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Paid betas hurt Early Access - Tripwire

Killing Floor 2 studio's Alan Wilson says some developers are disrespecting customers and Valve by charging for broken, buggy games

Tripwire Interactive has come a long way in a decade. What began as a mod team cobbling together an Unreal Tournament mod for the 2004 Make Something Unreal contest has grown into a fixture of the Atlanta-area scene, a studio with about 50 employees and two successful franchises under its belt, Red Orchestra and Killing Floor. In April, Tripwire launched Killing Floor 2 into Steam's Early Access program, an experience that studio VP Alan Wilson told GamesIndustry.biz brought the company right back to its roots.

"As a mod team, you weren't trying to sell anything to anyone," Wilson said. "There was a thought that we could put stuff out there, try it, and if people didn't like it, we could change it and try again. We always liked that sort of thing. It's got a nice feedback loop in it. But when you're trying to sell a game, you can't sell a game and then say, 'Yeah, you're right. This is really crappy and that's not so good.' People are just not comfortable with that idea. So Early Access was attractive to us because it let us check out our thinking. Are we on the right track here? We think we are, but let's make sure."

"[A]t that point, we're asking people to part with their money, and they should not be getting a broken product. I think that's where a number of people are going wrong with Early Access."

One big difference is that this time around, the players have paid for the experience. And while some might see Early Access as a profitable sort of beta testing for companies, it's a view Wilson doesn't share.

"Beta testing to me is about finding things that are broken," Wilson said. "We do not subscribe to the view that things that go into Early Access should be broken. Yeah, there's probably going to be the odd, lurking bug. But at that point, we're asking people to part with their money, and they should not be getting a broken product. I think that's where a number of people are going wrong with Early Access. They're treating it like a paid beta."

That's why Killing Floor 2 still went through closed beta testing before it jumped into Early Access. And it's a good thing it did, Wilson said, because they caught some "stupid" bugs that should never make it into a game people are paying to play. For example, the closed beta quickly shed light on the fact that the game had a hardcoded limit of 255 servers on the server browser.

Unfortunately, Wilson said not every developer shares that philosophy when it comes to Early Access, and he's seen a number of "nasty cash grabs" hit the service. And those cash grabs aren't just hurting the customers who buy them; they're hurting the Early Access program itself.

"There's a number of developers who have gone through [Early Access] who have not shown Valve or their clients the relevant respect they're due, and yes that hurts."

"You look at it right now, and people are saying, 'Yeah, it's an Early Access game, it's going to be busted.' People are shying away because of some of the horror stories that have gone on, which is a shame," Wilson said. "Perhaps Early Access could have been better defined, but I think when they threw Early Access out there, Valve were expecting developers to be... mature about it--let's put it that way--to be mature about it and respect their clients and get it through their skull that you're asking for money at this point, so you do not piss about. There's a number of developers who have gone through that process who have not shown Valve or their clients the relevant respect they're due, and yes that hurts."

That's not to say Wilson wants Valve to step in and clean up the program itself. Ever since it announced the Greenlight program, Valve has taken conspicuous efforts to lessen its role as a curator of the Steam store and lower barriers to entry, an approach Wilson agrees with.

"I don't honestly think Valve should step back in and start vetting what goes into Early Access because then they again they become a bottleneck," Wilson said. "I genuinely don't know what the answer is. It's going to take someone cleverer than me. I'm hoping that the 100 million-odd subscribers on Steam will have the patience to see Early Access go through, and I suppose part of it is learn who to trust."

While Steam and the PC have been the most successful platforms for Tripwire, the company is always looking at new options. For example, it brought Killing Floor: Calamity to the Ouya in 2013, a project which prompts a chuckle from Wilson.

"The joke we make about it is that we were one of the top-selling games on the Ouya when we released Calamity, and we sold many hundreds of units."

"The joke we make about it is that we were one of the top-selling games on the Ouya when we released Calamity, and we sold many hundreds of units," Wilson said. "We like to keep tabs on and experiment with new ideas. We did some work with OnLive, for example. We did the work with Ouya. These are things that could have changed the industry; those were less successful. About 10 years ago, we did the same with this new thing called Steam. That one worked hugely. We like to track some of these potential game changers, to use a really bad and overused pun."

The good news is that the studio could still salvage something from the endeavor, as it's bringing Calamity to tablets in the coming months. Wilson also dismissed the notion that Tripwire's experience on the Ouya would make it a bit gun shy the next time an opportunity like that came down the line.

"It wasn't spoken out loud when we first started, but we've realized that's one of the core tenets of the business, just to keep experimenting," Wilson said. "If you don't try those experiments, you're going to get stuck in a rut. There are all sorts of things you could be missing out on. Sometimes it's a big step, but a lot of times it's not that hard to make those experiments and take those chances."

