"People on the internet can actually be very nice!"
RageSquid's Roel Ezendam on how to stay happy in Early Access
Rage Squid's Action Henk is a tremendously happy game. Its brightly coloured toyscape evoked raw childhood glee, halcyon afternoons spent playing with the mismatched contents of a toybox and a wealth of raw imagination. Halfway between Trials and Toy Soldiers, its a shiny, fizzing antidote to the gritty newsreel realities of a million shooters. Its marketing tagline is "Buttslide to Victory."
Chatting to Roel Ezendam, Rage Squid co-founder and Action Henk's physics coder, it's easy to see where some of that joy comes from. He's chatty and relaxed in that sincerely chirpy way which the Dutch often seem to personify, with an easy child-like glee. When I speak to him, in late May, his team has just launched Action Henk officially, after nine months in Early Access, so maybe he's just a bit demob-happy, but it's hard not to imagine him idly toying with an action figure on the other end of the call.
Like many fresh indies, RageSquid is a small team of "five or six" permanent figures, helped out by friends when the need arises. Roel has a history in the demoscene, but the team first bonded in that nigh-ubiquitous indie environment: the gamejam. Enthusiasm and talent drove the early days, says Ezendam, which made for fun if slightly aimless beginnings.
"I remember back when we started in the first weeks," he says with a laugh, "everyone just wanted to get going, but nobody really knew what we wanted to do. We knew what sort of game we wanted to make but the whole process from start to finish...we'd never done it before. So we just sort of got started, planning to just see what happened and adjust course as we went...The first couple of months were pretty weird.
"We were prepared for the huge impact which a good marketing person can have on a game, though," he says - a nod to the team's PR supremo Kitty Calis, also a producer at Guerilla. "There's always some luck involved, but the aspects that you can control make a lot of difference - about half is the game and half is the marketing, so we knew how important marketing was. We were looking for that person from the beginning - it's a job in itself and very time consuming. You can't just have a person on the team who does it part time. That doesn't work."
A fortnight ago, but two weeks after our call, RageSquid announced that Action Henk would be on its way to PS4, Xbox One and Wii U in a partnership with Curve Digital. It makes some sense of the hesitation in Ezendam's voice when I ask him whether the nine months of Early Access Action Henk has been through has made the thought of porting to other platforms any less daunting.
"We're a lot more experienced as a result," he says eventually, "we've basically had two launches for the price of one. The Early Access launch was our first ever launch, so it was great to know that, if something was broken, people would give us some slack. So we weren't too scared. After we actually did launch on Early Access, we found it was actually pretty stable, which was a great surprise. That's something we know now, but in terms of improving your game and fixing its problems, every game is different, so Early Access, or at least some form of beta program is definitely very valuable. I think it can really accelerate your iteration process, which is vital to creating a good product. I think it will always be valuable."
Almost everything I've heard about Early Access has been conflicting. Some see it as a brilliant way to bring in early money and free feedback from invested customers, others a process which only encourages the sort of relationship with players which manifests in ludicrous displays of entitlement. Ezendam sees both sides.
"It's great to just see people enjoying the game, that's the point of development, after all. That's very rewarding, a great motivator"
"There are some great things about early access and some not so great things," he says, with a laughing apology for a lack of commitment. "The best thing is that people are obviously playing your game - you don't have to wait nine months for people to actually get their hands on the game. On the one hand you get the feedback, which is great - very valuable, but on the other hand it's great to just see people enjoying the game, that's the point of development, after all. That's very rewarding, a great motivator.
"The problem with it, at least from our perspective, is that these aren't just people who test an early version of the game, they actually buy it. They're customers. You have to cater to them, you can't mess around. If they run into a problem, you have to fix it, you can't just leave it for months. It's a commitment. You have to make updates, get things done. I know from personal experience that it doesn't always happen, but we're committed to keeping that promise.
"From the moment you launch early access, on one hand you still have room to play around with, but on the other hand you have to deliver to customers. You don't have to do that with a beta, if you decide you don't want to keep working on it, you can just walk away. It's stressful, you can't take a break.
"Luckily, in general the people who tend to buy early access games are aware of some of the difficulties that can occur in development. Because there's so much scepticism around early access, the people who buy are generally more informed. If we have to make any changes, you have to explain that thought process. As long as you do that, people generally understand. It can be scary, telling people you don't have the time or money to pursue something, but people have actually been really great about these things, really thoughtful. You can easily get a picture of people on the internet as brutal and unforgiving, but it turns out, at least for us, that they can be very nice!
"Obviously there's the occasional 'oh it's just a fat dude on a rollercoaster', but generally it's been very pleasant, way nice than we expected."
"I think it's partly because the community wasn't that big. I think that as a community gets bigger you get more rotten apples, most of ours were very kind. In smaller groups people are generally kinder, more generous, because everyone sort of knows each other, there's not that cloud of anonymity. There have been a few YouTube videos about the game and you go into those comments thinking 'this is going to be terrible', but people are nice! Obviously there's the occasional 'oh it's just a fat dude on a rollercoaster', but generally it's been very pleasant, way nicer than we expected."
At the time of speaking, just a few days after full launch, fully 75 per cent of the team's sales had come from Early Access, and the community generated there had shown considerable commitment and retention, returning regularly whenever an update was posted.
"We were pretty surprised at how much they did," Ezendam says. "Whenever we launched a new level, people played it really quickly - people were coming back to the game even more than we thought. Nearly everyone who's bought the game has spent quite a lot of time with it. I think that's partly because we haven't done any deep discounts yet - when you do that you get more people buying the game who don't ever play it, but so far it's been great, people are very invested.
"The people who are active in the forums are usually pretty into the development process, so they know that they'll run into problems, but they'll also be happier to tell you when they run into a problem. It's actually still pretty special for a lot of people that, when they post something in the forum, a developer will reply. They're usually very pleased and surprised by that. For them it's a really good reason to be involved in Early Access. You tend to lose sight of that as a developer, much like you find it hard to be excited if a game comes with a level editor. It's like: 'Great. That's what I do all day.' But people who don't love that chance, they love being involved.
Action Henk is out now on Steam and coming to Xbox One, PS4 and Wii U this summer.