Vague Patch Notes: Early access is just game development as performance art

hot hot hot hot hot hot

I was reminded recently about Valheim. I do not own the game and thus have not played it; I cannot tell you if it is a good game in its current state, whether it is severely lacking content, or how one can reach Bodylande. But I can tell you that the game has now been in early access for three years after planning to be in early access for one, and the pace of development is… uh… not going as players expected! It does not appear to be quite working as intended! There are issues, ladies, gentleman, and nonbinary friends!

But this is not about dragging Valheim specifically. If I want to drag a game for spending ages in early access while collecting money but failing to get any closer to finishing the product, I’d just point to Star Citizen. As I just did. No, this is about how we as consumers have created a space for this and how “early access” as a concept has been turned into a generally not-great place to be because early access is just game development as performance art.

First and foremost, I want to make a clear point that early access does not universally mean that bad games will result from the process; even if there were no other examples, Baldur’s Gate 3 shows how that process can turn out. Early access is not a terrible thing. Rather, the fact is that early access means that development shifts to a very different footing and feel.

I am not our weekly podcast host or one of our regular streamers, obviously, but if you’ve caught streams or podcasts where I show up, you have probably noticed that I speak somewhat similarly to how I write. But not quite the same way. When chatting with friends, I don’t talk the same way. Sure, you can draw the parallels – it’s not like I completely change everything – but when you read an article I write it’s a version of things where I not only have been edited by someone else [hi! -Bree] but have edited myself, cut out digressions that don’t work, and generally shaped my thoughts better.

(If you’re thinking “except for WRUP, right,” you’re actually precisely wrong. That takes way more work.)

Pay us tens of thousands of dollars! We will never finish.

Developing in early access is similar, in some ways. Sure, you’re not programming in a box and running a constant livestream in which your customers get to press a button and drop scorpions into your glass cube (yet), but you do suddenly have an added pressure, which means everything you add to the game is no longer being added to a test build nobody but your contracted QA can see and laugh at. It’s been added to a game customers are playing.

Games are a process of iteration. It’s easy to start building a feature and find out partway through that the feature is actually, you know… bad. The systems that you thought would be fun are actually tedious and cumbersome. Maybe the idea is still good, but the things you need to do in order to fix it would involve yanking out the system altogether and starting over basically from scratch.

When you’re working internally, this isn’t so bad. If no one knows about your new system or you announced it but still have time to iterate, it’s all good. But when you’re in early access, that new system you patched in last week has now gotten into the hands of players. And some of them might like it, even if it’s doing awful things to the game balance. Maybe even because of it.

And keep in mind that your game now in early access actually has to deal with all of this because the people playing the game right now are not your testers. They are not your friends or family. They are your customers.

If you realize that the game is way too generous with a resource and you need to scale it back, you are suddenly going to be slapped in the face by a bunch of angry customers who feel the game is less fun now. This can be hard on a single-player game. It can be devastating in a shared game. I’ve played games that were in early access that deleted player progress on full release and realized only after launch that they made the wrong call. I’ve played early access games that have been redesigned multiple times until the studio said, “We can’t do this any more; it is costing us too much money for no returns.”

Yes, platforms like Steam cover themselves head to toe in warnings saying that the game you are playing is in early access and might change significantly. They even usually grant refunds, if you hit the regret button early enough. It doesn’t matter. The problem still exists, and the developers still have to live in a world where their changes could have a serious, punishing impact on the game’s playerbase and overall appeal. Your entire development model becomes based around the fact that your choices now exist in a space where every action will be scrutinized, you have to explain each choice, and you’re also on the clock because when is the game going to be finished? When is the last part of the story coming? When are you going to include all your features?


So how does anyone in the world manage to do this? Frankly, I don’t know. It’s kind of insane that any video game ever makes it over the finish line. But I do know that a lot of studios – I would even say the majority – pick the early access route because at a glance, it looks like a chance to keep developing the game while also getting some money now. And if you’re a smaller studio working to keep the lights on, that makes sense.

But the vast majority of studios are not actually prepared for that level of transparency. Worse yet, once you’re collecting money for a game that’s in early access, you have more reason than ever to just stay in early access as long as the money keeps flowing. Yes, this is what has happened for a lot of crowdfunded games, where it’s just an ongoing money spigot being gathered up by developers who aren’t really given a reason to change anything. Why ever launch? What does launching actually add to the project?

In the older days – and still, for some publishers – early access was basically just a way of giving people a chance to play the more-or-less finished game a bit before everyone else. The games I review tend to fall under that category, with the game’s launch still yet to come but the game also being fully playable already. This is one of the reasons I keep most of my profiles pretty secret so that people can’t see what I’m playing.

But when you launch your game that you think is in mid-development and assume that you’ll be spending most of your time still developing instead of pivoting to managing expectations for a launched game… no. You have now launched a game you know isn’t finished, and you have to manage expectations while also still developing. It does mean a cash infusion, but it does not make the subsequent demands of development any easier.

Sometimes you know exactly what’s going on with the MMO genre, and sometimes all you have are Vague Patch Notes informing you that something, somewhere, has probably been changed. Senior Reporter Eliot Lefebvre enjoys analyzing these sorts of notes and also vague elements of the genre as a whole. The potency of this analysis may be adjusted under certain circumstances.
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