Two years ago we launched Action Henk on Steam’s Early Access platform. One year later the game was done and we left Early Access. In the past year that our game has been out we’ve had plenty of time to reflect on how we handled Early Access and I’ve compiled my thoughts into a list of guidelines for developers who are thinking about releasing their game on Steam Early Access.
Early Access doesn’t have the greatest reputation right now and that’s why I believe it’s important to share experiences so other developers can use them to make the most out of their Early Access time. There are plenty of studios out there who don’t do Early Access right and they are causing players everywhere to turn away from Early Access as a whole, while, if done right, it can be great for the quality of a game.
Determine if Early Access is a good match for your game
The very first thing you need to do is to find out is whether or not you actually need Early Access. Early Access comes with a lot of advantages: community feedback during development, generate revenue sooner, have a community built up when the game launches, hype/exposure, and you get a second launch moment when you finish the game.
The advantages sound nice, but they come with great risks which shouldn’t be underestimated: players might get a bad first impression, press is usually less interested in Early Access unless you’re doing something extraordinary, maintaining a community takes a staggering amount of time, you have to release updates frequently, and you have a chance that the final launch ‘bang’ isn’t going to do much because you’ve already had a launch moment earlier. You also have to make sure that your game is a good fit for Early Access. Your game needs to fit a model where you can quickly create the core mechanics and use the bulk of your time in Early Access to add content.
The last risk, and probably the biggest one, is that revenue is certainly not a guarantee during your Early Access period. You can launch the game in Early Access and there are a million reasons why sales could fall short. However, once you do launch on Early Access you’re making a promise to the players who have bought your game that you are going to finish what you’ve started. You have to make sure that you are mentally and financially prepared to deal with a rough start.
The big question you have to ask yourself is: “Is my game concept special enough to justify taking the above mentioned risks?”
I can’t answer this question for you, but I can offer you my advice when you decide to go through with it. I will list below the most important things we’ve learned during the time we had Action Henk in Steam Early Access.
The very first Early Access build
It’s going to sound obvious but the very first Early Access build absolutely has to contain the core mechanics of your game, as final as possible. You can get away with your game missing parts of the art, audio, special effects, level editing, character customization, content, etc. But when you’re making a speedrunning platformer game, like Action Henk, you’re going to need proper platforming mechanics in your first build. If your core mechanics are all in the game and tweaked to (near-) final quality it will make the user say: “This game feels great! There’s just not a whole lot of game.” And that’s okay! That’s why you’re in Early Access and the vast majority of your players will accept this.
Farm all the data
Some players are going to give you feedback on forums or social media, but for the most part you’re going to have to actively look for feedback. This is because most of the players are just gamers who bought a game they think they’ll enjoy playing. Giving feedback takes effort and that’s not something you can blindly expect from your player base.
Asking players what they think of your game is one way to get feedback, but this takes a lot of time to get a relatively small amount of useful data. Also I would advise any developer, in Early Access or not, to build in an analytics system because this gives you facts and undeniable data which can help you tweak your game.
In Action Henk we used analytics everywhere. A good example of where we used analytics to improve the game is when we were setting medal times. In Action Henk the player has to reach the end of a short track as fast as possible to get a bronze, silver, gold, or rainbow medal. In the initial version of the game these medal times were arbitrary values, values we felt were right. After launch the leaderboards started filling up and naturally we found out that for some levels it was too easy to get a gold medal, where on other levels it was way too hard. In the ideal scenario we wanted pretty much every player to be able to get a bronze medal, ~80% of the players should be able to get silver, ~50% should be able to get gold, and ~3% should be able to get the hardcore rainbow medal. To get to these percentages we logged the medals scored by every player and adjusted the times required for the medals throughout Early Access. If we saw that only 20% of players were getting a gold medal on a level we knew that we had to make the gold medal time easier to obtain. The table below shows the data from one of our later Early Access build, the percentages are right about where we wanted them.
This is just one example of analytics but you want to keep track of everything. You want to know where players die, which levels they have trouble completing, which characters they play, etc. Track everything that could even be remotely useful.
For keeping analytics you can use several existing systems. In Action Henk we used a combination of GameAnalytics and Steam’s statistics system but there are a ton of plugins available for whichever engine you’re using. We always work in Unity and it now comes with an analytics system out of the box, we’re currently giving it a go for our next project and it seems to work great so far.
