‘Early Access’ is the idea of releasing an incomplete game to the public in alpha or beta form and allowing them to effectively test the game and feed back any issues, bugs or ideas to the developers. When the idea works it’s a great way for developer and consumer to communicate, and can be a great way for gamers to shape the direction an early access game is going in. A good example of an early access title done correctly is Prison Architect, a game that has been in development for some time but the team constantly release monthly updates and continually listen to feedback the fans have given them. As a result the game has gathered a lot of momentum and made a fair amount of money for Introvision Software as each update provides either new gameplay features or important ‘bug bashes’ but along the way incorporates fan feedback both positive and negative. Eventually a full game will be available that’ll be a unique collaboration between fans and developers, and for me personally it’s been quite the thrill ride along the way, I’ve been watching the game grow since Alpha 8 and we’re now approaching Alpha 36.
On the other hand early access can go horribly wrong. Towns is one of the most high profile examples of this, it was one of the first ten games released under the Steam Greenlight banner and also the first to be released as an early access title. Despite a lot of hype and more than 200,000 copies sold – a reasonable amount for an indie game – the man behind Towns suddenly abandoned the game citing lack of money made as the main reason. He then almost immediately moved on to other projects and even had the audacity to openly talk about ideas for Towns 2, and as a result those who bought the first Towns game have vowed to boycott anything the guy is involved in for the foreseeable future.
The point is games like Towns and numerous others have dented the reputation of the early access model, to the point where only about 25% of games actually make it to a final release, or at least what the developers consider to be that. Gamers are understandably a lot more cautious when it comes to parting with their money, but at least with Steam updating their policy or early access games it’s now easier to discover how early access games are progressing simply by looking at the information page about the game. If there has been no news from the delopers for a while avoid it, whereas if there are continual updates available it might be worth investing your time and money into it. Another example of this is with Ark: Survival Evolved (a game that Alan and I actually play quite regularly), updates are released almost every other day so it’s easy to see e developers are still serious about releasing a finished title. Of course there is still the risk that it could be abandoned like so many others, but with the amount of support that game has they’d be foolish to do that, and of course further dent the early access model for future games.
That brings me nicely on to my point in typical fashion, 600 words later. So you’ve made your game, it’s in early access, but how long is too long to be in that state? Let’s go back to Prison Architect, and if you’ve done the math you’ll notice I said they release monthly alphas and we’re approaching number 36 – that’s a long time for a game, especially an indie title, to be in early access. However the key point is exactly that, there have been 36 alpha releases in about 40 months (time has been understandably taken out for Christmas, a holiday and the birth of one of the developers’ children). There are constant and continual updates to keep players not only entertained but always knowing what’s going on, every step of the way. The same is currently happening with Ark, and I think in this day and age of gaming a completed game is more of a milestone than a final target, as development can continue long after the big 1.0 version release in the form of patches and downloadable content.
To conclude, as far as I’m concerned developers can take as long as they like having a game in early access as long as fans are kept up to date with what’s going on and there is always that knowledge available that it’ll progress out of early access one day. It’s important when looking at a game to buy that is in early access to see what the developers have done so far, if they keep their fans up to date with what’s happening and most importantly if they are releasing enough content regularly to make it worth your money. If a game ticks these boxes then by all means make the plunge. It is very exciting to watch a game develop before your eyes, knowing that you can contribute along the way.