When Valve first launched its Early Access program in 2013, many viewed it through a cynical lens. Why, these developers were forcing players to pay for the privilege of slogging through their unfinished code, and provide free playtesting! While many still criticize the company's fiscal accommodation of alpha release, the fact remains that many groundbreaking and acclaimed games might simply not exist without the Early Access model.
As a new wave of indie game innovation emerges, there are several stand-out titles that serve as a model of how to successfully navigate Early Access. We reached out to several developers who had themselves run noteworthy Early Access campaigns, and asked them what other projects they particularly admired. (As we might have expected, many of the people we reached out to singled out titles created by some of the other people we reached out to.)
Here are seven games that made excellent use of Early Access, as well as some observations on what developers can take away from each.
This adventure/survival game from Klei Entertainment was a pioneering Early Access title, and it's still an excellent example of alpha release done right, according to Raphael Van Lierop, the director on The Long Dark. "Don't Starve is basically the grandfather/grandmother of Early Access games," he says. "A lot of that success can be credited to how effectively they've been able to engage with the Early Access development model."
Klei Entertainment started small, and with each Don't Starve update added new characters, level features, craftable recipes, monsters, and tweaks that freshened up the gameplay just enough to keep players perpetually interested. Each major gameplay update was treated almost like DLC or an expansion, with a name and a marketed theme. Doing so not only helped reignite the interest of fans while preparing them for the changes to come, but also captured the attention of would-be players who waiting for "the game to get good".
Some of the updates added aspects of Don't Starve that would later come to be seen as an integral part of the its identity--rain, food that spoils over time, the Sanity meter, and character differences that affect gameplay. (Adventure Mode was also absent from the earliest iterations of Don't Starve.)
Soren Johnson, designer and programmer on Offworld Trading Company, nots that the game alsodid some alpha funding outside of Steam. "Don't Starve actually ha[d] an 'Earlier' Access phase on the Google Chrome Store, so Steam Early Access was simply another step on the path for them from starting with a tiny audience to now multiple millions of player," he says.
First person underwater survival/exploration title Subnautica was released on Early Access in December 2014 with a full version expected this summer. "Subnautica is interesting because their launch was (according to them) basically a failure ." says Soren Johnson. "But they found success by not stopping... and just releasing update after update on Early Access. They recommend giving each update a clear, marketable theme for players to maintain interest."
Unlike other developers who may listen to player feedback in forums and comments sections, receiving criticism on a filtered basis, the studio Unknown Worlds has taken a more direct approach.
As Felipe Falanghe, lead developer for Kerbal Space Program, observes, "They have some really good things going, like their public Trello board, which updates the community constantly on the state of development, and also lets the community add their suggestions and feature requests. It's not unlike traditional forum-based community communications, but it provides a much clearer channel. I find forums can often make it quite difficult to get messages across, for both sides."
Adds Van Lierop: "The Subnautica team has a really interesting way of approaching their community interactions and how they involve their community in their development process -- things like getting their community to log bugs directly into their database, and giving their players the ability to vote on what they want the team to work on next."
Unknown Worlds even goes so far as to include a feedback system directly built into the game, allowing users to easily log-in suggestions and complaints while they play by pressing F8. The community is also allowed to vote on upcoming features, as well as changes made to the game in "real time" via the production tracker.
One thing to note is that while Unknown Worlds tests out many ideas on their audience, they're not afraid to let some fall to the cutting floor. They've been known to run an idea by Early Access players while making it clear that any potential content may never make it into the game. Managing expectations is part of the process. That includes having a firm grasp on creative direction even as you maintain fluidity and adapt to user needs.
The beauty of Early Access is that a game can be posted and receive much-needed feedback while the project still has time to course correct. One lesson to learn from Spiderling Games' physics funhouse Besiege, however, is to have a well-rounded piece of your project with a good user experience from the get-go.
"Besiege shows very clearly something that I think is crucial to Early Access development," says Felipe Falanghe, "and that is drastically different from the traditional lifecycle of a game project: polish. A game may be incomplete, but its user experience needs to be well-rounded from the earliest stages. When Besiege first launched it was visibly very incomplete, but it already had a very polished UI."
"It is of course a perfectly acceptable thing to have placeholder assets like models and graphics, but developers need to keep in mind that players will already be interacting with these incomplete elements, and that needs to be a positive experience from the outset," he adds. "Early Access games should never rely on 'potential' as a tether to their playerbase. I think a key factor for an Early Access game to survive is that it needs to be fun from the beginning. Players won't be waiting around for a project to 'become fun' as it develops further."
A valid criticism of Early Access is that the system is easily exploited by inexperienced developers, many of whom sell their game on a promise, then fail to deliver as the realities of the time and work commitment sink in. Establish a strong premise from the get-go, not just to attract player interest but to maintain your own sense of commitment as well.
The Long Dark is a stand out example of how to listen to players even if they aren't providing direct feedback to you. Says Sunless Sea creative director Alexis Kennedy, "It's got a clear core concept that was playable (and moody and beautiful) from the moment it hit alpha. They've been iterating on it for years now, and they've struck a careful balance between paying attention to their big community and not pandering to them."
The Long Dark is remarkable in that the open-world survival aspects create a brutal bonding experience between players that has lead to many users comparing notes in the game's Steam forums. Some of the discussions there have served as inspiration for the more user-driven features. For example, as the team observed what made the players feel a sense of accomplishment, they responded by creating achievements based around it, like Natural Healer, a badge rewarded for using all healing items within the game.
