Peering Behind the Curtain
Early Access is exciting - but developers should consider carefully before making the leap
Do you recall the first Wolverine movie? Not the more recent one set in a geographically challenged version of Japan as imagined by someone whose sole experience of Japan comes from over-excitable anime shows; the one before that, way back in 2009. Yeah, the completely rubbish one. That one. If you're lucky, you've probably forgotten almost everything about that film, but you may dimly recall the minor brouhaha which came a few months before its launch. You see, someone figured out a way - possibly the only way - to make X-Men Origins: Wolverine into an even worse film; they leaked an unfinished print, full of unedited green screens, stuntmen supported by visible wires, empty spaces for special effects, and so on. It was terrible, to the point of being almost unwatchable; and yet it was downloaded millions of times by "fans" eager to see the film long before it was even due to arrive in cinemas.
I couldn't help but think, at the time, that an actual fan of the character or the franchise would be doing themselves an absolutely awful disservice by watching an unfinished print of the movie. Not only would they not enjoy the effect-less, improperly coloured, generally shoddy-looking version of the film they'd downloaded; as a consequence of watching it, they'd probably not be able to enjoy the polished final version when it arrived in the cinema (granted, with this specific movie, enjoying the final version turned out not to be an option anyway).
Yet the urge to get your hands on new things, even at the expense of them being unfinished and a bit rubbish, is deeply ingrained in many of us. Non-developers find workarounds to get the iOS 8 beta onto their phones, because what your primary communication device really needs is some unstable, buggy beta software to mess up your day. Script leaks and spoilers for movies and TV shows, while scrupulously avoided by many, are lapped up by others. And when I was still involved in consumer games journalism, I had constant requests from friends who wanted to know what alpha or beta code for games I'd got my hands on; this seemingly being vastly more exciting than the finished, polished, actually enjoyable games which were available on the store shelves.
"It's worth, however, sounding a note of caution to creators about Early Access, because in all the hype around this new model, it's almost certain that some creators are going to try to use the model in inappropriate ways"
Even while recognising this urge to some extent, I don't really claim to understand it. If anything, one thing I'm delighted to be rid of from consumer journalism is the need to occasionally ruin games for myself by playing them before they're actually ready to be played; yet here we are, it's 2014, and not only is everyone still excited about playing unfinished games, it's now a major funding model for indie development.
Of course, for certain types of game, letting players in before it's actually finished has been a popular model for many years. Counter-Strike famously launched as an early beta and spent years refining and changing its formula (not always to everyone's approval) before reaching a version 1.0. More recently, Minecraft did something similar, with the added twist that players were expected to buy the game even in its early beta phase (although it's worth noting that it was remarkably and indeed almost endlessly playable even at that point). Minecraft, I suspect, is the origin point for the current Early Access craze, although others attribute it to the emergence of "betas" for online multiplayer games on consoles. These, however, aren't actually betas - they're server stress tests to some extent, but their real purpose is as marketing events.
The appeal of early access to creators is clear. Kickstarter often seeks funds too early for gamers to get a real feel for what the game will be like or if the creators have any chance of pulling off what they're aiming for; ambitious projects by unknown teams probably won't be backed at this stage unless they're very lucky. Early Access, though, is a scheme which shows people directly that you're at a reasonably advanced stage with your game, and gives you the funding you need to apply the final lick of paint and coat of polish to the whole thing before trundling it out the door. If Kickstarter is the highly risky pitch of a brand new idea to a skeptical boardroom, Early Access is the rather more reliable milestone payment from the publisher; except that both the boardroom and the publisher, in this case, are the public at large.
For certain games, obviously, this works rather well. It works well for some consumers too, especially those who have a little development experience or broad gaming knowledge and are able to look beyond the flaws of beta software to see the potential of the final product. There will, I'm absolutely certain, be a lot of consumers who are lured by the sparkle of getting their hands on something so early, only to walk away severely let down by the reality that buggy and unfinished software is rarely as entertaining as a trawl through YouTube for funny videogame bugs would suggest; and that's fine too. This is a niche funding method, one which takes its place in the pantheon of new funding methods and business models rather than seeking to take over from anything else. More funding options for development is always something to be welcomed.
