Massively Overthinking: Does early access kill an MMO’s buzz?


A while back on the Massively OP Podcast, Justin and I were flipping through Steamcharts checking in on Torchlight III, and we were a little dismayed at what we saw: At least on Steam, the game’s launch peak exceeded its early access launch peak by only a few hundred players. Naturally, we wondered aloud whether the problem with Torchlight III was that it had lingered too long in a pre-launch but mostly playable state, effectively killing its own hype by making itself a little too accessible and familiar along the way.

For this week’s Massively Overthinking, I’ve asked the staff (and readers!) to ponder this question, not specifically for Torchlight III but for all games, especially MMOs. Does early access or otherwise long open developments kill an MMO’s buzz? Which MMOs have fallen prey to the problem, and which have pulled it off?

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): Long, public development is certainly a “release” buzzkill, but I counter with another question: How much does that matter?

I’m saying this as someone who sees any kind of paid access to a game as release. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but if you put money down for something, it’s done. I don’t care what you say to protect yourself legally; that product is out in the wild, especially if you don’t have an NDA. The “release” label only tells me you’re finally confident enough in your product to drop some legalese and stand with the hunk of junk you shoved out the door before most reasonable people would pay for it.

This is probably why I’ve found myself playing fewer and fewer indie MMOs. Release too early, constant updates make it feel like it’s already out, and then the official “release” rarely feels relevant as a consumer. I may get interested as a games journalist, but mostly so I can determine if the finished product is something I can really recommend to consumers.

Now, all this being said, I don’t want to make it sound like all early access is the worst. I actually enjoyed Hex: Shards of Fate for awhile despite being unreleased, and felt it was getting better all the time, so they got a fair amount of love from me. Conversely, ArcheAge was actually pretty fun in multiple testing phases, but I don’t remember playing much at release. The difference? A lot of what I remember about Hex was my stuff carrying over. If you’re going to make people pay to test your game, they need a sense of progression. Wiping that out kills the desire to log in and even come back.

Andy McAdams: Early access is really, really easy to screw up royally, to the point that I think the vast majority of games completely tank when attempting it. There are a few reasons for this, not the least of which is that vast majority who play video games have no bloody clue how a game, or any software, is actually made. So that general ignorance about the nuts and bolts of the process leads to lots of grandstanding by players, anger, hurt feelings and on the side the ardent defenders who will make excuses for long past the point that the game had any excuses left… yes, you all know what I’m talking about.

I struggle to think of an MMO that has effectively pulled off early access, but there are a smattering of single-player games that I think have handled things handily. Games like Oxygen Not Included, Rimworld come to mind immediately (but are most definitely not the only ones, just those that popped into my head first). Ultimately, I look at early access like a tool, and how you use that tool determines its success. It’s not an inherently good or bad approach to your game. But as we’ve seen, more often than not it’s something developers misuse, and it ultimately ends up hurting the game.

Twenty minutes later, I can’t think of a single MMO that I would say has done early access well. That’s probably a good indication that if you are an MMO developer and are thinking about early access, just don’t.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I think it can kill the buzz, especially for MMORPGs, but it isn’t a hard and fast rule for games. Look at how long Fortnite – the original game – lingered in testing. Years. One patch to add battle royale just after launch made the original game (not to mention hundreds of other games) a footnote in the Fortnite era. There’s clearly more at play than years of testing.

MMOs are special, though, because people think of them as homes, not as short-spurt entertainment or sports or fads. There’s a certain amount of charm to watching your home be built, but… well, I watched my parents build a house from scratch, and while there’s some excitement in it – in standing in your own future bedroom before the drywall’s even gone up! – when it stretches on for a year or more and delays and frustrations crop up as they always do, it definitely makes move-in day more of an exhausted relief than a moment of triumph. I think it’s even more so for MMORPGs.

All the games hanging out in Kickstarter limbo really demonstrate it. If after five or more years, you still don’t have that drywall up? Yeah, it makes getting the keys that much less thrilling.

Chris Neal (@wolfyseyes, blog): Absolutely, with very few exceptions. Literally the only one that I think stuck its early access landing has been Dauntless, mostly because it added layers and legitimately changed a lot along the way, while Torchlight III seemed to be pretty same-y with its overall updates.

Personally, as someone who tends to look at (and yes even play) a lot of games in early access, I think one of the cool things is seeing the game make strides forward from update to update. When things feel too familiar or typical at their core, you often feel like you’ve gotten the gist without waiting for the final release.

