A reflection on Early Access. Was it the right choice?
Early Access is a program on Steam designed for players to jump in and start playing games while they are still in development. The goal of the program is for players to provide valuable feedback to improve the game and make for a more polished, complete experience. But is Early Access right for just any game? This article is a reflection of my experience and opinions and may help offer some insight to other developers looking to enter the program.
My experience with Early Access begins a couple years ago, midway through The Forbidden Arts’ development cycle. I began to think about ways I could improve the game through various types of player feedback. After a bit of research, and back and forth in my head, I decided to try out the Early Access program on Steam. I went in completely blind and oblivious to how the system worked. I’d never purchased an Early Access game in my life, let alone browsed the Early Access category on Steam. I knew literally nothing other than the program seemed like it could be a good opportunity to improve my game and get some valuable feedback while I continued development. Knowing what I know now, I would not have entered Early Access when I did. I think Early Access is great if you have a near-finished product, but for something as early in development as The Forbidden Arts, it partially backfired on me.
First off, let’s talk about what genres of games cater well to Early Access. Games that fit Early Access well typically have a repeat theme such as survival, battle royale, simulation, construction etc. Single player games with a linear story are the last thing you might expect to gain a player’s interest.
Valve specifically states if you are entering Early Access for the money, do not enter Early Access. Lucky for me, I was not in that situation. I wanted community feedback, and it seemed like Early Access was a great way gain such feedback. I had several sources of income, so money wasn’t a motivation for me. If it was, I’d probably have abandoned the game during the remainder of development, because I would be broke, and I wouldn’t be able to continue working on the game. That should put the financial gains I had in perspective.
I did work with a PR company for the Early Access launch, and I did do a decent amount of marketing. I was actually quite happy with the amount of attention the game got at launch, despite the mixed reaction. I read literally every article, every preview, watched every YouTube video and Twitch Stream I could find, and I made notes. Notes, notes, notes! I fixed and improved literally everything people complained about or suggested, at least what was within my power to do so. I’ve continued to do this throughout the year and a half the game has been in Early Access. I take it very seriously, and I listen to everyone. I think that’s very important. Otherwise, why enter Early Access at all?
The one big problem I had was with how people were treating the game like a full release. The game was very pre-alpha and had less than 30% of the total game’s content included when it launched in Early Access. Nothing was final, or even close to being final. I tried hard to convey the game was still a big work-in-progress, but that didn’t seem to get through to a lot of people, or they simply didn’t care. The fact is, once you put something on the market for money, people have the right to critique it as a paid product, despite the state in which it’s in. In my case, the game was released too early for Early Access. There were bugs too. Lots of them. But I thought this was what Early Access was all about for players: jumping in while a game was still in early development and helping the developer improve the game. It seems most players still expect a polished product, so my initial assumption was far off from reality. If you’re a developer, I believe you should only release in Early Access when you have a polished vertical slice of your game ready to play. Whatever you do, do not do what I did. There are better ways to get feedback early on in development.
Despite my revelations, the feedback in Early Access was very helpful. There was definitely a dozen or so players that contributed massive amounts of feedback to me. Although the player base wasn’t what I was hoping for, I have learned a lot and I now understand Early Access much better.
If I hadn’t entered Early Access, the game would not have become what it is today. Sure, I would have finished the game, and it would be more polished, but it wouldn’t be as good. Simply put, I don’t regret entering the program. However, if I were to enter Early Access with a different game in the future, I would definitely do things differently. For starters, I’d wait until the game was 90% complete, not 30% complete. I’d also only bother entering if I had a game in a genre that caters well to Early Access. Otherwise, a lot of beta testing sessions could probably achieve the same results.