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Early Access: A Developer’s Dilemma
I’ll say it: I do not like early access. It is great and all for those people that literally cannot wait for the game to release but I do not like it. And I do not mean the practice of it — the idea of selling games at a lower price in an unfinished state — because that is a whole other barrel of monkeys. I am not talking about the consumerist side of early access here. I am talking about the developer’s side of early access and the issues with it that make me feel that it is ultimately harmful to the process of making a game as a whole — both in development and after it.
Since the whole premise of early access gaming revolves around playing a game still heavily in development, it makes sense to start this diatribe there. Primarily, in this realm, the issue is with motivation. I know everyone isn’t as indolent as myself but it isn’t impossible to understand the issue.
Let’s divide the population into sections by setting up a hypothetical game for early access. First, divide the population into three: people that like a game’s premise (and might buy it) and those that do not (and will not) and those that have never heard of it. Of those that like the premise, separate them into those that want early access and those that want a finished game. The hypothetical is alright and seems sound but it lacks numbers or even the idea of numbers. So let’s populate that penultimate section, “those that want early access”, with this idea: that the popularity of the early access trend and the value of buying an early access game for cheaper while getting the final game puts the ratio of that last hypothetical highly in favor of those that would want early access. The implications of that scenario lead to either of two undesirable outcomes.
The first undesirable is that early access removes the developer’s initiative to finish the game. Like I said above, I would imagine the number of people that cannot wait for the official release of the game and those that like the deal of early access pricing would outweigh the number of people interested in the game but that do not want an unfinished product. This would make it so that a majority of the money a game is likely to make would have been made by the time it is ready for release.
If the developers aren’t of the highest dedication, the temptation to slack off is sure to be incredibly demotivating. But this isn’t an indictment against developers whose pragmatism leads them to laziness. Many people are aware of the risk they are undertaking in funding a game that is usually little more than a proof-of-concept. It is the reason why everyone is so touchy when an early access or Kickstarter studio goes incommunicado for any significant length of time. If a consistent stream of information and progress isn’t provided, people will lose interest, in the best case. Or, more likely, they will label the developers as cheats who made off with their ill-gotten gains. Either situation is bad news for a developer.
The second undesirable comes about in the inverse situation: when the developers shoulder the burden of constant updates. It boils down to pretty much an eternal crunch time. Remember that most of these early access studios are small teams. That means that those constant updates come out of development time which can add up to a time spanning from a couple of minutes (in the case of a blog post) to hours (if the update is in the form of a video of any reasonable length). Over a short span, the strain will not be an issue; some developers will welcome the challenge and enjoy the increased communications with fans. But over a longer development cycle, it creates a slew of other problems based around stress and, as the fun is leeched out of the project due to stress, decreasing motivation.
After all of that, the process dredges up a few more problems once a game gets deeper into its early access lifetime. It is not uncommon for players who buy in to the pre-release clients to just burn out the novelty of the game with a few binge gaming sessions and then forget it exists. In Steam libraries that are, for a number of people, already full of untouched purchases, once a game is put down the likelihood of it being picked up again gets slimmer each day it isn’t played. And when the common thought when putting down a game is “I’ll play it again after it has a few updates”, unless you have a secretary to keep tabs on things for you, the attrition-rate of games that players have shelved looks grim.
There isn’t a problem with gamers shelving a game, though. The purpose of the game is to help the player have fun, so if that is achieved: “whoopee!” Nor is the problem with professional gaming news sites who, more often than not, just publish articles for early access games that are more teaser than impressions. The problem is with those unaligned players who have gained early access, then taken to the forums, streams, blogs, and anywhere else they might be heard to talk about the game. While a good number of it turns out to be — let’s say “enthusiastic” — support for the game, the rest is undeserved bashing with a laser focus on any broken aspects of the game.
Anyone who has trawled a reasonably-sized comments’ section has come across these comments, and many of you may just dismiss them immediately. But there are those that aren’t as wary of, and jaded to, those comments. Whether or not they dismiss the comment after they’ve read it, that negativity has impacted them. They, if they ever choose to look further into the game, will remember that. I’ve looked in on forum posts for many different games (because I’ve got a lot of free time and little imagination) and a common question beyond “is it like X?” is “has X been fixed yet?” And that’s a good question: it shows a measure of consumer-savvy, that the person has done a bit of research on the game he or she is interested in. But that black mark is there and it stains a developer’s work before it is even finished.
If I’ve said it once, I’ll say it unto infinity: I do not like early access. I do not think it sets a healthy standard but, just like the Atkins diet is an alternative to weight loss, early access is an alternative to crowd-funding a game and one that is arguably better than Kickstarting it. I do not want early access to disappear because options are almost always good. But the trend is pointing toward a future where, in PC gaming, early access is a requirement for anything less than a triple-A studio. And that is something I want to see an early grave.