The Survivalist: Is gaming’s early access the new launch?

Previously, while discussing ARK: Survival Evolved’s big bird nerf, I touched on the subject of the early access model. My focus then was on the model in relation to ARK, but it isn’t unique to the dinosaur survival game by any means. In fact, that model pretty much defines the entire multiplayer survival genre, which appears to be (perpetually) stuck in early access. Just take a gander at our guide: Practically every title is in EA. Some have even been in this unfinished state since 2013!

So what gives? Why isn’t anything getting completed and actually launched? Or is this really what launch looks like nowadays? I certainly hope not. Early access certainly has its place, but there are issues — especially with games that use the model for years on end. And that isn’t doing the survival genre any favors in the long-term.

Early access: The new launch?

I’ve admitted before that I honestly forget that titles are in early access occasionally. When that happens, it’s actually a good sign! It means that things are going well for the game, with regular updates and such. Folks are just cruising along, playing and enjoying the game. However, other times the fact that a game is EA is glaring; we’re talking slamming-you-in-the-face-with-a-frying-pan obvious. Such was the case with that bird nerf in ARK. But even when things are going well, I am worried about the prolific and (especially) the extended use of the early access designation. Now it’s like early access is used as a new launch — but without culpability or responsibility for the bugs and messes.

Why would I call early access a new launch? Because as much as I like small, independent games getting straight into the hands of players, expanding the pool of available games, and securing some funding to finish up development, it too often seems as if development never actually finishes. People are buying and playing, but the games remain endlessly in EA. How many EA survival games have actually shed the EA designation? Are any actually going to? It sure doesn’t feel that way anymore, and I’m not the only one harboring doubts! Remember, some of these games have been early access since 2013. It is hard to blame folks for feeling that games are actually “out” despite their EA designation when they have been out for years on end! At what point are these devs going to say their games are launched? It’s not as if launching will prevent additional content or bug fixes from happening; development is expected to continue. So why not launch?

…Or simply an excuse?

As time passes, it’s feeling more and more as if early access may be a way to avoid taking responsibility for creating a polished product. After all, there are just some expectations that a launched game would have, such as being optimized, having a majority of bugs squashed, and a completed story (if there is one). In EA, you don’t need any of that. The idea that a game needs to be feature-complete is not a factor when you are talking about ever-changing virtual worlds and MMOs; expansions and ongoing content is expected. So what’s the holdup in the survival genre? Even those games that start off utilizing EA as it was meant to be and promise quick development seem to be seduced into the dark side of the never-ending non-launch.

I can’t blame consumers who believe that early access is simply a way to fleece players out of their money without ever having to deliver a finished product. The emphasis is on “finished” product. How many products have been finished so far? I know of two offhand: Don’t Starve Together and Starbound. What motivation do devs have for leaving EA? As long as devs can point to being in early access, they never need to deliver on these points mentioned above — yet they still have their players’ money. I’d like to think that there is a new market for players who want to buy but have been waiting for launch — those who don’t want to be testers and want to experience a complete (for now) game — would be a big motivator, but I have yet to see it. Then again, why would that cash be any bigger of a motivator than the cash they still get now in EA? And would there really be a big influx of players, or would anyone who wanted to play it already have jumped in then jumped ship after a few years of EA?

On the other hand, I would argue with the “fleecing” part of that idea. In most cases buyers did get the product they purchased. Remember that quote about early access games you had to pass over as you went to buy? It’s the one that point-blank says, “This Early Access game is not complete and may or may not change further.” You got exactly what you paid for.

Still, it can be unsettling that with this little disclaimer, developers have the ability to make sweeping changes, regardless of whether you like the game as is or not. It says they can right there in blue and white, and you’re warned not to buy if you don’t want to risk it. Now to be fair, launched MMOs make some drastic changes sometimes too. You can read up on plenty of conversations and bellyaching (at times quite justified) on many a game forum or news site. But the fear of everything you’ve worked for getting zapped and destroyed in a moment hangs in the air of EA games.

Another benefit of staying in EA is that devs — not to mention players — can point to things not working, lack of development, or what have you as simply a factor of “early access.” It feels as if it can be used as a way to deflect criticism without having to deliver on anything. Do all developers do this? No. But it is out there, and it casts a poor light on others trying to use the model legitimately.

