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The Early Access phenomenon: Care to buy a dream?

This post has not been edited by the GamesBeat staff. Opinions by GamesBeat community writers do not necessarily reflect those of the staff.


Analysis - Early Access Phenomenon - Care to buy a dream 2

Buying into a game before it is remotely close to being complete has taken hold as an excepted business practice in recent years by both game developers and consumers. The so called Early Access model essentially allows the public to buy into a video game in its pre-release stage, often as early as alpha build, a state where key components are not present, or basic functions within the game are broken. It’s proven hugely successful. However, with all the great successes of the Early Access approach, there are far more failures. At the crux of this new boon in capital raising is a battle between supporting often poorly funded developers to make real their video game visions, and the other of accountability to the people who invested money and put their faith in individuals to deliver on their promises. In this article I examine both sides of the Early Access coin, and argue that at the end of the day, those who invest in a game’s development have to wise up and start demanding accountability from would-be developers to avoid being taken from a ride.

Markus “Notch” Pearson first posted images of a completely unknown game he was working on, Minecraft, to a forum on TIGSource.com. It was here that he shared his earliest thoughts on the title, stating that “The main inspiration for this game is Infiniminer, but it’s going to move in a more Dwarf Fortress way, gameplay wise. =)”. Well I don’t know anything about Infiniminer or Dwarf Fortress (please don’t kill me!), but by the time Pearson had decided to release the full version of Minecraft in 2011, he was well and truly a millionaire. Pioneering what would later be called Early Access, Pearson had sold Minecraft for a couple of dollars in its primitive pre-release incarnations, in an effort to raise dollars for the games continued development, and of course have the public interact with the product to test and provide feedback. The rest as they say is history. Minecraft has gone on to be one of the highest selling video games of all time, and the paid pre-release capital raising model Pearson popularised has caught on like wildfire, with online retailers like Steam, having their front pages splashed with all manner of games, both Indie and AAA, in this category.

All of this has become possible through the ever connected and faster internet speeds of the modern world.

Back in the day, it may have taken a tester to have a separate program open on their PC to capture log files and then manually upload them; or even simply take screenshots and email them through to the developer. Now any game worth its salt has automated error reporting mechanisms, whether that be through a persistent connection to a host server, or an applet that runs behind the scenes to capture logs and execute a file upload once an error event is experienced. This moves the testing process, in the case of Early Access titles those testers are the public, away from being a formalised and possibly technical task, to that of allowing participants to provide feedback on higher order things, like game mechanics, level design, art direction, or sound and music. Great efficiencies have obviously been gained here, as the public can have a bit of fun with the title and to a degree influence its future direction. All the while the person making the game gets useful hard data on bugs, and a sense of what players enjoy, as well as possibly new ideas to implement they may not have considered.

As a revenue raising process, we’ve already seen some huge successes. Take Dota 2 for example; developed and published by Valve, this was released to the public back in 2011 as a paid beta. For $9.99 users could gain early access to the title, test it and in turn fund its continued development. While it’s difficult to pin down exact numbers, Wired.com reported back in June 2013 that 3.5 million players had already opened their wallets to jump on the paid beta, so there’s at least $35 million in extra development coin. Dota 2 turned out to be to be critically successful, with a Metacritic score of 90/100, and passed League of Legends as the most played PC game in the West, according to gamesindustry.biz as of April 2013.

You’d be right to ask at this point, what could possibly be wrong with funding a game’s development in this way? We’ve already seen great success from independent development studios like Mike Pearson’s Mojang, with the insanely successful Minecraft; and big time publisher and developer Valve set the MOBA world on fire with Dota 2, using exactly the same Early Access approach. Thankfully Minecraft and Dota 2 can be held up as glowing exhibits of how, with a strong vision, drive, and commitment to deliver, Early Access does work.  However things aren’t always this cut and dry.

Take The Castle Doctrine, made by Jason Rohrer. Rohrer asked for the relatively small sum of $8, for people to assist in its development from alpha stage, and eventually released the title back in January 2014. Described on the game’s website – thecastledoctrine.net – The Castle Doctrine is “a massively-multiplayer game of burglary and home defense…”. Set in the early 1990s this rogue-like experience sees players invade each other’s homes, setup traps, use tools to navigate around, and steal from one another. Rohrer reported through his blog though that during the game’s development, players participating in the public alpha were able to exploit the game’s lock making mechanics to a point that houses became impenetrable, with 16-button lock combinations that would require up to 65,536 guesses to crack. This changed the title so radically from Rohrer’s intentions that the experienced moved to being essentially a tutorial on lock-smithing. Rohrer’s answer, wipe the slate clean and start again, truer to his original vision.

