The State of Early Access: What it Means for Gaming, and How to do it Right

From the success stories to the fiascos, we go in-depth on one of gaming's most controversial business models.

Analysis by Kat Bailey, .

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H1Z1, Daybreak Game Company's take on the zombie survival game.

How Early is Too Early?

Smedley is an interesting case, actually. While Daybreak's zombie sandbox survival game H1Z1 can be categorized as a success story based on the fact that it's sold 1.1 million units and done $20 million in sales, its initial launch was rocky, to say the least.

The day after launch, Polygon's Charlie Hall wrote in an article titled 'H1Z1's Early Access Launch Was Kind of a Disaster,' "The unlock on Steam, slated for 3 p.m. ET, was pushed back roughly two hours, a minor inconvenience that only served to focus attention on the streamers. By the time the gates opened one popular Twitch player, Lirik, had more than 55,000 viewers on his channel."

"It's at that precise moment when everything seemed to go wrong for the team at H1Z1. No one seemed to be able to actually log into the game, and instead of people having a good time with their new intellectual property, the carefully laid marketing strategy devolved into two dozen broadcasts of thinly veiled nerd rage."

H1Z1's server problems were coupled with controversy over Daybreak's monetization strategy, which made it possible to purchase airdrops containing loot — an approach that contradicted earlier promises that guns and ammo would not be purchasable (Daybreak later posted an apology on Reddit). Waves of hackers also descended upon the game, and in-game loot failed to respawn, all of which sent Daybreak scrambling to release patches as quickly as possible. H1Z1's issues at launch were in some ways not that different from those suffered by any MMO, but they highlighted the risk developers take when making an Early Access release an event, as Daybreak did.

Nevertheless, when I asked Smedley if he would do it again, he replied that he probably would, "That's kind of a typical launch. But later that day, everything was 5 by 5. Definitely true, though, there were some hiccups early on."

Spacebase DF-9 is a case study in not relying on Early Access funds to carry development. While it was successful at first, the money eventually dried up, and Double Fine opted to pull the plug on development and leave it as it was, leaving those who had invested in it with broken promises and a lot of anger.

Tim Schafer characterized the decision as being part of an "open-ended development process," saying that the project was losing money and had to be wrapped up.

"There should have been more communication to the players about the state of the game, and we apologize for that,: Schafer said. "But for us, it was never clear whether development was going to end because we always hoped that the next update would turn it around and allow us to extend development. So I suppose, ultimately, the answer was we always had hope we weren't going to end it, until the end.

I reached out to Double Fine for more insight into what happened with Spacebase DF-9, but perhaps not surprisingly, they opted not to comment (at least for now). In any event, Spacebase DF-9 was a painful mistake for Double Fine, damaging trust in both their studio and in the process itself. Fairly or not, it won't soon be forgotten.

What's really interesting about H1Z1's launch is the way that it highlights two schools of thought between developers when it comes to Early Access. One of the reasons H1Z1 had trouble at launch was that it was released to the public in a very early stage, making bugs and instability inevitable. But Smedley argues that releasing a game at such an early stage is one of the advantages Early Access has over a traditional closed beta, "By the time you hit beta the game itself is set, and that's not true in our case. The game is actually going in different directions based on user feedback."

"The way we're doing bases in game, for example, we have focused a lot more on security for those bases and other features for those bases than we otherwise would have worked on. Being in Early Access, people got a chance to play it and give a lot of feedback. We would never have addressed that stuff as soon as we did had we been in beta. Because of how early it is, it did get that attention, and it's better for it."

Julian Gollop, however, takes the opposite position. "It is essential to make your Early Access release a high value proposition for the consumer. It must have a compelling game play loop, and be a polished, relatively bug free experience. It may have some big features missing, but you have to realise that players buying your game are mostly going to write reviews based on the game as it is. I would even advise, if possible, only releasing in Early Access with a proper 'beta' version - that is, feature complete, reasonably polished with relatively few bugs. The early access process will then give you the opportunity to refine the game balance and user experience while building momentum for an official launch. With the initial planning I would also try and keep the game as simple as it can be with a manageable scope."