I think there comes a time when you can’t keep hiding behind early access.

Invest in early access or no?

Buying or not buying into early access is not necessarily a simple matter. On one hand, there’s the decision of whether or not you want to play a game as is right now. If so, get the game; if not, don’t. On the other hand, getting the game can feel like supporting a seemingly shady-at-times practice of profiting while never offering a final product. And you always have to be ready to lose everything you have done to wipes, changes in developmental direction, and so forth. Can you stand to lose the game you love when the devs change their minds? These are questions someone contemplating an EA game should reflect on.

On a personal level, I asked myself if I should start steering away from early access titles. Maybe. I can totally relate to the people who wait so that they don’t tire of an experience before the game actually launches. But I have doubts that EA games will ever be anything but EA, so why not enjoy the experience while I can? For now, if I think the game will be fun and worthwhile as is, I will go for it! I will probably finish playing before the game is “finished,” but I can enjoy it while it lasts. One day, however, I hope to see an EA title launch. For reals.

In the survival genre, there are at least 1001 ways to die, and MJ Guthrie is bound to experience them all — in interest of sharing them with you! The Survivalist chronicles life and death struggles against all forms of apocalypse, outbreak, mutation, weather, and prehistoric wildlife. And lets not forget the two-legged savages! Tune in here and on OPTV to see who feeds better: MJ or the Death Counter.
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45 Comments on "The Survivalist: Is gaming’s early access the new launch?"

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Ken from Chicago

It’s similar to “soft launch”, the phrase Bree, Syp and I think most reporters covering video games haaaaaaaate. When is the game actually … ready? When is the game “launched”? I think it’s important to ask and have the game *developers* answer that question.

If the answer to that questions shifts, then they need to explain why it has changed. Sometimes there are technical hurdles, problems that arise unexpectedly, okay, but that needs to be communicated. And oddly enough, it’s 2017 and mmo game devs still misunderstand and underestimate the importance of basic communication.

Bad news needs to be explained, what happened, why, and how you are responding to it. Good news should also be explained to set appropriate expectations. Your game may deliver the moon, but if players are expecting the Sun and the stars, they can still be disappointed and your hard work may be for naught.

“Early access” is another case where clear communication helps game developers and those who fail to appreciate that will sadly be lumped in with those who are trying to scam people out of money. It’s in the devs’ long-term best interests to define what “early access” means and what “launch” means. They may get away being vague for a relatively short while, but you can’t fool all of people all of the time. You reap what you sow.

Mewmew
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Mewmew

For the majority of games, no, Early Access is NOT the new launch. You have a small number of majorly visible titles that stay in EA a long time but most of the games actually use Early Access as Early Access. Most of them are there for a time (yes, it can be years) before moving into a real launch. The games are usually such a different product in launch that nothing you do in EA is saved, your saved games and characters are normally wiped out.

EA is not the new launch. It’s still very much a testing and development period for the majority of titles that go into it. The product can be almost unrecognizable at launch from what you saw in EA for a great many of these games.

Let’s not try to call it launch just because a few games have used it as their launch pad, some popular games, some well known for various reasons (good and bad both) are doing it, but make no mistake they are a small minority and EA is still just EA.

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Norbert Lichtenecker

Early Access is a finished game where People that buy a Package or preSale can start earlier than the Rest, all the EA missusing sux, some Companies even sell now pre Alpha bullshit.

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Nick Smith

It’s like a vehicle mechanic… if you pay them up front before they start working on your car… what incentive is there to finish your car? They already have your money, why work?

luxundae
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luxundae

Could a big gatekeeper like Steam make a difference here by changing policy?

What if Steam announced that all early access games would automatically be transformed into full launches (or removed) after 6 months? 12 month?

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Drainage

When you can have people pay you to test your game. Why not?

It is the new form of launch for some games, but the big ticket games still just go with the beta to launch format.

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Slaasher

Of course its the “new launch”
I hate it because peoples expectations are not changing based on the new reality.
Its creating a mess out there.