Keep your community in the loop
Try to keep your development process as open as possible. Your community needs constant assurance that the half-finished game they bought is going to be finished at some point. The last thing you want is an angry mob who think you’re not working on the game they spent their money on. This means that you have to do frequent updates, interact with players on the forums, make a dev blog or vlog, and show the players what you’re working on. You’ll have to show the players that you’re hearing them.
While listening to your players is important, it’s just as important that you avoid a situation where you’re doing everything they ask. The group of players you’re talking to on the forums is the vocal minority of your playerbase. They usually represent the people who are extremely happy with your game and want to express that, and the people who have a new suggestion every time they play. Learning to deal with these people in the right way is probably one of the most crucial skills to have while you’re in Early Access. These are some of the things to keep in mind:
- Never make promises. The community remembers every single word you say, and they won’t be afraid to use your own words against you. It’s also incredibly easy for someone to misinterpret something you say so try to be as clear as possible. If someone suggest you develop feature X and your response is “That sounds great, we should do that!” they’re going to expect you to make the feature. If you then decide that you’re not going to make that feature you’re going to have to let them down and this is always a hard thing to do. This brings me to my next point.
- Don’t do everything the community suggests, no matter how good their ideas sound. Doing Early Access is going to add time to your project, so don’t add even more time to that by creating features which are nice to have, but not really worth the development time. Before creating each feature you should think to yourself: “Is this feature going to increase the value of my game in a way that leads to more sales?” and if the answer is “Probably not” then you should be careful about creating that feature. This is something we didn’t do and it more than doubled our time in Early Access, we went from a planned 5 months to 13 months in Early Access. We just kept adding feature after feature because when someone suggested a cool feature our response was “Should we create it? Why not, let’s go.” This resulted in the feature list seen below. Note that most games on Steam have about 5, 6, or 7 items in this list, not 14. We could scrap half of the items on this list and our game would have worked just as well and most likely would have sold the same. It’s just that we were terrible at saying no to our community in our quest to keep them as happy as possible.
- Don’t be afraid to talk about struggles. Let’s say you have a schedule where you release an update every 2 weeks and because of reasons you’re unable to finish the update in time. It’s okay to tell your community: “Sorry, we won’t be able to launch the update on the planned time because of X and Y.” As long as you’re honest and open they’re going to be supportive and understanding about it.
Knowing when to leave Early Access and what to keep in mind
If you managed to stick to your development schedule it’s going to be easy to decide when to leave Early Access. However for most studios the schedule changes dramatically and constantly during development. The biggest reason for this is that the game’s design is constantly evolving because of community influence. You’ll always be left with a list of features that would be nice to have in your game, and it’s easy to just pick an item off that list and start developing it. Your game is never going to feel entirely done, this makes it hard to put a deadline on your project, and this is even harder if your game is already generating revenue. Whether or not you should continue developing comes back to the question we’ve asked ourselves earlier in this article. “Are these features going to increase the value of my product in a way that leads to more sales?” and if the answer is not a firm “Yes”, it might be time to bring your development to an end.
When you’ve decided to leave Early Access you’re going to want to do so with a big bang. You need to give the press something new to write about and you want people who’ve seen the game before to come back to something new. If you’re just going to remove the ‘Early Access’ label and expect a big number of sales then you’ll be left disappointed. The way we did this with Action Henk was by hiding some of the things we were working on so we could release them as a big surprise at launch. The first half of Action Henk has 35 levels in a children’s bedroom environment. Behind the scenes we were working on an outdoor environment and another 35 levels. I know, I just said you should have an open development process and show everything to your players, but it’s great to have some sort of surprise on launch day and that requires a little secrecy.
Early Access is quite a commitment and you need to enter it with a plan. Be prepared with a solid build of your game, treat your community well, learn from them and you’ll be rewarded with lifelong fans.
- Launch the first build with the core mechanics as finalized as possible. Use the Early Access period to add content.
- Go crazy with analytics, track absolutely everything.
- Be there for your community. Listen to them, and know when to not listen to them. Be open and honest about your development process.
- Don’t keep working on your game just because you can, set a deadline.
- Launch with a bang!