It's worth, however, sounding a note of caution to creators about Early Access, because in all the hype around this new model, it's almost certain that some creators are going to try to use the model in inappropriate ways - either ending up damaging the game's prospects, or straight-up upsetting consumers. The latter has arguably already happened, with a Steam Early Access title called Earth: Year 2066 which completely failed to live up to any of the promises it made to its users. In this case, the difference between claimed functionality and reality was so egregious that Steam refunded users' money; in other cases, it's likely to be honest miscommunication or over-ambitious planning that causes the problem, in which case the question of refunds will be far, far more tricky to handle. After all, if you're paying to access a beta, can you really demand a refund if it's buggy or unfinished - given that that is, by most definitions, precisely what beta software is?
The former case, of a developer damaging their own game's prospects with an Early Access program, is also of concern - albeit a bit more subtle in its nature. There are a few ways this could happen to a game that isn't really well-suited to Early Access, a category which almost certainly includes most story-based games along with a variety of other largely single-player experiences (procedurally generated things like Minecraft being a regular exception). The most obvious is a word of mouth problem; if the beta for the game doesn't live up to various expectations, it could end up disenchanting hardcore fans who ought to be your best evangelists. Normal pre-release PR is quite a controlled thing, even for indie developers - you choose which screenshots and videos are released, which levels can be played in demos, which parts you show off at events. You put your most polished parts forward and keep the areas whose bug lists haunt your fever dreams carefully hidden away until they're ready for the general public to see.
Early access isn't so forgiving. Early access throws your game on the mercy of the public, warts and all - and not every consumer understands just how many warts a piece of software in development usually has, just as not every developer is happy to thrust their work into the limelight before it has its make-up on. Cultivating positive word-of-mouth is the most important thing a developer can do in terms of ensuring the commercial success of their game, so it's well worth thinking about whether your type of game will endure being played with various experience-breaking bugs, and whether the Early Access cash is so appealing as to mitigate the risk to your word-of-mouth.
"Just be careful; picking the right funding model is turning into a minefield for developers just as tricky as picking the right game engine or art style"
The second issue is somewhat different, and it's to do with creative freedom. Often times, developers make big changes quite late in the creation process. Whole features or aspects of a game are dropped, not because there isn't time to finish them (well, not always that) but because the developer realises they're not contributing to the game as they were intended to; good design is often about what you choose to leave out, not what extra stuff you put in. In smaller terms, game systems are chopped and changed, enemies, weapons and a whole host of statistics are fiddled with to a dramatic extent; in the pursuit of making a game "feel right" in its final weeks and months, it's not uncommon to end up with a game that's quite different in important ways to what it was previously. This even happens in AAA development, where the huge budgets at stake ought to imply a higher level of planning and control; in indie development, I often get the impression that it's par for the course.
Does an indie developer have that level of freedom, I wonder, if their all-important core fans are already playing a beta version of the game? Of course, player feedback to the beta could be very useful, so the creative aspect of Early Access isn't all bad; but the decision to drop a whole system or feature, already difficult to make when it's just the creative team debating amongst themselves, could become impossible faced with a crowd of gamers who'll be deeply suspicious at seeing major features being dropped at the last minute. Moreover, your tweaks to items, statistics or movement code will suddenly stop being polish and start being "nerfs" or "buffs"; what should have been you getting the game just right by your own standards will now be a matter of contention among players.
For a great many games, that's absolutely fine. For multiplayer games in particular, it's probably actually a good thing - indeed, the ability to receive telemetry from player actions and tweak the software accordingly is one of the great developments of the Internet age of gaming. However, there are still plenty of games, especially in the somewhat auteur-ish end of the indie scene, for which this loss of creative freedom would be deeply unfortunate. It's one thing to get insight into the making of a great movie or the thought process behind a fantastic book or album after the fact; it's another to let your audience peer over your shoulder and make suggestions while you work, especially if you've already taken money from them and thus made them feel entitled to be listened to.
I don't think I'll ever buy into an Early Access game; if I'm going to love something, I'd rather experience it when it's finished; but I'm happy to see a new funding system added to the repertoire of indie gaming. Just be careful; picking the right funding model is turning into a minefield for developers just as tricky as picking the right game engine or art style. Early Access will keep working brilliantly for some, but it's not for all, and developers would be wise to think through the consequences of letting their audience peer behind the curtain before the magic's actually finished.