Steam Early Access could be described as the Wild West of the gaming industry: The rules have yet to be written, authority has yet to establish any kind of firm grip, and great fortunes seem to await everyone who goes there.
However, with Valve’s recent move to establish more rules and guidelines for Early Access, that may be changing. It certainly gave our whole team at Skara, The Blade Remains much to ponder, as developers for one of the last Early Access titles to be released prior to the new guidelines.
So here are my thoughts on the Early Access topic in general, what the program is good for and whether the new guidelines help make those aspects better.
Firstly, Early Access is a key way for indie developers to get their product out to the people as quickly as possible, bugs and all. And the play time Early Access purchasers put in is useful to most indie developers in showing them how to improve their projects. In Skara’s case, this is certainly true.
With a multiplayer game, we knew there would be issues to work out—like lag and compatibility issues. Having a group of patient players willing to try playing under these circumstances allowed us to improve Skara’s coding. It took a month, but we got there in the end!
So why are first adopters paying for the privilege to play Early Access games? Why isn’t it the other way around?
Indie titles run a huge risk by putting themselves on Early Access. Nothing could be easier for players than to rip the experience around the incomplete game apart, and with it the morale and confidence of the game’s developers. Making players pay for the privilege of playing acts as a kind of barrier to bad reviews and ensures that those taking part are invested in the process.
That’s exactly what we did with Skara. It may seem madness to pay 20$ for a game that will eventually be free-to-play, but players did! And we didn’t deceive them into doing it either. Rather, we took the opportunity to offer something back to those willing to invest. So we pledged that all Early Access members will get their money back as in-game currency along with several limited edition, in-game items once Skara is fully released.
It is possible to get Skara now for less than 20$, and those players are getting a more stable game, but without the same rewards. This trend will continue through to our full release. (Pricing an Early Access game is a topic all its own, which we would like to talk about soon!)
Getting that communication across sounds easy, but all too often there are players that don’t read carefully crafted warnings and buy the game anyway. This happened with Skara, but we knew how to handle that: responding to EVERY post. It is a time consuming task, but it paid off wonderfully. We were able to engage several players who rated their experience of the game negatively to change their minds—they hadn’t even realized the game was only in Early Access!
In that sense, what the new guidelines emphasise are really good. It is in both the developer’s and the purchaser’s best interest that they know what they are signing up for. And although the onus is on the developer to make sure that the communication is clear, it is not altogether in their power whether secondary sales sites use that communication—though most of course do. One clever way around this, which is mentioned in the guidelines, is to include the words ‘Early Access’ in the title of the game.
Early Access is also a good way for new titles to test their concepts on a real audience. Making even a simple game requires thousands upon thousands of small decisions, things that are often difficult to alter after the fact. Having even a small group of dedicated players helps designers and developers make those decisions.
With a game as complex as Skara, this has been doubly true. Our community was helping with ideas from the beginning, in forum discussions about combat mechanics, for instance. Turning our targeting system into a manual one was a crazy three month long task, but we did it because our players asked. And they were right, the game is much better after this unexpected change. We also have adapted our HUD and camera based on suggestions, and are adding a feature we would not have dreamed of before—a boss AI “bot”… I could continue for days with what we have learned from our community. I suppose the main point is that having the game out there with real players, we are able to focus on the things that the players want, rather than the things we think they want.
And for that reason alone, Early Access is a huge win for developers, and for the right kind of players it is also a huge win, because they end up getting to have input into the creation of a game, hopefully turning their relationship with it from “like” to “love.”
Of course, making a game is a huge, and hugely expensive, risk. Lots of developers can only afford to make games in their spare time, while holding down full time jobs. For the ones that go full time, failure has very serious consequences attached. They are heroes to me: for each new version of Call of Duty, there are thousands of small developers working their tails off to amaze and entertain you. Because THAT is the only reason they do what they do: passion, and a job that is a hobby to them.
Early Access purchasers also take a risk by buying the game, that the game won’t get finished. It is completely normal that some users are starting to mistrust these projects. They are right. For the last two years a few studios tried Early Access as the last attempt to save their games, but because the sales were below their expectations they were forced to close the studio, unable to deliver what they promised.
As a user, it would be completely normal to be bummed out and even angry if this happens. But really, that kind of risk pales in comparison to the risks the developers make.
After all, arguably any kind of entertainment investment is a risk. A movie may be lousy, a comedian might not be funny; the food at a restaurant may not be to one’s taste. Why should games promise anything more?
In that sense, the new guidelines telling developers to launch only if they can afford to without sales and “to set expectations properly” are too harsh on developers, especially indie developers. Customers should be warned, but at the same time developers should be given some recognition for trying to create, even if they fail.
The answer of course lies in what you communicate about the game, and since every game is different, I suspect developers will approach this communication differently. We launched our Early Access just as the new “official” Early Access questions were streamlined. Follow the link to see our response. Because the questions are the same for every product, it is easy for players to skip them, so we added another warning to make sure players read them first before buying.
All in all, the new Early Access guidelines are a really helpful way for developers to think about their Early Access plans and establish their Early Access communications. We hope to see many more games go the way we have by opting for an Early Access and we hope many more gamers will see the benefits and opportunities of playing Early Access games.