The obvious areas for experimentation at the moment are VR and augmented reality, but Wilson was a bit cagey on that front, simply saying, "We'll see where that goes."

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Latest comments (7)

Craig Page El Presidente, Awesome Enterprises2 years ago
Didn't Valve just solve this problem by announcing "refunds for any reason"? I think a buggy unplayable game is a pretty valid reason. There's also the player reviews, it only takes a minute or two to skim through them and decide what a game is and what it isn't.
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Alan Wilson Vice President, Tripwire Interactive2 years ago
Sure, refunds help. Player reviews help. But clients shouldn't be pushed into the position where they feel they need a refund.
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Barrie Tingle Live Producer, Maxis2 years ago
From my experience with Early Access on Steam it seems like smaller teams release pre-Alpha versions of the game not Beta.

If you are beyond Beta stage in development you generally aren't using Early Access, you are releasing your game fully Maybe I missed it in the article but he doesn't seem to shed light on what he believes Early Access is if it isn't letting people access a pre-Final (Beta) version of the game.
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Show all comments (7)
Charlie Cleveland Game Director/Founder, Unknown Worlds2 years ago
Kudos to Tripwire for being the #1 SEA game for awhile there. But to say that titles that go on Early Access should be polished and bug-free just undermines the whole thing to me.

We were one of the first developers to work in tandem with our community to build and fund our game: Natural Selection 2. We literally could not have made NS2 without our community's financial support or feedback. Our first version was a level editor. No game at all. Later we had a very simple, very buggy game. And we just kept evolving it. I did the same thing with the original Natural Selection, which was pretty buggy on launch, but launch it we did and we were able to turn it into something much better, much faster, with all that feedback and help.

Now we're doing SEA with Subnautica and we're having the same results. The financial help has been amazing, and the amount of feedback we've gotten is incredible too (http://subnautica.unknownworlds.com). We've made huge changes to the game during early access, and I believe our fans love helping direct the game and to have their voices be heard before the game is done.

Shipping something without bugs or when you've made most of your big decisions just seems like regular old game development to me.
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Farhang Namdar Lead Game Designer Larian Studios 2 years ago
Early access was fantastic for us when we put Divinity Original Sin out there, we had a community on the forum that suddenly just kicked in and started discussing features, mechanics, story, plot holes, bugs, anything really. And seeing the fact that this was an RPG driven by many dynamic mechanics it was just awesome that people could mess around with it and try all possible permutations and even crash it. But you do need to ship a game that is well playable and close to crash free, you are asking money for it and to a certain extent people deserve to get rewarded for the investment. You can't just trick them into buying it because it will be better at an undefined moment in the future! You owe them a game, so you have to deliver a game in early access and improve it as you get closer to release. Obviously with every game it's different, with Original Sin all of the gameplay had to be in there because it was an RPG. We had to finish the systemic mechanics and rule base of the game so people had a chance to enjoy it.

You can't deliver a buggy game or people won't play it, it shouldn't frustrate them and it shouldn't stop them from playing the game. The feedback generated from SEA was phenomenal for tweaking the mechanics and values to make the game better. Releasing a broken game generates negative early access reviews which in turn influence your sales when the game comes out. Bottom line: your game sure us hell better be fun otherwise it has no business being on SEA.
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Josef Vorbeck Producer, Chasing Carrots2 years ago
Mainly bad communication with the players hurts Early Access. And developers who don't need to do Early Access in the first place, because some players might get a wrong picture about SEA.
But I also think that everyone should have the freedom to define this program for their own needs, if the game is not finished. Lots of small teams are doing a great job with their games in Early Access and like Charlie stated, it's a valuable resource in terms of feedback, testing and even ideas.
Some of our updates for Cosmonautica during Early Access had game breaking bugs and most players understand that this can happen, because they are involved and have a direct connection to us.
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Lucas Seuren Freelance, Only Network2 years ago
I think the truth is somewhere in between. Killing Floor 2 isn't close to what you'd call finished, so people aren't paying for a post-beta game. But neither is it still terribly buggy in some pre-alpha shape. As I understand it, the development process is somewhat new. The version of the game on SEA should be a sort of extensive demo. Showing to players what the game is going to be about, but not shying away from making significant changes to the gameplay if required by the community. There are of course going to be bugs, but SEA is not about testing if the game is stable, but whether the gameplay and such works. All I see in this article, is that Tripwire takes that a bit further than most devs, by trying to make the SEA version already as bug free as possible.

Any changes that are made in conjunction with the community should not be beta tested by that community. Players say how the game should work better, and Tripwire then makes those changes, test if they work, and then lets the community decide if this is indeed what they want. It's a more circular process.
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