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The pros and cons of Early Access

After going through the process twice, New World Interactive highlights the ups and downs of iterative development

When New World Interactive went through Steam's Early Access with its first project, the multiplayer tactical shooter Insurgency, expectations could be described as modest. The studio's previous attempt to crowdfund the game on Kickstarter had fallen short, and the Early Access program itself was brand new, giving Steam users their first chance to pay for in-development games through the platform. To date, the game has sold nearly three million copies, and as New World's Andrew Spearin and Jeremy Blum told the last time we spoke, it saved the company.

Earlier this year, New World launched its second game into Early Access, Day of Infamy. We chatted with Spearin and Blum recently to see how this trip through the alpha funding program has compared to the first, and as might be expected, having the name recognition and track record of Insurgency to their credit seemed to help.

"This time around, we saw a much larger response than we saw the first time we did Early Access," Blum said. "Insurgency was not very well known going into Early Access and I think we didn't really peak at that many players. We used it more for the feedback loop and improving the game over time, whereas with Day of Infamy, I think there's been more interest in the game at the start, which is pretty good."

"There have been a lot of developers who have sort of misused Early Access I would say, and given it sort of a bad rap and put out experiences that are not really fun yet"

Jeremy Blum

Insurgency sold between 35,000 and 40,000 copies during the nine months it was in Early Access. Day of Infamy debuted on Early Access in July, and sold 82,000 in under four months.

"I think our community definitely expected something better than they might have expected with Insurgency," Blum said. "However I would argue that since we launched with Insurgency, there have been a lot of developers who have sort of misused Early Access I would say, and given it sort of a bad rap and put out experiences that are not really fun yet. And I think that's the core thing with an Early Access game: 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. Once we know the game is a fun experience for a few hours at any given sitting as a multiplayer game, that's the point where we feel comfortable letting more people play it and giving us more feedback to make it even better from that point."

As a World War II take on the gameplay of Insurgency, Day of Infamy was considerably closer to completion when it entered Early Access than its predecessor, but Blum said the developers wanted to get it in players' hands while there was still time to change course.

"Essentially, it's this tool we have to get inside the feedback loop early with our community and from there decide what the full release should be instead of deciding what the full release should be way in advance of that," Blum said.

Beyond just underscoring what parts of the game need work and what's already well-tuned, the Early Access period helps identify "unforeseen gems" in the game that the developers may have overlooked.

"Sometimes our community helps us discover things about our game that are unique selling points that maybe we didn't even realize ourselves," Blum said. "And in helping us discover that, it helps us expand upon those elements in greater detail for the full release."

And sometimes the community points out deficiencies the developers are already well aware of. For example, both Insurgency and Day of Infamy are built on the dated Source engine, which has been a sore point for some fans.

"It's a timeless debate of gameplay versus graphics, and it goes back to 8-bit upgrading to 16-bit"

Andrew Spearin

"I think it's natural as time goes on and games get better in quality, people are going to naturally want the better-looking games, and also compare lesser quality games to higher quality ones," Blum said. "We definitely see that as something that is a weakness of our game, and we're spending a lot of time working to polish our environments and make the game more detailed. We really want to get into that and be able to develop these high-fidelity games that our team is capable of making, but to this point technology has somewhat held us back from producing."

Spearin added: "It's a timeless debate of gameplay versus graphics, and it goes back to 8-bit upgrading to 16-bit. But Insurgency had a lot of the same critique of the graphics being lacking, but that didn't stop people from buying the game because of superior gameplay."

That's not to say those criticisms aren't being answered. New World has partnered with Focus Home Interactive to remake Insurgency in Unreal Engine 4 with a new single-player campaign and eSports-friendly features for PC, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4. The new package, titled Insurgency: Sandstorm, is expected to hit shelves next year.

Of course, that poses some questions about what happens to the original Insurgency. Blum said the studio doesn't see much new revenue from Insurgency these days unless its running sales, but there are still a lot of people playing the original on a day-to-day basis.

"There's definitely still a lot of community demand even to this day, three years post-release," Blum said. "There's still a lot of people who still want more. But we had a bit of a struggle because we decided we wanted to make a new Insurgency... the problem is in doing that and deciding we want to bring it in that direction sort of goes against the concept of constantly updating the current Insurgency because we need to obviously allocate a lot of resources toward the new one, and we want to give people a lot of good reason to play the new one. So once we decided there would be a sequel and we knew what that would be, we started tapering off development considerably with Insurgency."

"I would argue [iteraive 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."

Jeremy Blum

Blum said they've been disengaging from Insurgency gradually, and trying to explain to the community exactly why. For the most part, he said they've been understanding, but it underscores a problem when trying to create a successor to something in the games-as-a-service template that is sweeping through the industry these days.

"Early Access feels like a Steam label for the broader concept of iterative development," Spearin said. "And when you look at iterative development, whether it's pre-release with Early Access and open beta or post-release with content updates, you can see how a lot of people from indies all the way up to AAA developers are taking this iterative approach now. Ubisoft likes to highlight Rainbow Six Siege as a really good example of that, depending more on the long tail of sales through content updates rather than banking on pre-orders and the day-one performance of sales."

Customers may have accepted the concept of such iterative development, but Blum said there are still downsides for those on the other side of the process.

"I would argue it's a bit of a burn on the team," he said. "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. And it's sometimes nice to be able to sit back and take our time, but we don't really have that luxury when we're in Early Access since what's out there is out there. So there's a bit of pressure there that I would say is a negative to the iterative approach. But the quality advantage of it is very positive, and the type of engagement it requires you to have with the community has a positive impact, despite being potentially a bit tiring at times."

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Brendan Sinclair avatar
Brendan Sinclair: Brendan joined in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot.
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