GamesQuest 7: Early Access Pros and Cons

Steam's Early Access program got a lot of bad press but also some stand out success stories. Some people swear by it while others stay away from it - players and developers. So five years after its inception, what are the advantages and disadvantages of releasing a game before it's even finished?

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Transcript excerpt

Recently I have been invited to Rapture Rejects’ private pre-alpha, now it’s actually already in public alpha. It’s a battle royal game based on the Cyanide and Happiness comics. The premise is that the rapture has happened and you didn’t make the cut. Everybody who is left on earth has to fight it out. So it’s a classic battle royal game in which you are dropped on a map, you have to find armor and weapons and after a while the map starts to shrink. What makes it quite unique is this Cyanide and Happiness humor and 2d art style with an isometric view.

But I don’t really want to talk about the game, it just made me think a bit about pre-alpha and also early access. So I did some research on the pros and cons of releasing your game before it’s really finished.

The Advantages of Early Access

Rapture Rejects was in a private pre-alpha stage and I think it’s really smart how they do it. They have a Discord where they announce the next play session in advance. It’s a multiplayer game for which they need enough players at the same time, so they are limiting the availability and with the private alpha, they have control over how big their player pool is, which makes it all manageable at this stage. After the play session they send out a short Google form to collect feedback and of course there is also a lot of activity on Discord.

So what they get from having people playing their game at this early stage, is a lot of feedback. And they get a lot of data and bug reports relatively cheap. Especially in multiplayer games like this, for which you need hundreds or thousands of concurrent players, that is hard and expensive to get for a smaller studio. But this data and feedback is not for free, because now they need to do quite a bit of community management, but I’m sure it still beats hiring a testing company who has a big enough pool of players under NDAs to get the same volume of reports.

On top of that they start to build a community around their game early. Some players will love to get involved in the design process and can become your biggest fans. The ones that a game needs when actually launching later, for example when getting early reviews on Steam. There is also a chance to generate buzz through influencers and journalists without having their final verdict out in the open.

So I think these are the main two advantages to Early Access:

  1. Feedback which may even help you find “unforseen gems”. Just as New World’s Jeremy Blum, whose game Day of Infamy went through Steam Early Access told “Sometimes our community helps us discover things about our game that are unique selling points that maybe we didn't even realize ourselves, and in helping us discover that, it helps us expand upon those elements in greater detail for the full release.”

  2. A community around your game, which can become important advocates for your game once you finally release it.

Usually extra funding is mentioned as an advantage of Early Access as well but Steam actually says now that your development must not rely on Early Access revenue to get to full release. The reasoning behind that is simple. Early Access lowered the bar for entry to the Steam marketplace further, because now you don’t even need a finished game to earn money on Steam. As a result a lot of games got on Early Access that ended in development hell, couldn’t hold up any promises, and often were simply abandoned, leaving disappointed and grumpy players behind. That meant a lot of bad publicity for Early Access and eventually Steam and Valve.

The Problems with Early Access

And this brings us to the cons side of Early Access. It can be daunting to put out an unfinished game. It’s already difficult to decide when a game is ready for a full release but at what point is it finished enough? Blum says: “Even if the content is very incomplete and you have a long way to go before you'd consider it final, if you have a core experience that's really fun, you can still do well in Early Access because people are going to play it if it's fun.” You will need a core loop that keeps players coming back. This brings us to one of the main flaws with Early Access. It doesn’t work well with more linear experiences. It will be hard to have people coming back to experience the same hour of story again and again and give continuous feedback.

As mentioned, early feedback is a big win when releasing early. However, you also have to be prepared for it and answer some of that feedback with regular updates, whether it’s through dev diaries or new builds. It’s an ongoing effort that must not be underestimated or as Blum puts it: “I would argue [iterative development] is a bit of a burn on the team. It's a bigger commitment to the community. Once you're in Early Access and the game's out there, they're going to expect frequent updates.” So you have to be sure to have those community management resources ready and the right development style. Josh Bycer wrote a whole article about when not to go to Early Access on and he puts it this way: “If you’re someone who prefers to work in solitude and not have to worry about the press or fans until the game is done, Early Access is simply not for you.”

He also makes another important point that touches on the development hell I mentioned earlier: “The more you update, the more progress people will see, but that comes at a price. For every new update you make on your Early Access build, means that you need to spend additional time fixing any bugs and making sure that the current build is stable, because the version that’s playable at the moment is the current representation of your game.”

So you have to consider that with Early Access you will need more time to finish a game than without it. This makes sense because now you are also trying to listen to all this outside feedback. While this has great benefits one reddit user notes “If you get 1000 people shouting at you and you're not sure (or you forget) what you were trying to achieve in the first place, it can be extremely difficult to stay on target.”

Finally I also want to mention money on the cons side. Some developers fear that Early Access on Steam means some money now but less revenue later. The idea is that you want to make as big a splash when launching as possible. So that the word gets out everywhere simultaneously in order to hit critical mass and make download charts, be picked up by more media outlets, and maybe even make that Steam front page. So what if you end up with two mediocre launches instead of one big one, or as one developer puts it on reddit “Is there a chance that we're choosing between 10 sales now with 10 sales later, versus 0 sales now and 100 later?”

Unfortunately I haven’t found any recent numbers on this but Steam Spy’s Sergey Galyonkin tried to answer the question whether Early Access game sales are different from non-EA games in 2015. He said: “The answer is both yes and no. When your game enters EA, gamers seem to treat it in the same way as non-EA games. At least I found no statistically significant difference in sales or playtime.
But when your game exits EA, it is way more likely to sell well compared to an average game. If it survives long enough to actually get released.
Of course an average game on Steam isn’t selling really well and “Early Access survivors” could be considered outliers — games that were continuously supported for a long period of time. Maybe that’s why they’re selling four times better on average.”

Be Prepared

So to summarize: To be successful with Early Access you already need to have a fun playable game. It’s okay if it has a few things missing or experiences the odd bug but it should also not crash constantly. Then you can build a community early and get its feedback to tweak your game mechanics. Don’t expect that Early Access money to pay the rest of your development. Hopefully it covers that extra community management. It’s probably also a good idea to have some extra content ready for the final release to make a bigger splash on launch day.

Of course, do your research and I think there are enough games out there who have been through Early Access that we can learn from. And I wouldn’t just look at the Early Access stars like Prison Architect but also at the average games in there. It’s hard to plan for the viral hit but you can get good result with a proper plan.