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Fisty

EA is a new launch. Like you noted, only two games I can think of that moved into release. Granted, both of those games mentioned were pretty awesome and sort of niche titles that required an EA release

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life_isnt_just_dank_memes

I look at early access and kickstarter type crowd funding as the equivalent to scientists that are always pursuing their next grant. A lot of the time, the grant a scientist is currently financially benefiting from isn’t even paying for the current project and they are constantly having to chase that next thing because in some cases they aren’t fiscally responsible.

I’ve gotten in on quite a few projects early. Some have been busts and some are pretty great. I usually play a fair amount of hours early on and then shelve the game until it is “released”.

Prison Architect was an example of a game like that where I was really stoked with the finished product and was glad I waited to play until it was done after playing it when it was super rough.

I am currently doing the same thing with Conan. I will come back to it when it’s released and I am sure I will be happy I waited.

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Sally Bowls

I shall not be out-cynical-ed by MJ of all people:

EA is not the new launch; it is the new sunset.

Due to customers, the highest value things for a developer to invest in are the pre-Kickstarter efforts (not just software but videos and social media/PR/twitch/YT campaigns) and the pre-EA-launch efforts. Once the EA money is in, it is a lot of expense relative to the incremental revenue to get it finished.

EA is the signal to the dev that it is now time to start profitably managing the winding down of the project.

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steve

I’m a big advocate of early-access and crowdfunded software development. Caveat emptor, and all that. Any problems I’ve had with early access games are problems I’ve had with fully-released AAA titles, yet few EA games ask me to pony up a full $60 box price for something half-baked (I’m looking at you, No Man’s Sky).

Software development is never finished, so long as that software is being used. Whatever funding model you choose must come to terms with that fact, no matter where you place the goalpost for “released”.

Karma_Mule
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Karma_Mule

My rule for buying into early access is simple: Does the game *in its current state* feel worth the money? If so, I may buy into it, otherwise, WAIT.

There have been a couple times I fell prey to the grand promises of what a game would become, only to have it turn into abandonware and the developers, sometimes quite blatantly, gave up on it and moved on. Or, they’ve declared a grand change in direction that was NOT the direction I wanted it to go.

That problem of significant direction change can still be an issue even with following my rule, but that seems to be a much rarer circumstance. And, following the rule almost always means I won’t buy a game until it’s in the latter stages of EA/beta so far less likely to happen.

For the last couple years this has worked well for me.

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steve

I try to be a sensible consumer as well, but as an enthusiast I also see value in supporting concepts that push the envelope of development with no expectation that the final product will pan out the way I hope.

Star Citizen is one such project. I’ve never been a Chris Roberts fan and I despise CIG’s marketing strategy, but they have delivered groundbreaking tech that I see as invaluable to the progress of virtual worlds.

I feel similarly about ARK, even though their development practices have recently led me to boycott the most enjoyable game I’ve ever played. No matter how I feel about Wildcard now, I can’t say I haven’t gotten more than my money’s worth in thousands of hours of playtime and the privilege of meeting some of the best folks I’ve ever gamed with (Massively fans).

R&D is exorbitantly expensive and failure must be an acceptable price for progress. I know I will face disappointment or even outrage, but my rule is never to donate money I’m unwilling to lose.

Karma_Mule
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Karma_Mule

Yes, that’s a good point, and is an extension of my EA rule that I didn’t get into in order to keep my reply relatively brief:

If you see a project you want to invest in, see the money as a donation, and be willing to accept the project failing and never actually creating a product.

Obviously that’s not the hoped-for scenario, but a donation is just that, a donation to a worthy cause that you may or may not directly see benefit for. You just want to help increase the chances the team meets that goal.

deekay_plus
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deekay_plus

so corporate charity basically?

donating to make someone rich even if there’s no product produced from that?

Karma_Mule
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Karma_Mule

Not all developers are rolling in cash and lighting cigarettes with 20-dollar bills. I do this for small indie efforts like Project Gorgon or Underworld Ascendant. It’s not going to make them rich, it’s giving some small amount of money in support of them trying to create something that I think sounds really cool.

They’re not all faceless/heartless corporations. The ones I do this for are small teams of individuals working their butts off, often taking major risks in their lives leaving comfortable jobs to pursue a dream. Yes, I’m willing to DONATE to help them try to acheive that.

