Is Steam's Early Access a ticking time bomb?
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
The Advent of Early Access
Steam introduced the Early Access program on March 20th, 2013. The introduction was heralded as a new age for indie developers. Now we could sell our games directly to our customers, doing for distribution what Kickstarter, Indiegogo and the other crowd-funding platforms had done for seed investment.
But there was a problem.
Early Access games are purchased by the public, and how many members of the public have sufficient knowledge and experience to look at an Early Access developer in order to judge whether they're capable of completing the game as promised? The answer is not many.
Recognising this, on November 17th, 2014, Steam updated its Early Access guidelines to encourage buyers to buy Early Access games for the gameplay available now, instead of the features promised by the developers. And it stated, amongst other things, that developers should not enter Early Access if they were relying on sales through Steam to fund completion of their game.
All well and good, but that was closing the stable door after the horse had well and truly bolted.
The First 50 Games
I decided to go through the first 50 games released on Steam Early Access, according to Steam Spy, and used an initial filter of games that have not been updated for 3 months to flag a game for further study.
I put together this very simple spreadsheet based on that trawl (NB Interstellar Marines was removed to avoid a conflict of interest as I worked on that project):
This sheet indicates the following:
- 20 games (40%) have not had an update in the last 3 months
- 9 games (18%) appear to be dead
- 3 games (6%) are confirmed either dead or removed from Steam (Dead Linger, Victory: The Age Of Racing, Centration).
It's interesting to note that 4 games (8%) have been "mega" successes (Space Engineers, Starbound, Rust, DayZ). There is probably a strong argument to add 7 Days To Die as a 5th member of that list.
Now the above sheet is only a small sampling of the games on Early Access, and of course some of the games which appear dead could be resurrected. I'm also no statistician, and the above is not meant as an in-depth study of the stats behind Early Access games, it's simply me spending a couple of hours going through the first 50 games to get an idea of what happened to them.
Having said all that, the sheet does set a pretty dim picture of what could be lying in wait within Early Access.
Most studios will do all they can to carry on development of a game, even when they can see the revenue coming in is not enough to support development. They'll gradually shed non-production staff, then start removing the least-necessary production staff, until they're left with nothing and have to close shop. It's called development hell, and it takes time - in some cases years - for this downward spiral to come to a conclusion.
And by conclusion, I mean development of the game stops.
Once you're in that negative trend it's oh so very hard to get back out of it again. It is very expensive to run a development team. I'm not talking two people working weekends in their bedrooms. I'm talking a team in an office, working for a registered company, earning a working wage. If you reach a point where there is not enough money coming in to keep the team going, the only way to get out of it is to have more money coming in. Simple, right?
Increasing revenue usually means one of three things: more marketing to stimulate sales, more content releases to stimulate sales, or do a price decrease and try to persuade Steam to put you on the front page (to stimulate sales).
Increasing marketing costs money, either in terms of advertising budgets or hiring personnel / an agency. So what about releasing more content? More content + more updates = more interest + higher sales. But to release more updates and content than you're already releasing you need a bigger team, which you can't hire because there is not enough money.
The third option is to approach Steam and ask them to put you on the front page. They _may_ help you out, but it'll take time, and you'll need something new and shiny to promote before they'll put you on there. Developing new and shiny takes money, and may take you away from what you're supposed to be developing. So in effect it costs more money AND you're adding features to the game which may not be in the core feature set simply to get Steam to promote you. Whatever you want to do requires money to be spent - which of course you don't have.
Welcome to dev hell.
"Get big YouTubers to play your game!", "Get big streamers to stream your game!", "Release better updates!!!". I've read all of those responses from different communities. I wish it was so easy, because if it was then all studios would do this. The painful truth is that once you get into that downward spiral, there's almost no escape unless you manage to secure an outside source of funding. And who's going to fund a business that's already failing?
The 3 games from the above Google spreadsheet that are confirmed dead have already reached the end of the spiral. The 9 which appear to be dead are probably either at the end of it, or just reaching it. That's 12 games, or 24% of the sample, that are either confirmed dead or probably dead.
How many other games on Steam are on the way down?
Without doing a major study of all Early Access games, it is frankly impossible to tell. The first 50 games have been on Early Access the longest, and so have had more time to reach the end of the spiral. It is expected, or at least hoped, that studios who entered Early Access after November 17th, 2014 have adhered to the new rules and ensured they are not reliant on funding from Early Access sales to complete the game. If so, that will minimise the number of failures from that point.
What Valve Needs To Do
There is no escaping the fact that businesses go bust, things happen, games are not completed, studios get closed. It's a bit like getting divorced - no-one wants to think about it or go through it. But at least there's a mechanism in place for handling marriage breakups.
Right now there is no mechanism in place on Steam to handle failed or failing studios (probably because no-one wants to think it's going to happen). Steam ideally needs a way for studios to approach it to let Steam know the studio is in trouble, and to request Steam's help. Critically, studios need to be able to approach Steam with no stigma or negative consequence - they need to be confident they can trust Steam. Why? Because otherwise they will not approach Steam, they'll just muddle on until the studio can no longer support the game.
This is not to say that Steam is responsible for Early Access studios which fail. The studios must take responsibility for their own businesses. But Steam itself will suffer if a significant percentage of Early Access games fail, as will its consumers, no matter whose fault it is.
Steam has quite a repertoire of things it can do to increase sales of a game - just getting a weekend spin on the front-page carousel will do wonders for sales. However such a system could be hugely open to abuse, so Steam would need to assess each studio which approaches it individually to see if they have a chance of surviving, and if so what they need. If they cannot survive, or the studio is simply saying, "Hey Steam, we're going under, we need to talk to you about how to handle things", then Steam needs a mechanism in place to graciously handle that.
As ugly as the whole process is, it is something which is needed.
There have been, and will continue to be, successes and failures on Early Access. The successes are rightly hailed and celebrated, but the failures need to be catered for. There is a ticking time bomb in Early Access, and no-one knows how big it is. The sooner Steam acknowledges that, and introduces methods to deal with it, the better the platform will be and the less effect it will have on consumers. Early Access does not have a great reputation at the moment, and the more Steam can do to provide peace of mind to its consumers the more it will prosper.
(original blog post: http://phyrefli.com/2016/02/10/is-steams-early-access-a-ticking-time-bomb/)