Important philosophical questions should be raised here, with examples like The Castle Doctrine, and what Early Access investors should expect from a game’s development. For instance, are those who paid into a games alpha version, attracted by a description and other media such as screen shots and video clips, expected to sit back and just accept that at any point, the game may radically change? Are there limits on that change? Take this hypothetical example for argument’s sake; an independent developer puts their hand at making an exciting motor racing simulator, with licensed vehicles and tracks, asking for the public’s money to help test the game’s earliest build. Later, said indie developer finds that obtaining the licences were more difficult than anticipated, and instead decides to scrap everything. They’ve had a new and exciting vision of what they want for the product; a horse racing simulator. Their grandad owns a stud farm, so they’ll be able to model the horses very realistically, and this will get them around the frustrating motorsport licencing issues. Ultimately the developer realised they cared more about equines than cars, and this would still hold true to their original vision, which was one of the drama of competitive racing. It’s an extreme example, but one that’s perfectly viable under the current Early Access arrangements.

Let us move onto another example, one which has proven financially fertile, but throws up other questions of a developer’s ultimate accountability; the Early Access version of Prison Architect.

First released as a paid alpha in September 2012, Prison Architect made around $270 000 in its first fortnight of sales. Mark Morris, Producer at the independent developer Introversion Software, in an interview with Gamasutra.com, stated that “By doing it ourselves, we don’t have to time limit the alpha, and we hope that we’ll get more and more gamers interested as we progress and start releasing the updates.” According to Eurogamer.net in an article published in November 2013, the game had made $8 million, and had been played by around 250 000 people. That is fantastic news for Introversion, and it certainly provides enough of a buff to the games war chest to continue development for some time.

Nevertheless, one has to ask oneself, is it okay that there is essentially no endpoint to the development process? It is true that Prison Architect continues to see predominantly positive feedback in its Steam Early Access reviews by those who have already put money down and spent time behind the bars of their virtual super max correctional facilities. Morris and his team of six others at Introversion have also continually provided updates and revisions to the in-progress title over its two-year life span so far. It also isn’t a game that has suffered, in the same way as The Castle Doctrine, through exploits that have necessitated radical changes in order to hit the team’s original vision. However, when a developer states that because they’ve made so much money, they don’t have to leave alpha, this diminishes any kind of timeliness. How long does one who has invested in the game, expect it to be in an unfinished state? It is hardly right for a property developer to advertise they’ve made such a great margin on the sale of their plots of land, that they’ll remove any schedule to development. It’s not impossible to argue that one may actually expect an increase in quality, and feature set. Or, how about employing more staff, to enhance the development speed? Why should investors, who also spend time assisting in testing the game, essentially be told they’ll have to wait for what you’ve paid for, until a developer decides they’ll give it to you.

This isn’t about making developers who take advantage of the paid alpha model into bad guys, nor an attempt to rip this sort of capital raising apart, far from it. What is important conversely is to highlight that currently the risk is firmly in the hands of those who buy in, and I believe this needs to change. It is true that people are investing into something that is at times in its most embryonic state, one must expect that things will change over time, and with any sort of project it’s difficult to crystal ball and known exactly what the final outcome will be. At the very least however a gentlemen’s agreement should be made between developers and their alpha version backers; something that could resemble a loose set of documented timelines and a scope on what should be expected and when. I certainly don’t want to see the same pressure that is applied under traditional arrangements where a big name publisher can essentially dictate, and litigate whenever their developer isn’t pleasing them. However, when you have a distinct power imbalance such that exists in the Early Access model, where real money is involved, and developers can make rich very quickly on essentially selling the idea of something, without any true accountability on their side, this can lead to undesirable consequences. For instance, crooked snake oil salesmen hyping their audience up by promising them utopia, only to make their money, and dump something to market that’s broken or incomplete.

Early Access development is a business model that has found its feet in the modern video game industry. Alpha and beta buy-ins are shown to offer great success for both indie studios and those who back them, as well as more muddy examples which include radical creative direction changes, or perpetual development cycles. One thing is certain in my mind though, that a balance between giving a creative idea a chance through the thrill of taking a risk on a vision for a video game, and that of holding developers who make it rich overnight to account on the very ideas they promised to deliver on. How this is done will be decided over time by the developers, media observers, and the community at large. Let’s hope it happens in a balanced way that still allows for innovation, but prevents people from getting the rug pulled out from under them.