Tyler Sigman echoes similar sentiments, "Putting an incomplete version of your game out can backfire on you and create a negative impression if the game just isn't good yet. So you want to be careful about just how 'early' of Early Access you release, in my opinion." But as he points out later, Early Access isn't a "one-size-fits-all thing," either.

When Shadowrun Chronicles (formerly Shadowrun Online) was more or less rebooted as an Early Access release early last year, it launched with a minimal amount of content, which earned it a harsh appraisal from critics. But now that it's almost ready for release, it's getting much more positive reviews.

"We're at the point where [Shadowrun Chronicles] is actually becoming a game, and not just a collection of features we've glued together. It's obviously been hard because the Early Access stuff never really represents the game as we see it. So a lot of people were reacting to the game at a point where it was nowhere near finished, but rather just a collection of features," Jan Wagner told me on a recent episode of Axe of the Blood God. "Now people are seeing the game evolve, and that is actually quitely fun because we get a lot of positive reviews and good feedback from the players we can actually work with, which also shows what Early Access should be about as opposed to making an early buck.

With Early Access, there's a natural tension between delivering a product that people want to spend money on and the desire to get usable feedback. But as Don't Starve Together designer Seth Rosen points out, a successful Early Access run is predicated as much on respecting the community that invests in it as putting out something that's enjoyable to play.

"They bought your game early to be a part of the process and to see the game grow and change. It being Early Access, they understand that things will change and occasionally break, but you should do your best to minimize player pain," Rosen says. "Basically, that means you should be clear and communicative about your plans and progress, actively release new builds (better yet if you can do so regularly), and engage with them when they post bugs and feedback. There's no secret sauce here."

Is Early Access Good for Gaming?

It's interesting hearing the contrast between the developers utilizing Early Access and gamers who feel burned by the model.

When I asked USgamer's readership what they thought of the model, the overall feedback was mixed at best. In arguing why he would never buy Early Access, a reader under the handle of Kaiserwarrior wrote, "If you want to have a public alpha/beta of your game, that's fine. Have a public alpha/beta. But what Early Access is, more often than not, is people paying to be testers and QA personnel rather than getting paid, which is how that's supposed to work."

"In theory, it's a good thing. Games that might not otherwise get made get a source of funding from people that wouldn't pay for a kickstarter because they don't get anything right away, but will pay for an unfinished game right now," Kaiserwarrior continued. "But in practice, it hardly works out that way. A whole lot of Early Access titles either never actually release, or they 'release' in a state that's nowhere near where an actual finished product should be. The system has a lot of potential, but unfortunately it gets constantly abused by people who take the 'we already have their money, so who cares if we ever actually finish it' point of view."

Responding on Twitter, Derrick Rickert wrote, "Early Access seems to be the new paid beta. Why ever leave it, so one can claim the game is in development if it has bugs."

Such skepticism sums up a lot of the attitude toward Early Access. And while many developers are positive in their assessment of the model in the public, some have complained in private of extremely demanding users, contradicting feedback, and controversies that blow up and threaten to scuttle their game before it's even complete. At its worst, Early Access can feel like a losing proposition for everyone.

It was for that reason that Sigman admitted he felt some trepidation about putting Darkest Dungeon in Early Access, "Some of the events in 2014 really started creating a bubbling level of anti-Early Access sentiment amongst many gamers. We remained committed to doing Early Access and believed we would be delivering good value. But we were worried we might get thrown under the bus just from the overall anti-EA movement. So the biggest surprise was a positive one: the game has done great! It's been received very well and it's sold well. It shows that Early Access is far from dead, and if done well, it can be great for developers and fans alike."

"The intensity of community participation wasn't a surprise, per se, but it is an ongoing challenge. It has all the amazing parts that are the main reasons for doing Early Access. But it's also very, very, very difficult to communicate 100 percent effectively at all times and keep all fans happy. For example, one day we got two sets of complaints at the same time: we weren't updating the game fast enough and we were updating the game too much. Different strokes for different folks!"

