Years later, and your favourite Early Access game is still in beta. Release dates have been pushed back and pushed back, and you’re starting to wonder if it will ever reach a full release. What exactly went wrong?
Early Access is possibly one of the most dividing elements of modern gaming culture. It’s a Marmite product; you either love it, or you hate it. You get the chance to influence the design of the final game, but your new purchase may be stuck in beta limbo for the foreseeable future. Hell, you might not even get a full release at all. It’s a leap of faith – but you don’t have to take it completely on trust.
Consider these five factors before investing in an Early Access game, and you’ll find your new purchase is far more likely to pass the finish line.
We’ve also made a handy flowchart which you can view here.
1) Developer experience
Early Access is designed as a way for new or amateur developers to finally start making some cash from their efforts – get their name out there, earn a crust, maybe even start a new career. But Early Access developers sometimes don’t have the experience necessary to see their game all the way through to the end.
Early Access developers sometimes don’t have the experience necessary to see their game all the way through to the end.
Before you decide to buy into an Early Access game, check if the developers have previous experience in making video games. A lot of the time, you’ll find that the most popular full release Early Access titles have a team of developers who have worked in professional studios before.
Even just working in software development is a boon! Kerbal Space Programme, one of the most popular Early Access games ever, didn’t come from an established studio – but they were still proficient with software development times and, perhaps most importantly, marketing. They knew the stakes, they knew the processes, and that knowledge is invaluable if you want to see Early Access through to the end.
2) How much money has been raised
Money makes the digital world go round; you can’t rent offices or hire designers or buy food (optional) if you don’t have a significant amount of cash to put behind your game.
Successful Early Access games like Starbound, Grim Dawn, Darkest Dungeon and Prison Architect all share one common theme: they mustered a huge amount of seed money, very quickly. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in a few days from Kickstarters or other platforms is the norm, supplemented by significant pre-order/Early Access sales. Prison Architect alone managed to earn over $9 million by 2013, and other popular full releases have almost certainly achieved similar levels of overall funding.
Hundreds of thousands of dollars in a few days from Kickstarters or other platforms is the norm.
No matter how good a developer is, or how interesting a concept, if there isn’t money behind it then it isn’t going to go ahead. It doesn’t always necessarily have to be entirely crowdfunded, however – Grim Dawn ended up needing financial assistance from Gamebanshee and one of the authors from Penny Arcade. But regardless of where the devs get the cash from, they need plenty of it – hundreds of thousands of dollars, at the very least.
3) Scope of the project
Sometimes a game’s Early Access success can be more of a curse than a blessing – at least when it comes to getting the game past the full release goal posts. Star Citizen is a perfect example of this: a game that was so popular it has now raised over $140 million at the time of writing. That’s record-breaking.
Sometimes a game’s Early Access success can be more of a curse than a blessing
But the initial scope of the project was a lot smaller than it is now. Its release date has been pushed back time and time again as more money comes in, and new goals are set to make up for the inordinate amount of capital rolling in. Those full release goal posts just keep on having to shift.
Now, perhaps Star Citizen will make it through Early Access: with the kind of capital and experience it has behind it, it almost certainly will. But it also acts as a cautionary tale to anyone planning to invest in an Early Access title. Do you think the scope of the project is reasonable? Is it going to change? Can the developers actually deliver on it? These are the questions you need to ask.
4) Media attention
Here are a few words from Soren Johnson, one of the developers of Offworld Trading Company that perfectly demonstrate how media attention can make – or break – the success of an Early Access game.
“We certainly experienced a surge of interest in Offworld when it first launched in early 2015; our game was the new shiny object, so we were able to organize a media blast by revealing the first screenshots a couple weeks before the Early Access release, resulting in exclusive stories and interviews on Gamespot, Polygon, IGN, VentureBeat, and more,” Johnson explains.
“14 months later, however, we had a much harder time getting press attention for the game’s real launch; most of the websites who wrote about the Early Access launch told us explicitly that since we had been on Steam for so long, they didn’t find us newsworthy. We could expect reviews but little else.”
“We had been on Steam for so long, they didn’t find us newsworthy. We could expect reviews but little else.”
Somewhat ironically, a game that was insanely popular in the media fell flat when it came to the final release. Offworld Trading Company managed to get through into a full release regardless, but imagine if that drop off had taken place midway through the sales process? Early Access games need media attention to maintain their momentum through to the finish line. If they are starved out, it can be very difficult for them to get the capital and playerbase required to finish. If your favourite Early Access game is losing attention, it may stretch out the development time for longer than expected.
Community is an important part of any new game, but doubly so for Early Access games, and triply so for any game that has a significant multiplayer component. Imagine if a game like ARMA 3 or Insurgency had only a small following. No matter how great an idea is for a multiplayer-centric title is, it’s not going to amount to much without a large community. This is particularly important to keep in mind before buying into one of the Early Access MMOs that are cropping up here and there. Can’t have a massively multiplayer online role-playing game without the ‘massive’ bit, after all.
No matter how great an idea is for a multiplayer-centric title is, it’s not going to amount to much without a large community.
But it’s also important to remember that a toxic community can be just as bad as a small one. An indie developer who has little experience in dealing with a community could easily be tempted into quitting the entire procedure altogether if they have a supremely shitty group of people following their game. Alternatively, there could be a ‘too many cooks‘ situation where the developers are constantly trying to fulfill the many shouting voices of their fanbase.
That doesn’t just mean they lose their own vision, but can also result in the game release date being pushed further out as the devs try to adhere to the ideal of Early Access being an opportunity for fans to make their voices heard, as well as trying to stick to their own guns. In some cases, that might even result in the game never being finished at all.
These five factors are not the only ones that influence the development of an Early Access game – but they are certainly some of the most important. Keep them in mind before you invest in an Early Access game, and you’ll be much less likely to get burned in the long run.
What other factors do you think are important in the development in Early Access development? Let us know in the comments below!