If not for Early Access, Earth: Year 2066 might have been one more forgettable sandbox shooter — the latest in a run of post-apocalyptic adventures trying to cash in on the success of DayZ and Fallout. But now it's famous, and not for the reasons its creator might have wished.
For many, Earth: Year 2066 is Exhibit A of what is ailing Early Access. Released in early 2014, it immediately came under fire for being an empty, buggy disaster. As GameSpot wrote in its review, "The unexpected flights off the world were hilarious at first, but then the shock settled in as I realized I could see the full extent of what I paid for. That road, that abandoned village (complete with a fuel tank that I can run straight through), a clump of hills, and a radar tower make up the entirety of Earth: Year 2066 in its current state, and it's all set on a little beige square adrift in a sea of fluffy clouds."
A month later, Valve pulled Earth: Year 2066 from its Steam Early Access service, with Valve employee Chris D explaining, "On Steam, developers make their own decisions about promotion, features, pricing and publication. However, Steam does require honesty from developers in the marketing of their games.
It was a low point for Early Access, which has in the past couple years become a popular way to fund development while crowdsourcing feedback, but at various points has been abused by opportunistic developers looking to pass the risk on to consumers. There have been plenty of success stories, but also plenty of high-profile failures. Google "Steam Early Access," and the top results you get are "Steam Early Access is bad" and "Steam Early Access refund."
It's hard to shake the feeling of discontent from fans who feel burned by games that are outright broken upon release, remain in Early Access in perpetuity, or are simply abandoned. But the model's popularity keeps right on growing, making it a fact of life for those who follow the industry, whether as a fan or as a professional. And with developers getting comfortable with the expectations of Early Access, games like Invisible, Inc. are flourishing within the model.
The question is: What is the "right" way to do Early Access? And in the long run, is it good for gaming?
The Cash Flow Timing Benefit
While it tends to get lumped in with crowdfunding services like Kickstarter, Early Access — the model in which players pay for access to a game while it's still early in development — has been around in one form or another for longer than most people know. More than a decade before Valve introduced its Steam Early Access program, X-COM creator Julian Gollop used what he says is a similar model for his 2002 tactics game Laser Squad Nemesis.
"We set ourselves a goal of releasing [Laser Squad Nemesis] within a year of starting development, which we did, but there were some big features missing which we had promised," Gollop remembers. "We developed a strong player community who were very patient and supportive. For a small developer it was a great way to improve the quality of the game while earning revenue. So I hoped that, [when developing Chaos Reborn], Early Access would give us some of the same benefits we got from our experience with Laser Squad Nemesis, in particular building a community of players who would help the game development in many different ways."
Gollop, for the most part, was in the minority among developers, who still relied heavily on publishers for funding and distribution, but the growth of online multiplayer found PC developers increasingly tapping into their communities for feedback via message boards and public betas. Over time, a business model began to develop, with companies like Sony Online Entertainment (now Daybreak Game Company) drawing feedback from paid programs like Planetside 2's "Alpha Squad." Dungeon of the Endless creator Amplitude Studios, as our sister site Eurogamer recently pointed out, "was making Early Access games before Valve even had a tab on Steam to host them, and that experience shows."
When Valve introduced their Steam Early Access program in 2013, the marketplace was suddenly flooded with a huge number of games, all in varying states of completion. In an effort to keep up, major sites like Polygon and GameSpot announced that they would be reviewing Early Access releases, arguing that games that cost money merited a score. Many of them were sandbox survival games like DayZ and Rust, but the likes of Divinity: Original Sin and SpyParty eventually joined in as well.
Darkest Dungeon, a party-based roguelike by Red Hook Studios, launched earlier this year in Early Access; but according to designer Tyler Sigman, the team began considering whether the model was right for them around the time that it became more widespread. Ultimately, they decided to try it.
"We Kickstarted Darkest Dungeon, so making an Early Access version of the game available also felt like a natural step and a great way to let superfans and early adopters help shape development," Sigman says.
Being what he calls a "complex game with a lot of modular, experimental systems," Sigman says that the team also felt it would be beneficial to expose players to them before they were set in stone. "This is less about pure bug testing and more about seeing what works well and what doesn't, and getting feedback from players on what they like. We wanted the ability to alter development based upon player response, collected data, and observed behavior."
"There is also the cash flow timing benefit that can't be ignored. However, I think it's important to make a distinction here. You can get into real trouble if Early Access is the only source for money you need to complete the game. I think you need to have a plan to complete the game well regardless of how Early Access does. That's easier said than done, of course, but I do think it's vital. If Early Access does well, then that takes a huge weight off of your shoulders and allows you to start adding even more things, or maybe making some extra money for development that you weren't sure about before."
The most successful "Early Access" game ever made hardly needs an introduction. Minecraft started small, but quickly grew into a phenomenon thanks to positive word-of-mouth. Available for $13 starting in 2009, it was eventually released in 2011, where it went on to dominate toy aisles and mobile app stores alike. With the money earned from the alpha version alone, its creator Markus "Notch" Persson was able to quit his day job and work on the game fulltime.
Though there were plenty of games that monetized early access before Minecraft, Persson's sandbox game was really where it all began. As sandbox survival games like DayZ grew in popularity, they borrowed the Minecraft model for their own, in turn keying the growth of Early Access. In that regard, Minecraft is not only one of the most popular games ever made, but one of the most important as well.
"Cash flow" is an element that developers tend to tip-toe around for obvious reasons; but as Sigman says, it can't be ignored. Listening to Daybreak Game Company (formerly Sony Online Entertainment) president John Smedley wax on about how it was less about the money and more about the benefits of interfacing with the community, I couldn't resist saying, "But the revenue must be nice."
Smedley replied, "No one will deny the revenue is nice. But there are categories of people out there for whom Early Access is the final release of the game, and that I don't agree with. From our perspective, it's a tool to help us get there. And most definitely I'm not going to deny that it helps us because it helps smooth out spots in our cash flow that would otherwise be rougher, but it also lets things bake a lot longer, which we would otherwise have to release earlier."
When speaking with developers, these "categories of people" come up a lot, being as they are a convenient way to contrast the ways in which a studio is presumably doing Early Access the "right way." But the "right way" can vary greatly from studio to studio; and sometimes, despite their best efforts, right can become wrong in a hurry.