"You still require your own map and compass during the process, and sometimes you need to hold course based upon your own intuition instead of the incredibly high volume of (often conflicting) feedback. We're fortunate to have some great fans and moderators, though, which helps us a ton."

When I asked whether he thinks Early Access is a positive trend for the industry as a whole, he replied, "Definitely. I think things like Early Access and Kickstarter have opened up so many more viable paths for developing games. There are cautionary tales in each case, for sure, but I think it's wrong to fixate only on those. Instead, look at all the incredibly cool success stories. It's a really exciting time to be a developer and an exciting time to be a game player. Games are getting made that probably wouldn't have gotten made otherwise, and many of them are rad! Minecraft is the ultimate Early Access success story, but there are so many more really impressive ones: Don't Starve, Prison Architect, Kerbal Space Program, and so on."

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Comments 7

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  • Avatar for Jeff-Kaos #1 Jeff-Kaos 3 years ago
    This is a really interesting article. I used to be an "Early Access Hater" but now I'm an "Early Access Isn't For Me-er". I've always been curious about what developers thought of the model though and this article helped me to understand their side of the story. I'd probably be more of a fan of EA if there was more of a guarantee that the game would be released in a completed state within a reasonable time frame. But the whole "fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me" thing keeps me away from EA. It looks like for every EA success story there's at least two that burned gamer's and I don't have the time or money to invest in "it'll get done when it get's done" game. Not when there's hundreds of great games already out there that are in a completed state. But if people want to invest in Early Access titles that's their business and more power to them.

    And as an aside: the hyper-link to the survey on page 2 of this article takes users to the 'Star Trek: Online' forums or something.Edited May 2015 by Jeff-Kaos
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  • Avatar for kidgorilla #2 kidgorilla 3 years ago
    Awesome article. I'm not really a big PC player, and Early Access stuff always seemed like an unnecessary gamble to me, but it's cool to hear the developer's take on how it all works
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  • Avatar for JohnnyBarnstorm #3 JohnnyBarnstorm 3 years ago
    Man, what an amazing article. If I was a kajillionaire I'd have this printed on that nicely textured Edge magazine stock, and have a big stack of USGamer magazines in my bathroom. I mean this in the best way.

    More like this, please.
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  • Avatar for VotesForCows #4 VotesForCows 3 years ago
    Great article Kat, plenty to think about there.
    I personally don't understand the desire to pay for early access to an unfinished game, but it seems like a good alternative option for borderline projects that might otherwise struggle.
    I don't see any harm in it, as long as everyone is clear about exactly what you can expect for your money (and what is not guaranteed, i.e. a 'finished' game).
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  • Avatar for secularsage #5 secularsage 3 years ago
    Well-written piece, Kat! It provided a thoughtful take on Early Access that went beyond what a gaming fan might say or think and focused on providing the developer perspective to balance out the obvious. I liked the 5 tips breakout as well.
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  • Avatar for Whimsee #6 Whimsee 3 years ago
    Really loving this article. I remember my first and only brush with early access was with Klei's Don't Starve and it was nice to see them mentioned here since that's what introduced me to the concept. That was before early access really became a coined term on steam, I believe, and back then it was awesome to see how the game "grew up" over the months. I still consider that experience one of the gold standards of early access.

    Though I do have to admit that early access isn't for me as a consumer not because I don't like the model (because it really is awesome) but because it does take out some of the fun of playing a finished product esp. if it has limited replayability. I'd rather let other people test out the product and refine it for the developer.
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  • Avatar for pdubb #7 pdubb 2 years ago
    Glad this got pulled up again for the end of the year. I think people are finally starting to get that early access and kickstarter are solid risks, and you should only give what you expect to never get back, even if you don't ever get a finished product.

    With that said, I can't wait until you guys do your in depth article on how Star Citizen became such an impressive failure.
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