If they product a product, then great. But even if they don’t I’m happy they had the courage to try.

deekay_plus
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deekay_plus

i support indie devs that do cool things by purchasing their products. if a product from such a developer is in early access i still fully expect them to deliver on the sales pitch of said product as advertised.

this is not even remotely the same thing as a donation, nor are these indie developers even remotely charities.

i’m speaking as someone who dabbles in game and software development myself. i would never accept money without being serious about delivering the product offered, and would never dare call purchases of my product donations.

it’s not any different from supporting local small businesses in my town. i’m not donating to them. i’m buying their products and services which are worth buying. there’s plenty of risk involved for these (legitimately) small businesses. but they aren’t asking for locals to give them money without delivering the promised product or service.

i don’t know why people feel teh business of video games should be any different.

Karma_Mule
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Karma_Mule

Whether you do or do not feel comfortable or happy with giving money w/o expectation of result is irrelevant. That’s fine, totally your call. I’m talking about how *I* approach evaluating exceptions to my first rule of “only buy when the product AS IT STANDS NOW is ready and worth it”.

I *do* feel comfortable giving money (usually not very much) to a project just because it sounds exciting, I appreciate they’re trying to do something ambitious, and any actual results are great, but I’m in no way going to be bent out of shape if it fails.

Yeah, it’s a business, but ultimately it’s still a bunch of people doing something cool that I want to support. I don’t care whether they’re incorporated or not, I like the idea of my money helping them make the attempt. That support, in and of itself, is sufficient for me. So, I call it a donation.

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steve

I’d hardly call Minecraft a charity that failed to produce. Nor ARK, or even DayZ.

It’s not an investment, but neither is it a donation for charity. It’s a donation or fee in exchange for early access to a product with the understanding that the product is unfinished and with no guarantees.

deekay_plus
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deekay_plus

right. i just hate when people call it a donation.

wether it’s a kickstarter like star citizen or early access game or w/e

you are legitimate straight up buying something. there is an legitimate expectation the product will be finished and delivered as advertised.

it’s actually a pet peeve of mine with some of these games that they change what the game is going to be from what it was advertised as as if that’s all copisetic.

if i preorder a bike in kickstarter, and it comes out a year late, but they added a bunch of shit i don’t want nor need to it, that’s not a positive improvement to the agreement.

ultimately calling these things donations just becomes yet another excuse. oh you should’ve known you would’ve get the thing i promised you! you gave me your money for free!

somehow i don’t think that would hold up in court once litigated. which i won’t be surprrised to see more lawsuits about failure to deliver out there as time progresses.

while people often denigrate gamers for being angry about stuff like this, if anything gamers play softball by simply spreading negative word of mouth when burned in litigatable ways compared to other consumer segments.

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steve

There’s certainly room for regulation and I agree with you that it’s likely to happen. I’m also aware that if that regulation is too limiting it puts the R&D cycle at risk.

A bicycle isn’t a white-paper project, and software development is as much art as it is engineering. I think it’s unreasonable to compare the problems of mechanical engineering with those of software development.

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Drainage

George Carlin liked to talk about the slight of hand with language, the bullshit.

You are right, it isn’t a donation, these are purchases.

If I take $300 for an item on auction, I’m damn well expected to produce it. Actually, the little guy would be subject to legal or financial penalties for not producing the item outside of a crowdfunding scenario.

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steve

Doesn’t fraud require intent? If someone puts up a kickstarter and can show no reasonable effort to produce the product then I would agree, but investors dump money into failed projects all the time without being defrauded.

The language of the deal has always been apparent to me. I’ve never given money to an early access project that failed to provide early access to the product being developed.

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Drainage

Steve – the law is going to adjust on these matters. If their operating budget and planning wasn’t reasonable, they should worry. Excessive salaries, etc.

The type​ of person buying into a video game may not be privy to the plans of the game maker. In contrast, investors expect a business plan down to the dollar before committing. That is an ethical issue, in my opinion.

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steve

Software development isn’t a mature engineering discipline. There has yet to be a business plan that can make accurate development time predictions for software.

I’ve no doubt that the law will adjust, and needs to, but I don’t think you can ignore the fact that software and particularly game development is still groping in the dark for answers to unsolved problems.

