Our Early Access development story started about a year ago. In September 2013, Starpoint Gemini 2 was already advanced in development by quite a few steps… At that time Early Access was rather new with very few games in the program. When we were offered to jump into it we were scared to death of the very idea. It did sound interesting though, like a modified Kickstarter campaign, but... as we saw in following months, Early Access turned out to be a completely different experience than we could have ever imagined.
It gave the development of Starpoint Gemini 2 a whole new meaning and with it a bigger level of involvement with and from our community. That said, we have to say that Early Access surprised us in a very positive way! The last 12 months were the most intense and craziest in our history as a team and has shaped Starpoint Gemini 2 into what it is today. If you are ready to jump into this "mad" experience, we certainly recommend it. We'd like to share some prominent experiences from our Early Access time...
EARLY ACCESS BABY STEPS
First of all, when you enter Early Access, you are in fact offering a "live" game to players, not just a potential plan as is the case with crowdfunding campaigns. From the moment you jump on the Early Access wagon, you have a responsibility to maintain it, keep it functional, and introduce updates at the same time. Also, the community will kick in and naturally expects you to devote a lot of your time to communicating with the players. This part can become very hard at times as player numbers rise, but our suggestion is this: Keep communicating! It is awesome to receive the best and most wonderful ideas and suggestions from your community members. And many times the suggestions come in ways that are well thought out and pretty much ready to be implemented by one of your team members.
EARLY ACCESS COMMUNITY
For us, this is probably the most important part of Early Access: the gaming community wants to participate in the game creation process, they will offer help and support, but they also deserve respect and attention.
In the interaction with our community we made the choice to be direct, honest and agile. Since your game is already available on Steam, it is hard to resist the temptation to make promises to players simply to generate more sales. But that was never our vision and strategy. We wanted our project to have greater value and to be the basis for long-term engagement. For that reason, we were always honest when a suggested feature simply could not be implemented for whatever reason.
Remember that your game is out there, people are playing it, and they can see everything you do. If you don’t really listen or respond to their feedback, they don't see any of their ideas actually implemented. And at one point they will realize all their efforts are useless. Listening to our community was a key lesson that we learned from Early Access. The players invest a lot of time and effort in writing their posts and feedback. If you truly engage them in the development process, they will reward you and when they see fruits of their involvement landing in the actual game, they will feel a true connection with the entire process, and will be happy to help you even more!
For a small team such as ours, I can say this help was very valuable. Roughly 30% of all features in Starpoint Gemini 2 are community-suggested features, with high probability of that percentage increasing even more over time. We also gained many players that helped us with testing, creating mods, and even finding technical solutions.
Another important thing to mention here is update pace. From the start of our Early Access program, we maintained a steady stream of updates. Before the release version we’ve released more than 50 updates, meaning we had regular updates every week or every two weeks for the entire year. This assured the community that the game would not be abandoned, and it also gave them some new content to investigate and provide amazing feedback.
SOME TRAPS OF EARLY ACCESS
Being involved in Early Access also poses some potential traps. The first trap is the overall amuont of development time that Early Access is likely to add – we planned to stay in Early Access for six months and ended up staying in Early Access for an entire year. All the extra work you get – community, closing of updates, testing with earlier versions, adding of new, previously unplanned features, will certainly impact your schedule, Our advice is: Do not be afraid – yes, you will need more time, but if you allow players to shape parts of the game, you have a chance to end up with a much better product in the end. Ultimately, they are the ones you are making the game for.
The next trap we almost fell into: Pumping up the feature list. Once the community gets into the spirit of the game and starts seeing their own features, they get really inspired and your forum threads will explode. We had a difficult time drawing the line and deciding when to stop adding new features for the release build. To counter that, upon reaching Beta, we opened a "wish-list" instead. The wish-list gathered all remaining Alpha and post-Alpha ideas and will be used as a pool of ideas for updates that will come after release.
WHAT DO WE CONSIDER THE IDEA OF EARLY ACCESS?
The way we see it, the whole idea of the Early Access program was to provide a steady stream of content, features, and feedback every week or two. Every time you add something new to the game you will receive constructive, important feedback in return. Therefore, the rules, expectations, and design guidelines keep changing with every patch, making most development flowcharts pretty useless. It's easy to steer off-course and end up in common pitfalls, so we constantly held internal meetings and public forum discussions to get a clear picture and re-assess the situation (this is key).
For those of you working as freelancers or designers, this should sounds familiar. You've accepted a ton of clients/investors and everyone wants their ideas to be implemented. For some it may seem like a nightmare as certain ideas can obviously end up financially out of reach or simply take an invaluable amount of time. This is where the developers need to calmly stand their ground and be transparent with the facts while showing clear intentions for compromises during development. It is crucial to openly accept criticism for your own unfinished work. Even destructive criticism should be met with a cool head and an open mind.
IN THE END: WHAT CAN YOU GET OUT OF EARLY ACCESS?
We can only say what we got: loads of valued and appreciated feedback, a great community that pointed us (and still does!) in the right direction, additional funds to invest into production, countless sleepless nights... and many, many friends. Yes, one year of intense, everyday, honest communication transformed our forums into a welcoming place of positive vibes and a "home" atmosphere. That is definitely another big plus of the entire experience.