This week’s topic comes from Massively OP reader Zadira.
“Daybreak has just passed it two-year anniversary for Landmark, and it still has its early access reward options for sale. One of the bonuses that we were to get was a two-day headstart when the game gets released. When I first bought my $99 Trailblazer Pack, I had no idea that people would still be buying it and being able to get the same rewards two years later. So what is ‘normal’ now for a game when it comes to early release?”
What do you expect from a studio in 2016 when it goes into early access? What do you think about the way early access has been used in the past few years? And who is doing it right? I posed these questions to our staff for this week’s Massively Overthinking.
Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): I admit, I’m also one of the Landmark Trailblazers, but I barely played. Although I liked what the company did at the time (a real alpha, but I felt developers were listening to us), I think the new Daybreak is exactly what I expect (and hate) from 2016 early access studios: cash grabs for changes no one wants on products that are basically a release in all but name. I’m sorry, but the lack of communication when people are paying for alpha/beta access is not acceptable if you are paying to help shape the game. If the player is simply adding statistics for engineers to balance around, you should be in a real testing stage and not asking for money. I used to get regularly invited to alphas and betas, but in the past 6 years, even when running a decent (50+) sized multi-gaming guild, I’ve been invited to maybe 3-5 testing phases without having to pay, and only 1 or 2 couldn’t be bought into.
I’m not saying this because I like exclusivity but because it shows that the studios have gone from having requirements and standards before bringing in people for actual testing, and now they are often abusing the constantly updating nature of early MMOs to secure funding, not for making the game better, but for finishing it. I’d even hazard that a certain, frigid company is treating its MMO expansions more like a fully released lobby game than an MMO, in that it front-loads it’s “updates” and practically abandons it for a year and a half while working on the next expansion. This feels like the Online Survival genre as a whole- yes, they’ve made games that involve survival, but in my experience, the persistence is negligible at best, but supposed to be a key part of the experience. Lacking servers that can maintain physical world building projects for longer than a month (if that!) makes the genre feel like a joke that no one should have to pay for, especially if developers aren’t in constant, two-way discussions with customers.
The only company that sounds like it’s “doing it right” is ARK: Survival Evolved. I’ve yet to dip my toes into it because (if it’s not obvious), I just feel burned by the early access experience. However, I’ve heard a lot of good about the game and little bad (it exists), and in the survival genre, that’s been rare in my experience. I do want to at least give some props to HEX though, in that the team is small and clearly doesn’t have the budget, but was upfront about putting out PvP first, why it was necessary, and has been reinvesting that in order to make the original plan come true. It’s not there yet, but Cryptozoic was at least honest about it and constantly updates, and I can respect that (but I don’t like it, at all). Others might be doing the same, but if anything, HEX should have been a lesson in that, while this method is possible, it’s really not one to be emulated, and Jones has even mentioned that.
Brendan Drain (@nyphur): I may be a little biased on this topic as I have a game (not an MMO) currently in Early Access, but that could give me a useful perspective in this discussion. As a consumer, I expect studios releasing games in Early Access to be brutally honest with exactly how far along in development their games are and what’s missing right now. I expect them to have clear published plans for future development and to not sugar-coat the fact that if everything goes tits up then development could stop and the current plans may not be completed. I don’t expect firm promises or release schedules, but I want to see regular progress toward an end goal and the game’s community to be involved in development through feedback and discussions, and I do want to see an eventual main launch when all the main features are in even if development continues for free after release.
As a developer, I’ve found Early Access to be kind of a more sustainable form of crowdfunding where the customer has more direct interaction with the developers. My tiny indie studio relies on the trickle of sales from Early Access to keep development going and it’s allowed us to spend more time working on gameplay before we release. Having people sending in bug and crash reports after each patch has been an absolute god-send for me as a programmer, and getting fresh eyes on the project regularly has helped us see if we’re on the right track with development. People are on the whole quite forgiving of bugs and lack of polish for Early Access games, and having an active audience to work for is a potent motivator. That’s how we use Early Access and I think that’s the ideal use case for it, but I’d be interested to hear other people’s opinions on how it should be used.
I do sometimes question the motives of big studios who hit up crowdfunding or release in Early Access when they probably don’t need the funds. There are also games like H1Z1 that seem to have been released on Early Access in order to capitalise on a current trend as quickly as possible, and it clearly works because it and several other Early Access games have sold millions of units. That’s a good thing for the developer, but if a game is considerably unfinished and the developer thinks they’ve consumed a large enough portion of their target audience already, then it doesn’t necessarily bode well for continued development. Why would a developer keep chasing the same carrot when they’ve already caught it and bit off 80% of it?
Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I pretty much no longer expect anything. Two years in early access no longer seems out of the ordinary, which is sad, honestly. Abuse of the early access term has hurt games that could have legitimately benefited from the testers; I am confident I am not alone in now seeing the “early access” tag on Steam and nearly always just walking on by. The resulting culture of distrust gamers now have for such games means ARK and Grim Dawn are as notable for not being crappy cash-grabs as they are for being good games. And that’s a sorry state.
Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): What do I expect? A buggy and half-finished mess release in lieu of any sort of testing period, asking people to basically pay for the opportunity to be let in on the earliest testing phases. Early Access, unfortunately, has moved from an indie pitfall into a mainstream expectation, and I don’t think it’s a good thing for development in the least. It’s the equivalent of feeding someone a half-cooked dinner and then adjusting the meal based upon feedback, even if you know that the taste of the meal will change a lot if you just finished cooking it first.
H1Z1 is a particularly sad case study. Had the game been in normal behind-closed-doors development, there would have been time and space for developers to consider and implement new modes of play, test them internally, and see how well those modes meshed with the game that was actually being developed. Instead, the developers threw out a fragment of the game, then players fixated on one or two of the shooter modes that provided some thrills, and now we have the game being split into halves to account for the fact that lobby-based deathmatch shooting gameplay and survival setups mix like peanut butter and plastic pickles. Furthermore, having the whole “early access” product available seems to reduce developer pressure to actually release the game – if you’re making money off of the half-finished version now, do you actually have the same incentive to finish the game and release the title and call it “finished enough”?
Studio Wildcard made the astute observation that Early Access really only works well for games that are already basically finished and just need filling out around the edges, and the fact is that ARK: Survival Evolved has done exactly that and been quite successful as a result. The game’s mechanics have been fixed in place for some time, and all that the game is doing is refining and expanding. Portalarium is also doing good work with Shroud of the Avatar, keeping a very strong core design philosophy with a constant string of updates and solid use of player feedback to shape systems. In both cases, the point of Early Access has been refining and double-checking on edge cases, rather than just releasing early development builds and seeing whether or not players are having fun.
Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): Can I say that the plague of early access gives me a headache every time I’m forced to look straight at it rather than shift my eyes to the side and pretend it doesn’t exist? It’s a pimple on the lifespan of a game in development that could’ve been totally avoidable except that the pimple industry is pretty lucrative for companies like Stridex. In this botched analogy, the studios are Stridex.
Anyway, why early access irks me is that it’s a combination of misleading marketing and corporate greed preying upon gamers who are so eager to taste the fruits of a game that they’re willing to chomp down on a seed if given half the chance instead of waiting for it to grow into an apple tree. Again, this is not my day for great analogies. Head starts are one thing, but charging for half-built alphas and continuing to milk a population of money for a game that isn’t fully released is a whole new type of twisted paradigm. In this, studios are incentivized for drawing out the development process, making crazy promises, and selling future potential for players’ current dollars. It doesn’t hold the studios as accountable to make a good game and it warps players’ perception of that title-under-development since there’s already a personal sunk cost involved.
Early access needs to be killed, and the only way that will happen is if players rise up, en masse, and refuse to keep financing this lunacy. Any bets on that happening?
MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): Honestly, I don’t put Landmark in the same category as early access because the studio was very open about it being a cooperative development endeavor starting from very early on. I also have no qualms about packs continuing to be sold until a game launches. True, Landmark is launching way later than ever anticipated (I am still holding out hope it will actually launch!), but in my mind other people taking part of a deal does not diminish my deal. Frankly I got a lot more enjoyment in my extra time and it was worth it.
Early access is a trend that has some positives and negatives. On the whole, early access is all about getting in a game before it is completely done. Woo hoo! I am first! I get to look under the hood, so to speak. You are essentially paying for the chance to play an incomplete game. Without touching on the merits of the practice (is it good, is it bad, is it the spawn on the underworld), I think the game should still be very playable in early access and have regular progress towards release. Access for the point of getting feedback and having the funds to actively finish development, I am OK with. Bilking people and never completing a project I have a problem with.
As for doing early access right, I think Wildcard Studios is is king of the hill with ARK: Survival Evolved. Folks are enjoying a robust game that gets astronomically frequent updates. I haven’t experienced anything majorly horrid in the way of bugs, even though we had one rollback that wiped some progress due to a corrupted save. I hope other studios take a look at this strategy and incorporate it.