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."