Colin Henry (@ChaosConstant): I think early access can be bad for a game’s buzz not only because it gives players a bad first impression of a buggy, unfinished mess, but because it also locks the developers into their design a lot earlier in the process.

I was listening to a talk from a professional game developer (I can’t find it again to cite it, sorry) who was talking about how there is very often a big shift in a game’s last 6-12 months of development. You get into the near-finalized game and realize that this system simply doesn’t work, or that system is adding complexity with no real benefit, or think of a whole new mechanic that’s going to make the game a lot more fun and interesting. When you’re in closed development, the players are none the wiser. For all they know, that was how the game was planned from day one. But when the players are invited in during that last year of development, you are making all of those design shifts public. You have to go out to the community and explain why you’re making last-minute changes, which will inevitably disappoint the people who like that thing the way it is now (even if they’re a vocal minority), and it kind of makes you look like you’re flailing and don’t know what you’re doing.

I think Torchlight III is a perfect example of this. We at Massively OP were hyped for a new MMO, giving it most anticipated awards and everything. Then, during the early access period, Echtra made the last-minute decision to yank out a lot of the MMOness, and a lot of our writers and readers were sorely disappointed, myself among them. Had development been closed up until launch, we would have just thought, “Oh, when they said MMO they really meant always-on multiplayer,” and thought no more of it. But we got to see how the game was reworked from an MMOARPG to a multiplayer ARPG, how the vestiges of its sideways progression systems are still kind of there, and every minute of gameplay is a reminder of what could have been.

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): I definitely believe that these drawn-out periods of open development are ultimately more harmful than helpful to MMORPGs. These games take a whole lot of time to make, but I don’t think players quite understood that back when a lot of early development and testing was mostly kept quiet with the very occasional interview or press release. Now we get years and years of painfully slow progress during which all of that initial enthusiasm ends up bleeding away, curious people test (and are dissatisfied by) early builds and then drift away, and repeated requests for money on the part of the studio start to slather these titles with shades of scam. We’re seeing games like Shroud of the Avatar sadly limp over the finish line of release after way too long of overpromising and underdelivering, whereas more successful titles like Elite Dangerous get a solid product to market much more quickly and then iterate on it.

Generally, I think it’s not good for a game to really ramp up player enthusiasm or ask for additional funds (even in the form of pre-orders) until the game is within 12 months of shipping.

Sam Kash (@thesamkash): I think it totally kills the hype. When I first heard about Crowfall, I was super hyped. I couldn’t wait to hear more about it – digesting every crumb and nugget of info that dropped about the game. I hate to pick on Crowfall because I do think it’s moving on the right direction, but I just don’t get excited about much of the news, at least not to the level of hype excitement. I’m sure it’ll be exciting when it finally launches, but the level of excitement is so much lower than it would be for a game I only ever played for one weekend before release.

Guild Wars 2 is a perfect example. I was a huge GW1 fan, so I couldn’t wait for GW2 to come out. When I finally got into the beta, I was blown away and couldn’t get enough. Now, if I’d been following the development on such a micro scale like we can with Kickstarter type of funded games, I don’t think I would have been as excited. That didn’t mean I wouldn’t have enjoyed it as much, but it wouldn’t be hype.

It’s probably just human nature. Being excited about the unknown and the possibilities that go with it is just natural. Going on the 574th date night with my SO is great, but the excitement of date night 1 through 4ish was totally different.

Tyler Edwards (blog): I’ve always been a bit skeptical of early access, and this is one of the reasons why. You really only get one launch. Some people wait for the “real” launch rather than playing in EA, it’s true, but simply removing the “early access” tag on your Steam page isn’t going to generate anywhere near the hype as the first time you go on sale to the public. If a game is really strong even in EA, then maybe that won’t be a problem because it will already be a success, but if you launch into EA too soon and don’t build a good fanbase then, you can end up in real trouble because the full launch just isn’t going to get that much attention.

Honestly, I really wish the whole concept of early access and paid betas and such would go away. It seems to cause so many more problems than it solves.

Every week, join the Massively OP staff for Massively Overthinking column, a multi-writer roundtable in which we discuss the MMO industry topics du jour – and then invite you to join the fray in the comments. Overthinking it is literally the whole point. Your turn!
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