We had to blow up a lot of rockets before we became proficient enough to develop a body of measurable standards and practices.

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Drainage

Steve – I think 30+ years is long enough.

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steve

Expectations do not define reality. The reality is that after 30+ years we remain unable to make accurate development time predictions for software. It simply can’t be done with our current body of knowledge and the tools available.

Of course that doesn’t mean we stop trying. We have to manage expectations somehow, but we also need to be willing to allow for failure and acknowledge that early access backers aren’t investors.

I waive my constitutional rights all the time and with a simple mouseclick bind myself to a contract of adhesion. I don’t see any reason why I should be unreasonably restricted from waiving liability when giving money to a project, when they meet their end of the bargain by giving me access to their in-development project.

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Drainage

My experience in software was about 20 years ago, so my expectations could be dated. We forecasted our completion date and was pretty damn close, most of the time. However, I see your point.

Also, I’m trying to draw a line between the $19.99 early access and the $100-9999 early access donation.

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A Dad Supreme

I’d say “yes” basically due to the fact that a game won’t change all that much internally from what it looks and plays like (and what’s in it) during the time span from EA to a normal launch.

Realistically, the game you see 9 times out of 10 in EA is the same game you’ll be playing at launch, so it’s technically a ‘soft launch’ regardless of how much actual time passes between.

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Robert Mann

It isn’t. Some games may treat it that way (bad devs, no cookie!)… but the truth is that we are getting access far earlier into development that we used to. So everything takes the development time, but it just seems like it never launches thus.

The motivation, of course, comes as people are realizing what Early Access is and means. Less people are buying in, and those who do are more often those with a major interest in a project and testing to make said project better. It will self-balance.

Investing in a game should be something people very carefully consider. I can’t say yes or no… but only do so if you both believe firmly in a product and want to test or support the idea so that you can help make it better. If that’s not why you are looking to buy in, then wait for release or close to release. If the game doesn’t get there, then you likely aren’t missing out.

deekay_plus
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deekay_plus

vast majority of early access games never officially launch. but to be fair the serious ones are prettty comparable ot the average pc game release state back in the 90s and to a lesser extent the early aughts.

but it’s pretty much an excuse as such things goes. “IT”S ONLY BETA” which generally becomes “IT ONLY JUST LAUNCHED!” along with in the mmo genre “AN MMO IS NEVER FINISHED” excuses we are all accustomed to even fi we aren’t trying to give feedback about bugs on beta/alpha forums oir make would be testers aware of said bugs bfore buying in.

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squidgod2000

vast majority of early access games never officially launch

Has a survival genre game ever “launched?” Even DayZ is still beta, isn’t it?

It’s telling how most of us consider the survival theme to be played-out, yet the games never leave alpha.

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steve

The survival genre may play out, but the systems and tools that have developed from that ‘fad’ aren’t restricted to that niche.

I think survival games have done more to push the ideal of virtual worlds than anything that’s come out of the themepark-dominated MMO industry in the past decade.

deekay_plus
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deekay_plus

idk about anyone else, but i’m just THRILLED at seeing hunger meters in everything for the next decade. THRILLED.

:@

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steve

Agree, but I would argue that as a case of poor implementation of a good idea. Poor implementation of hunger mechanics just creates annoyance, but a balanced and integrated approach can foster and give plausible reason for dependent systems — farming, animal husbandry, cooking, et cetera…

Survival games also gave us voxels and destructable/buildable environments — things that themeparks gave up on long ago.

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Fisty

Don’t Starve

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steve

Darkest Dungeon

deekay_plus
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deekay_plus

does darkest dungeon really fit into the genre?

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steve

True. It’s roguelike, not survival.

deekay_plus
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deekay_plus

Good catch

deekay_plus
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deekay_plus

Goat simulator survival mode dlc was the first and afaik still only.

Tho nms is pretty much a survival game and it’s officially launched. Lol

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Drainage

They are supporting NMS too, crazyville.

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squidgod2000

Reposting something I wrote on reddit a few days ago:

For most developers, the initial launch window is when they make 90% of the profit they’ll ever make off the game. A few years ago, they discovered that they could release unfinished games mid-way through the development process simply based on the power of hype and the transient, “Next Great Thing” nature of the MMO playerbase. While this longer launch window might not generate any more money than the shorter window of a ‘finished’ release game, it requires much less development, testing, etc.