And since narrative-driven games aren't ideal for Early Access, it worked in their favor that Hinterland Studios have thus far only released the game's sandbox mode. It allows for player interest to build as they become familiar with the mechanics of The Long Dark, while allowing the studio to work on the story mode unhindered. This in turn helps to manage player expectations, a key ingredient for Early Access success.
This prison management sim changed drastically from when the alpha build was made available in 2012 to when the finished version launched last October. As the old saying goes, "don't hold onto a mistake just because you spent a long time making it". Sometimes certain features just don't work out. Clearly, Introversion are no strangers to extreme course-corrections. Their title Subversion was completely canned after six years of development once its creators realized they could not build a game within the world they'd created.
Soren Johnson observes, "Prison Architect is a good example of a game that didn't necessarily know exactly where it was going before they started Early Access, and used the program to help them find their way and grow an audience at the same time."
While Introversion set to work on Prison Architect with a concept that was already fully formed, responding to player priorities was a primary goal from the beginning. The developers even went so far as to pursue crowd-funding on the game specifically so that they would have more time to refine it according to the audience's wishes without the additional constraints of publisher demands. They recognized that even their good ideas needed refining, and that tapping into the player's sensibilities with an alpha release was the way to go.
To spark and maintain interest, Introversion also provided incentive during the crowdfunding and alpha release phase allowing players to choose backing rewards designed to make them feel as though they were participating in the development process. Many fans were lured with backing bonuses that directly included them, like the $50 tier that gave them a named, NPC role in the game. With a vested interest in the fate of Prison Architect, many stuck around to see it through, in turn supporting it by providing feedback and new ideas.
If you can't start out with a polished concept, be prepared to think outside the box to attract player interest, and engage them at all stages of the process. Make the most of your audience's support.
The development of Kerbal Space Program operated almost like an experiment: early adopters were given a sandbox to play in, and the creators were able to prioritize development goals accordingly. The game's first playable version actually predates Early Access by two years, but the alpha release nonetheless stands out as a nascent example of how it can be used to hone a work-in-progress.
Unlike many games in Early Access, Kerbal Space Program had something of a financial support system. Creator Felipe Felanghe started development on the game while working at Squad, a company that until then had only produced interactive media marketing materials. While they had never made a game before, Squad nonetheless granted Felanghe permission to make Kerbal Space Program, and after several months put out the first public release on Steam.
The backing from Squad allowed Felanghe to focus on making the game instead of additionally having to promote it, a Herculean task that most indie developers are forced to take on themselves. It also freed him of having to make creative decisions out of financial necessity.
Many Early Access developers advise that you not use paid alpha release as a means to finance your game. It encourages inconsistent updates, which are a frequent source of friction between developers and the Early Access community, and also interferes with the pacing of the game's development by forcing it to rely on sales.
While publisher or studio support may not always be realistic, financial stability is key when developing an unconventional theme or idea. Avoid exploiting the Early Access model by coming to the table with some amount of self sufficiency.
Darkest Dungeon is an excellent case study in the lesson, "don't take anything for granted." The RPG dungeon crawler, released this past January by Red Hook Studios, is noted for its Affliction System, a collection of character traits that affect the behavior of the player characters in unpredictable ways
Having observed the successes and failures of other crowd-funded game campaigns, developers Chris Bourassa and Tyler Sigman set out to carefully crafted a well-built game that did not rely on the novelty of its innovation alone. As Sigman told Gamasutra in 2015: "That was our goal, to make sure that the systems stand on their own, but when you bring them all together then you have something special."
The work they put in to deliver a product that was already solid and well put together later paid off, as Early Access players were able to help them sand down the rougher edges of the game from a balance standpoint, instead of being overwhelmed by bugs. Said Bourassa, on the "soft launch" aspect of Early Access: "We don't want to get reports that the AI doesn't work, or that the UI is confusing, we'd rather spend our time considering the playtest data and how we can improve the game. And that's why we spent so long waiting until we had something that was relatively self-sufficient and solid before opening up the flood-gates."
While the team prefers to stick to their guns and don't always cave to player demands, that doesn't mean they don't have regrets. When the Corpse and Hound update was released last July, it featured such a massive overhaul to the game that the issued patch notes were 12 pages long. Some fans, however, were not pleased, even accusing the developers of ignoring their feedback as players altogether. Soren Johnson notes, "Their Corpse and Hound release is the canonical example of how Early Access can go wrong. At GDC this year, Tyler Sigman (the lead designer) said that although he still feels that they made the right decision for the game, he now feels that the should have left Steam branches available to players who preferred the older version. He compared these updates to someone breaking into your house and messing with your favorite board game. It would be too bad if developers are fearful to make changes during Early Access because that is, after all, the whole point."
Even the most innovative improvements may need to be made incrementally to balance player expectations and better acclimate them to major change. This especially applies to mechanics and any new systems that significantly alter gameplay. And if possible, provide players with the means to revert to earlier versions of the game.
Far and away the biggest lesson to take away from Early Access games is to take advantage of the user feedback as a plumbline gauging the progress of a game, allowing it to blossom to its fullest potential. To what degree and extent may depend on the strength of your original idea, but be sure to establish some form of self-sufficiency, come in with a strong playable build, make regular substantial updates with marketable themes, and manage player's expectations as you go.