It might seem strange to say this now, but four or five years ago, the malevolent spirit of Early Access seemed to haunt every corner of the gaming world.
Journalists lamented the never-ending monsoon of unfinished games clogging their spam filters, PR fusillades riddled with typos occasionally erupting into their inboxes; experienced developers eager to test this new model found themselves spattered by the stink of shovelware, deserved or not; and players themselves tuned out by the droves, continually disappointed by quick cash-in after quick cash-in.
“From the PR perspective, back then, if your email said Early Access, it went to its own folder, and that folder was probably the garbage can,” says Stephanie Tinsley Fitzwilliam, founder and chief of Tinsley PR, a marketing firm specializing in games.
“They began inundated with these unfinished games they were supposed to write about, and that’s not fair to them, even as good as the game might end up being. From a PR perspective, you’ve killed your chance by releasing that broken game early.”
Today, Early Access is merely an asterisk on a game’s release schedule, another bullet-point for an player to consider before settling on the “buy” button. For some mammoth genres, the pre-release hype cycle has become almost mandatory: it’s hard to imagine any serious contender to the battle royale or survival thrones skipping that step, especially since Epic Games’ industry-defining Fortnite continues to advertise itself as “Early Access.”
However, though the culture has shifted in favor of devs who try to organically build an audience as they work on the game itself, to hear some tell it, the label still brings a substantial amount of risk. After all, just ask Compulsion Games, the studio behind the hugely-successful first-person truncheon-’em-up, We Happy Few.
The danger of a good trailer
A simple chronicle of the many boundary-shattering events that occurred during the development of We Happy Few is enough to make any game developer sweat. First came the successful Kickstarter, buffeted by a healthy amount of buzz for the game’s anesthetized take on London’s “Swinging Sixties.”
Then came the Early Access release, which rocketed up the Steam charts off the game’s highly-successful marketing campaign, which included an on-stage teaser at Microsoft’s 2016 E3 press conference that set the veins of the internet alight with intrigue and rumor.
As Compulsion's COO & producer Sam Abbott describes it, he began to see the idea of the game crystalize in the minds of the fans - an idea that diverged in both scope and scale from the game the team was actually making.
“When the game was launched in Early Access, the expectations of what it was were already set in people’s minds,” he says. “It was a very interesting sort of situation, because people looked in isolation at that video and assumed that’s what the game would be, and ignored all the previous streams - which had millions of views at that point - and they ignored all the marketing material that was on the store page. They ignored the store page, the description, dev interviews, our commentary - basically everything that helps paint a picture of the game.”
"The first and most interesting thing I can tell to other developers: Your store page is not irrelevant, but it’s a bit irrelevant. If people have an idea in their mind of what your game is, that’s what they’re buying. It’s not the fine print. In fact, it doesn’t matter how big the print is."
As Abbott recalls, this apparent “window dressing” included a massive Early Access disclaimer that stated that Compulsion hadn’t yet implemented any aspects of the game’s story - instead, they were focusing on its kooky atmosphere and core survival elements, such as hunger and thirst meters.
“A large number of people just ignored that,” he said. “That’s the first and most interesting thing I can tell to other developers: Your store page is not irrelevant, but it’s a bit irrelevant. If people have an idea in their mind of what your game is, that’s what they’re buying. It’s not the fine print. In fact, it doesn’t matter how big the print is.”
As the feedback continued to flow into Compulsion, the studio decided to make a late-game shift - rather than building a tiny, roguelike-flavored survival experience, they chose to instead staff up and make the game that their newfound customers wanted. In Abbott’s mind, this was the key advantage that the open development process of Early Access afforded the studio.
“I think if we hadn’t done Early Access, I don’t think We Happy Few would’ve been as successful,” he says. Of course, not everyone at Compulsion was thrilled with the studio staffing up to construct an indie experience that could compete with the likes of BioShock, instead of the smaller-scale of the original pitch. For Abbott, however, such concerns about clarity and consistency of artistic vision are ultimately less important than building a game that an audience will mass around.
Early Access can earn you useful feedback -- but it won't save you
“Look, I’m a producer,” he says. “I think a lot of talk about vision and that sort of thing is wank. I appreciate that people have ideas in mind, and sometimes they have a very crystal-clear idea of what they want to build, but the truth is that visions change...the game you want to make rarely survives first contact with people. We were able to build out these story locations and story moments and character development. When your game gets bigger, you spend more time with the audience, and you can become more ambitious.”
In order to make that experience possible, however, Compulsion needed money, and a lot of it. As We Happy Few ballooned, so did the studio itself, first through a close partnership with Microsoft - which bore fruit in the form of that highly-prized E3 stage slot - and eventually the newly-forged publishing arm of Gearbox, who provided much of the funds that ultimately allowed Compulsion to reinvest in their idea and scale up to a “retail-quality” title, along with a raft of other investors.
"One: do you think your game would benefit from significant, ongoing feedback? And two: do you have financing requirements that might benefit from Early Access?" If the answer is yes to both, then I think you should go for it."
While Abbott describes both relationships as extremely productive, a retail game almost always carries a premium price tag, and that’s where the controversy began to flood in: when Compulsion made the tough decision to raise the price from $30 to $60. Though Abbott and Co. carefully authored a blog post where they announced the decision, once word of the hike creeped outside the community, the internet ran wild with the news.
“As far as I’m aware, I don’t think anybody has been quite as open about that decision as we were at the time,” Abbott says, with a small sigh. “Every single reason is there, and we’re quite open about a bunch of things that influence decisions once you start getting into the retail market...The community that follows us understood what we were doing, but the people who picked it up on Reddit, or maybe an angry YouTube video, just sorta caught the price rise and didn’t understand we were effectively tripling the size of the game.”
“Judging price is difficult no matter how you look at it, but I think the bigger issue is unless the community is judging your final product, they’re not going to have the right perspective. It’s not something that consumers and gamers are aligned on at all. You’ve got some people who’ll never pay more than $15 for a video game. Obviously, that’s a bit absurd when you think about the time and energy people put into them. The bigger companies have created a lot of monetization systems because certain customers don’t want to pay anymore, even though the costs of development are increasing. All of that is really not to criticize anyone, but to mention that people are in different situations and places all of their lives.”
When push comes to shove, Abbott says that if Compulsion could start all over again on We Happy Few, he’d make all of the same decisions again. Though he thinks Early Access is ultimately here to stay, to him, player communication still remains one of the greatest challenges that the team faced, and he’s still not quite sure how to fix it.
Even though Compulsion published three years’ worth of blog-posts detailing every aspect of the game’s turbulent development, it didn’t do much to stem the tide of angry commenters when word of the increased price hit major gaming subreddits. And though developers might still maintain a stereotype of what an Early Access game looks like, Abbott says that it’s best to keep an open mind.
“People say that Early Access doesn’t help story-based games, and while I think that was a challenge in our situation, it wasn’t for the reasons that people talk about. People say that a story spoiled is a bad story, but in our case, the story wasn’t there, but the setting was. It’s all about managing expectations in that regard, if a big part of your game is missing, then you need to properly communicate that.
“It all goes back to two core points," Abbott concludes. "One: do you think your game would benefit from significant, ongoing feedback? And two: do you have financing requirements that might benefit from Early Access?" If the answer is yes to both, then I think you should go for it.”