Over the past few years, early access games have evolved. Games are embarking on more refined Early Access than ever before, and the line between unfinished Early Access games and “live-service” games is increasingly blurred.
To learn more about how things have changed since Steam Early Access started in 2013, I spoke to the developers of Darkest Dungeon, Baldur’s Gate 3, Hades, Grounded, and GTFO. They told me about the concerns and struggles of launching a game after the early early access pioneers, what they learned about making games in public, and why they would be happy with anything. remake.
“We did very well for Early Access, our Early Access launch [in 2015] was actually bigger than our 1.0 launch, but the climate in which we were launching Early Access, Early Access was a bit on the fence, ”says Darkest Dungeon Design Director Tyler Sigman. t full or halfway changed what they wanted to do because they weren’t selling well. So there was a lot of discussion around that time as to whether Early Access should even be a thing. ”
These discussions were not without merit. While Steam Early Access spawned some real success stories – like Kerbal Space Program and Arma 3 – not all games from this era survived to see a full version. One example is Folk Tale, a once promising town builder that was left unfinished after its last update in March 2017. his Steam page is still online, the game is no longer available for purchase.
Even among Early Access Achievements, the achievement is different from game to game. Some Early Access games never left Early Access at all. The 7 Days To Die zombie survival game launched as early access “alpha” in December 2013 and is still here almost eight years later. People love it anyway, in part because its developers keep releasing regular updates.
“I really think that as an early access buyer you kind of have to understand that when you buy a game it maybe never will ever be again,” says Sigman. “I think Valheim is a great example. If it never got over it would be super sad, but as it is, I think it’s well worth the $ 20. It’s like supporting a Kickstarter, like sometimes you know that may not happen. ”
“As an Early Access buyer, you kind of have to understand that when you buy a game, it may never become more.”
It’s those games that have lived under the banner of Early Access for years that are starting to merge, in my opinion, with the “ live service ” games, which receive frequent or seasonal updates without an endpoint. defined in sight. The main difference here is that live service games usually come with some sort of monetization – loot boxes, battle passes, etc. – while early access games are usually unfinished projects for which you make a one-time payment. GTFO is a more recent example of a game that seems to blur those lines a bit. It’s a co-op horror shooter released in 2019, and its development looks quite different from most other early access games.
“We introduce new content, new maps with adjustments on enemies and different weapons. Then after a few months we remove that content and replace it with new maps, new monsters, and there is a new type of scenario. to this, ”GTFO game designer and narrative director Simon Viklund tells me. “You can’t play the previous one anymore, it’s erased forever. And it’s not something that relates to Early Access, that’s how the game lives, even beyond Early Access. . ”
Given the potential of these ongoing updates, I’m curious how developers decide when a game is ready for full release. “The question of ‘are you working on the most important thing for this game?’ can be unsettling, because any aspect of a video game you could practically spend endless time on, ”says Greg Kasavin, Creative Director of Hades. “Those decisions of ‘When are you moving on? What should you focus on? Are really difficult. ”
For a story-based roguelike like Hades, it’s easier to see where the comparison between Early Access and the live service ends. The story has to end somewhere, and now that the game has left Early Access, Supergiant has no major updates planned, although it does give it minor fixes with some time-consuming bug fixes. in time.
If anything, it looks like live service games are the ones that most often mimic Early Access, releasing games where developers expect to make post-release changes based on feedback. players. Although when I pitched the idea to Larian founder Sven Vincke, he told me that early access and live service games don’t compare from a distance.
“The only thing you can compare is the ongoing development, but games as a service have to finish things all the time, right? ” he says. “As for early access, you should only sign up if you like being in a construction site, because you’re not going to finish something here! We even reserve the right to change everything if we think that it’s better for the game, or if you tell us it’s better for the game. ”
Over the past year or so, it has been more difficult for developers to gather this feedback from players thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic. Constantly discussing the ins and outs of patch notes or trying to update players with detailed decisions can feel dehumanizing when it’s all done through one screen. Vincke tells me that this year has been particularly difficult for him working on Baldur’s Gate 3, as there is no face to face with the players.
“What I miss the most right now are events, like PAX, where I can sit next to a player and chat with them,” he said. “I used to learn the most from these threads, that kind of feedback is invaluable. But it’s happening less now, because if you open up a stream you instantly have so many people jumping on it, or you do questions and answers and that too becomes * boomf * [makes explosion gesture with arms]. It’s like an avalanche. ”
Most of the early access developers I spoke to emphasized the importance of community management, especially in response to about a year old. With the world feeling more online than ever, having someone on the team who can act as a bridge between developers and fans has been vital. This is even more crucial for development teams whose games have “ exploded ” with a surprising influx of players.
“The first month after launch was like, ‘Oh my god, we made it! We’re going to be fine! ‘ And then all of a sudden it was like, “Oh. Oh, we really did it. And now we have all this crazy extra work that has nothing to do with producing the actual game,” “me. said Chris Bourassa, Creative Director of Darkest Dungeon. “We had no experience with Early Access, but we underestimated the impact of community management and this aspect of community walking through the experience. Early Access, which we luckily did, but it wasn’t easy. Our host said, ‘I just want to host, I can’t keep doing these Steam forums.’ ”
“I think games like Darkest Dungeon have started to change the perception of what an early access game can be.”
While there have been some successful early access games before this, Darkest Dungeon has been cited as an example by several other developers I’ve spoken to. Red Hook seems to have paved the way for a lot of other developers, especially those who make great roguelikes.
“I think games like Darkest Dungeon started to change the perception of what an early access game could be,” Kasavin says. “Now there are more Early Access games that learn from each other and focus on both the regularity of their update cycle and communicating with their communities. I think that made more sense. gamers more comfortable that participating in Early Access can be a positive experience, that they don’t just try out a game for free. ”
Grounded Game Director Adam Brennecke believes there is also a noticeable change from the old days of Early Access.
“There are a lot of trailblazers in the beginning, and now it feels like we’re kind of like the second wave, or the second generation of early access games,” he says. “Right now I feel like the games are a lot more polished, I think they have to be because the market is probably a little more flooded. You have to be sort of in a place where you can stand out from the crowd. ”
From what I’ve heard, I think it’s safe to say that a lot of Early Access game developers really love Early Access. But I’m curious, would they do all of this again? While GTFO’s Viklund says that’s not the answer to all plans, he certainly wouldn’t rule out making another Early Access game.
Neither does Sven Vincke, for whom Baldur’s Gate 3 is his third Early Access game. “It worked really well for us, and as long as it works, we’re not going to change it,” he says.
“I can’t imagine a world where we no longer consider Early Access,” Supergiant’s Kasavin told me. “Hades has been successful beyond our previous games, and the Early Access process has a lot to do with this positive outcome.”
“If you’re making something that’s not a cookie cutter, if you’re trying to do experimental things or push game design in certain ways, it’s difficult and early access improves the process,” Brennecke says. “As game developers, we make games for people to enjoy, and the best way to get the best game possible, in my opinion, is to put it in people’s hands and iterate.”
As for Red Hook? They had previously said that Darkest Dungeon 2 would be releasing in Early Access at some point this year, and Bourassa and Sigman confirmed to me that was still the goal. They’ve been pretty quiet about the sequel since it was announced, with the plan to “say nothing until they can say a lot.” To that end, it’s worth keeping an eye on the news tomorrow.