It’s been a pretty steady march to where (PC) MMOs are at right now. It went a little something like this:

Internet goes mainstream, MMOs are born.

Internet allows for easy distribution of patches to fix/update/add to the game.

Developers realize they can keep milking the same game by simply expanding upon it instead of developing an entirely new game from scratch. Paid expansions are born.

The industry chugs along for a while, rolling out new, AAA MMOs at a steady clip and continuing to innovate.

WoW happens. Strong IP/brand + low system requirements cause the game to explode. Investors demand similar results from their MMO projects. Innovation ceases; copying begins.

Gamers get frustrated by the stagnation of the genre. Every game is the same, so players start bouncing around between them. They have many options, thanks to WoW’s success drawing more investors into the MMO scene, but the games don’t have the ‘spark’ that they used to have.

Competition between so many games and so few (relatively speaking) players, developers turn to the now-common Skinner Box model of play, focusing on the steady profitability of addiction over the more difficult ‘make a fun game’ approach. Stagnation continues.

F2P happens. Developers realize they can remove the up-front cost of a game—a barrier to entry—and use the addictive nature of gameplay to fund the game by selling content (which previously existed in the form of full-fledged, paid expansions or was given away for free) in bits and pieces. Cash shops are born.

Content is expensive and time consuming to develop. Cash shop focus shifts to repeat sales of “boosts”—things which made the skinner boxes seem more rewarding to the players or which lessened the time investment required to “win” the game. These boosts are minor and inexpensive. Microtransactions make it difficult for players to easily track the monetary cost of the game. $15 a month becomes $20 one month, $35 the next, etc. Game-specific currencies are added to further obfuscate monetary costs.

Lockboxes become a thing, because addiction = money and gambling is addictive. “Just one more try…”

‘Optional’ subscriptions are added to F2P games. These offer bonuses that free players do not receive, many of which are considered mandatory (or nearly so) by the playerbase for anyone who wants to be competitive (AA’s labor regen, ESO’s crafting bag, BDO’s tax cut, etc.)

Developers begin offering multi-day head starts to their games for players willing to pay for the game before release. They begin adding perks, generally in the form of one-time offers of in-game items (“Now or never”) and vanity items/titles (“Everyone needs to see how loyal I am to this game”).

Head starts are a huge success. Players quickly realize the competitive advantage they give in the “race to the endgame” or in accessing limited game resources (such as housing space in ArcheAge, for example)

Crowdfunding goes mainstream. Instead of courting wealthy, business-savvy investors, developers begin targeting foolish, desperate gamers. They promise everything. (“omg, this is the game I’ve been waiting for all these years!”)

Seed money funds websites, concept art and forums to keep future players engaged. The money quickly dries up, however, and developers need a new round of funding from the masses. They continue peddling hopes and dreams, selling in-game items for a game that doesn’t exist yet.

MMO development takes too long. Companies can’t keep the hype going for years with nothing but status updates and screenshots, so they begin selling access. Alpha becomes the new Beta. NDAs are thrown aside in favor of free publicity and hype. Streamers are contracted to pitch the game to their ignorant fans. Alpha access becomes pre-alpha access. Big donors are given direct access to developers. People pay thousands for the privilege of working on the game “Design a dungeon! Design a boss encounter!” Limited in-game content—typically housing—is offered for sale (“The game isn’t out yet, but there are only five castles and if I don’t buy one now I’ll never be able to have one!”).

It’s late and I’m kinda drunk, so this timeline isn’t perfect—also there’s obviously some overlap or things that didn’t catch on until later. But after 20 years of playing MMOs 60+ hours a week, it’s definitely what I think got us to where we are right now.

As soon as gaming companies realized they could sell a promise instead of a product, the players were fucked.

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steve

But as you say, MMO development takes too long. I’d amend that modern game development takes too long. Still, if you want to see R&D in the gaming space you need a model that can pay for that development cycle. It’s not likely to get any cheaper or easier and we still have a long row to hoe before we get to the virtual promised land.

Nathaniel Downes
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Nathaniel Downes

^^ Right here, nailed it.

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