One of the popular trends of the Game Industry lately is the use of crowdfunding to develop games. Where people will essentially pre-order your game while it's still in beta, alpha or earlier.
Like with kickstarter, this presents a new development and sales strategy and something that prospective game designers need to know about.
Originally game development, profit and funding were separate: You wouldn't see a penny of profit until the game was done and in the consumer's hands. Any money given to you through a publisher was spent on game development which would of course be factored in when it was time to sell your game.
In today's crowdfunding era, designers can now go to the fans for development money and possibly a profit before the game is even done. With kickstarter, the platform is mainly used for projects that can be in a variety of stages of development. And it is becoming viable and more accepting to be releasing your game earlier this way. But Early Access which is today's subject is a different beast and needs to be handled as such for a developer to make it work.
Since it was released on Steam, Early Access has been met with more criticism than praise due to titles not living up to what was promised or development simply ceasing after people bought into it. With that said, there is promise here for developers who pay attention to the differing rules and audience to make Early Access work for them.
The first big difference with Early Access is that you must have something playable before even thinking about using it. Unlike kickstarter where you can pitch an idea, Early Access requires that you have something that resembles content which can mean alpha or beta state.
This is why it's best to wait as long as possible before going onto Early Access. The audience is different compared to those on kickstarter. With kickstarter, you have people wanting to support projects and are far less judgmental of issues. The Early Access audience on the other hand are gamers looking for something to play and are less accepting of problems.
For developers who aren't on Steam reading this, it is possible for you to do "Early Access" through your own website; presenting the same options and development cycle. And third party services can help you set up a variety of payment options for developers who want to sell direct this way. The only catch is that people like using Steam for the convenience of easy patching and may not be willing to jump through hoops on your site just for one game.
Because you are selling a product on Early Access, pricing is a big deal and designers in the past have had different ways of looking at it. Introversion Software who are currently making the game Prison Architect, decided to price it far higher than what they're going to sell it for. They felt that this was a way of weeding out people who really want the product and wanted to contribute, compared to those who just wanted a finished game.
With Early Access, you can sell different versions of your game beyond just the "Get the game early" one. Depending on how far you want to go, you could have a beta access, alpha access or just pre-order with varying bonuses to go along with it. A popular option is to have pricing discounts for the various tiers at specific points during development.
Regarding bonuses, this is where you can really get creative with your offering. Introversion for instance, gave heavy backers the opportunity to be a character in their game. The sky is the limit for what you could give someone for spending extra money.
Obviously the more bonuses and features you are offering for sale, the more expensive these versions are going to cost someone. The general rule is that the earlier the game is in development, the more options or bonuses should be offered to the consumer. And depending on the scope of your game, it's good to have multiple versions that offer access at different stages of development for people interested who may not want to play an Alpha.
You need to be careful with how expensive you make these options as again, this is not the kickstarter crowd. Someone on early access is not going to be thrilled to see a $80 version of your game no matter what it has in it. This is especially true if you are going to be selling the actual game for far less than what your "deluxe version" is priced at.
What we've seen in the past is that consumers like an escalating cost over time : Where a game will be cheaper to buy in Alpha and get more expensive as time goes on, such as in Minecraft and Kerbal Space Program. This gives consumers a feeling that they are getting a good deal as opposed to spending more money on an incomplete version.
One major point that you need to understand about Early Access is that once your game is on there, you need to play the role of marketer as well as designer and keep the momentum and interest for your game going. If people don't see any updates from you, they may assume that the project is dead and they are out money and the negative press would not be good for you.
Just like with kickstarter, you should be updating people on the Steam forums at a constant pace. Releasing updates on a schedule is a good idea to keep them invested in the project. Going back to Prison Architect, Introversion has committed to a once a month update schedule for the game to keep people interested and to show that they are working hard on it.
Another comment about updates is that if you have your own forum or blog site, make sure to keep the Early Access forum updated even if that's not your main source of information. The people who are playing your game on Early Access make full use of Steam and that means checking your specific forum for information.
The big risk of Early Access is that unlike kickstarter, you only get one chance to show your game. Once it's on Steam, it will remain there unless your game is doing so poorly that Valve is forced to intervene and at that point you can rule out having a successful title.
The future of crowdfunding and alternate development models are still up in the air but that doesn't mean that you can't make use of them. Early Access when used properly allows you to develop your game alongside your fan base and can be a valid option for designers today.
(Reprinted from the Xsolla Blog)