Early Access can feel like a minefield. Involving your player base in the game development process always bears certain risks. A vocal community is able to offer constructive feedback and greatly improve upon your ideas, but its demands can quickly become unreasonable or too hard to implement. Risking the ire of a large group of people heavily invested in your game is definitely not recommended.
It's a gamble worth taking, though - after all, this is what Early Access is for. Now, if you want to take this idea one step further, why not build a whole game around your players' ideas and demands?
Enter Croatian indie studio Little Green Men. Starting out as a tiny outfit, working on their first game from a kitchen table, they kept growing with every release until reaching a team size of 25. Their second release, tactical space simulator Starpoint Gemini 2, was one of Steam's first Early Access titles.
During development, the response from the game's player base was overwhelming, leading to Little Green Men changing roughly 30% of the finished product to fit the whims of its community. The result, co-founder Mario Mihokovic claims, was definitely a better game.
Many suggestions could be implemented into Starpoint Gemini 2, but there were a lot of amazing ideas left after development wrapped up. These became the core of Little Green Men's third project: Starpoint Gemini Warlords. At the heart of these suggestions was the desire to have an additional strategic level added to the giant space sandbox, giving players the chance to quite literally conquer the universe.
According to Mihokovic, it was the fans who "envisioned this mega hybrid space game - merging 4X, RPG, and direct simulation. Month by month, they [came up with new] ideas, monitored obstacles that would arise, and suggested dozens of ways to tackle every specific problem."
While players and developers didn't always see eye to eye and had their fair share of conflicts over the Early Access period, they consider this approach a success and regard Starpoint Gemini Warlords as "the first community-created game." That sounds like a lofty claim, but it cannot be overstated how much the players shaped the direction of development. At the very least, it is Early Access done right.
The game's 4X elements are implemented quite well: you can order your fleets around the space map with just a few clicks while you're somewhere else in your own ship (or small fleet of ships, for that matter), chasing your own objectives. I'm just a few hours into the game and I do have some difficulty imagining how well this scales with extended scope - not just controlling a small sector of the galaxy map, but several of them, ordering huge fleets around.
This is a bit of an issue in general. With greater complexity comes the need to accommodate for more complex actions, and sometimes the game gets bogged down by its complicated UI. Actions like choosing new equipment for your ship, adding ships to your fleet, and other important features aren't always sufficiently explained or don't offer enough information. It's these small things that make for a rocky start, but once you get to grips with all of this, you start to see Starpoint Gemini Warlords' potential.
After this somewhat plodding start which is further slowed down by the need to take on repetitive random missions in order to fill your war chest, the game opens up and reveals a huge sandbox with tons of content and, most importantly, different ways to play the game. The amount of options is staggering. Be a trader, scavenger, warlord, or pirate. Tinker away in your little corner of the galaxy or conquer all planets. Build huge fleets, gigantic planet-killing dreadnoughts - or both. This freeform gameplay might be an acquired taste, but if clicks with you, Starpoint Gemini Warlords can be a giant time sink and it has the potential to draw you in for months.
Wrapping up development after three years doesn't mean that the game is done, as patches and changes based on community feedback are still being rolled out after launch. As for the remaining features suggested by the players... well, Mihokovic doesn't rule out the possibility of this being the start of Little Green Men's next game. Until then, Starpoint Gemini Warlords should be enough to satisfy their demanding player base.