid release of an early Minecraft version available online, perpetuating ever-increasing player involvement and eventually allowing him to establish his own independent game studio: Mojang. By encouraging player feedback, of which there was an immense amount (at one point in 2010 the alpha build was free to download), Minecraft developed an astonishing community of players who aided in the refinement of game features, whilst also increasing public awareness surrounding its development. Henry Jenkins suggests that community participation such as this is a key element of success in any new media franchise. The ultimate success of Minecraft's development was the acquisition of Mojang by Microsoft in 2014 for the staggering price of $2.5 billion, 4 years after the games official release in 2010.

            Of course, the success of Minecraft is not a definitive or complete examination of early player access during game development. The launch of Steam's early access option by Valve in March of 2013 has not been the only platform to facilitate paid alphas, yet it has since become the most commonly used and is an appropriate platform through which to examine the strengths and weaknesses of early access further.

            Since it's launch in 2013, Steam's early access option has attracted an increasing amount of independent game developers to consider using paid alphas during game development. Multiple titles including DayZ, Rust, Kerbal Space Program and Starbound have found utilising Steam's early access a successful element of their development cycle and their respective teams have each commented on the benefits of using this approach. The most obvious, often over-emphasised supportive element of early access is the income generated from early sales. There is a common assumption in popular media that the primary motivation for developers to release titles on early access is to receive funding for the project which they couldn't procure from private investors or publishers; this is not often the case. Although some developers admit that releasing into early access has helped recover from resource limitations, many of the successful early access developers cite income from sales as being an auxillery function and even warn that studios hoping to release in early access should not rely on the financial support. Rather than financial motivations, several developers suggest that early access is an option best suited to games which have their core features already implemented and are supported by the game community for debugging, stress testing, audience data and general feedback. This increased participation of the target market in the development process can be extremely beneficial in both generating a strong online community and increasing the liklihood of a successful final product. It is worth noting that the influx of community feedback can also distract studios from product development and that developers should always use players as advisors and testers rather than allow them to control the direction of the game completely.

            A communication theory which helps to highlight the significance of early adopters of technology or software is the Diffusion of Innovations Theory (DoIT). DoIT suggests that the early adopters (early access players) are integral in the early stages of development of any innovation, as they are likely informed participants who will give useful feedback and also spread awareness of the product after they choose to accept or reject its adoption. It is worth nothing that early participants such as these as likely to become primary communicators within the product community, an important aspect of development in an online space.

            Not all studios which have implemented early access have produced successful titles. Games such as Spacebase DF-9 and The Stomping Land have both received significant media attention surrounding their controversial experience with early access. Double Fine, the studio which developed Spacebase DF-9, did not have the resources to develop their title to a 'finished' state and instead released an unfinished version, urging the community to build on the game using source code. Similarly, Supercrit has received criticism for 'abandoning' their recent project The Stomping Land in Steam's early access, without communicating their intensions with the game community, or even within the studio. These titles, along with several others in early access, have raised concerns surrounding the expectations of both consumer participants and developers using early access.

          Only a small proportion of games (25%) released through Steam's early access feature have reached a final release. Although this data may be distorted from the inclusion of recent additions and the short lifespan of Steam's early access option relative to game development timelines, it does suggests that consumers and developers should be clear on what they expect from titles in early access. Expectancy Violation Theory (EVT) suggests that when the expectations of individuals are violated or undermined, they can respond negatively to the source of disappointment, in this case potentially deterring community members or damaging studio reputation. The research surrounding EVT in the digital space has been focused on interpersonal communication, but further studies could further substantiate the effects of expectations in early access scenarios.  Since the original launch of its early access option, Steam has updated its FAQ and guidelines to developers and consumers to increase awareness of early access expectations. In the customer FAQ, Valve rephrased their response to "When will games be released" to inform members of the possibility that a game may never be completed and that they should only purchase a game in early access if they are excited to play it in its current state. Valve concurrently warned developers not to set unrealistic expectations or make promises surrounding the future of their game, further reducing the uncertainty surrounding the process of early access development.

                The convergence of media platforms and an emergent techno-culture have disrupted the traditional model of video game development. The humble beginnings of super-franchise Minecraft and the variable success of titles launch on Steam's early access service have each served as valuable explorations into the benefits and challenges of offering early access during development. The Diffusion of Innovations Theory is a useful framework in accessing the significance of early adopters of early access titles, while Expectancy Violations Theory suggests that purchase expectations have to be clear for the process to be successful.

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