Radical Heights, a battle-royale shooter that teaches you the importance of saving money, is the latest release from developer Boss Key Productions. It is available now for free on Steam’s Early Access portal for unfinished games. And Radical Heights is very unfinished. But in 2018, releasing half a game is a smart strategy.
Less than a year ago, Boss Key released its class-based shooter Lawbreakers on Steam for $30. That game is infamous now for fizzling out with hyper-low player counts in the weeks following its release, and the company announced April 5 that it is halting development. But the developer also noted that it had something new in the works, and a week later it pushed out Radical Heights into what it calls “X-treme Early Access.” This is a battle-royale game with a game-show theme mashed together with ’80s nostalgia. It is the kind of obvious, uninspired aesthetic when you make a game in a matter of months.
And the rush job also shows in the low-quality placeholder artwork, the janky animation and controls, and the lack of playable women. Radical Heights is far more unfinished than PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds was when it debuted in Early Access in March 2017, and of course that is turning a lot of people off. Consumers want high-quality, finished games, right? Well, Radical Heights puts the lie to that.
In the first month after its release, Lawbreakers had days where it peaked at 200 concurrent players on Steam, which is a metric that shows how many people are playing a game at once. That is low for any game, but it is especially low for an online multiplayer shooter. And Boss Key admitted that Lawbreakers never recovered.
“Here is the very real truth, which may not come as a surprise,” reads a Boss Key blog. “The fact is LawBreakers failed to find enough of an audience to generate the funds necessary to keep it sustained in the manner we had originally planned for and anticipated.”
Boss Key spent years making and refining Lawbreakers before releasing it, and the final product was solid. At worst, I would have called its design boring due to too much polish, but it was not a bad game. And then we have Radical Heights, which peaked at 12,000 concurrent players on Steam earlier this week. It’s hovering at around 5,000 concurrents during its off hours. That’s a million miles from PUBG’s 500,000 concurrents, but it is significantly more than Lawbreakers.
I don’t know if Radical Heights is going to find a long-term audience. Boss Key has a lot of work to do. But the point is that Radical Heights has a much better chance of succeeding than Lawbreakers did, and it was probably a lot more affordable to make. And, to me, Boss Key is a perfect case study for understanding that we now live in an era of unfinished games.
Polished games are not dead. But they are not dead in the same way that single-player narrative games aren’t dead. They’ll still exist, but they are a bigger risk than ever and only make sense for certain publishers. God of War is about to debut on PlayStation 4, and it sounds like the years that Sony Santa Monica put into that game paid off. A company like Nintendo is going to continue delaying Zelda games to ensure that they come out right.
Nintendo creative boss and Zelda creator Shigeru Miyamoto even has a famous quote about this subject.
“A delayed game is eventually good,” Miyamoto once famously said. “A bad game is bad forever.”
And that has served Nintendo well, but few companies make games like that Japanese publisher. If a developer like Boss Key only started selling its products once they were as polished as something from Miyamoto, they would run out of money before they made one sale. That’s not to say that an individual indie developer isn’t as talented as an individual from Nintendo, but it’s a matter of scale and motivation. Nintendo has a massive bank account and thousands of employees. It can have dozens or even hundreds of people working on a game like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. A few other companies can do that including Blizzard and Sony, but it’s not viable for the vast majority of teams working on games.
So does that mean some developers shouldn’t even try to polish their games before releasing them? Yes. I’m starting to think that is exactly what it means.
Look at games that are taking off and finding massive success these days. PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds spent the majority of 2017 in Early Access on Steam. Fortnite is still in its “Early Access season,” which is crazy because you can buy it on a disc at the store. The best experience I’ve had with a game so far in 2018 is with the unfinished Minecraft-like education game Eco that is missing a ton of features. And even when I look at the biggest publishers, their games are changing so fast that their previous release versions were a quasi-Early Access. Think about Sea of Thieves, For Honor, or Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six: Siege.
The thing that all of these games have in common is that they are always changing. They are living games that react to their audience and the world, and that makes them better. And hell, even Miyamoto ends up changing his games with edits to progression in games like Zelda: Wind Waker HD and Twilight Princess HD.
Early Access forever
Developers and publishers are beginning to embrace what an ever-changing game means. For a game like Sea of Thieves, it is out and disappointing to a lot of people, but the promise of change brings with it a hope that it could grow into something amazing. We’ve seen Rainbow Six: Siege do that, and now The PUBG Corp. has announced that it wants to return to developing its “finished” 1.0 PUBG as if it were still in pre-alpha Early Access. That led PUBG Corp. to release an experimental build of its game to test out the battle-royale shooter’s third map that has unfinished textures and barren buildings.
Games are never finished, and developers never want to finish them. And this eternal-beta-style of development has multiple benefits.
At our GamesBeat Summit earlier this week, Tencent North American game boss Randy Lee said that his company likes games that start slow and grows over time.
“One of the biggest games for revenues for us last year was something we signed 10 years ago,” said Lee. “It’s OK to start small and find the core audience and grow it over time.”
That’s the opposite of the traditional curve for game sales on console and PC. Throughout the 2000s and the early part of this decade, publishers were obsessed with preorders because sales were so frontloaded, and the tail would fade away over time. But that has changed drastically. Games like Minecraft, Grand Theft Auto V, and Siege have all continued to sell well or sold more as time went on, and that’s all because they have these live-service operations that change and grow. Siege especially disproves the idea that a poor first impression is the end for a game. I and many other people bounced off of Ubisoft’s tactical shooter when it debuted in December 2015, and that didn’t stop it from getting me back along with 30 million registered players.
But another benefit is that players are more forgiving of a live game because we always have the hope that the developers will implement our feedback. It’s easy to imagine developers cynically embracing Early Access because they don’t want to deal with real criticism, but the truth is that games that don’t curve toward the desires of their audience still do fade away or even fail. The zombie-survival sim DayZ from developer Bohemia Interactive has lost most of its players because that studio did not maintain a steady sense of progression toward a better game.
The last benefit that I’ll point out is that unfinished games are still games, but they have this aura about them because they live in an ether realm. You could come back to Radical Heights tomorrow, and everything could look and feel different. And that game you remember playing on April 12 is different on April 13. And in the way that you build a relationship with people who change and grow, you get to build a relationship with a game as they change and grow.
A lot of Early Access games succeed because when they break, they do so in memorable ways that are still in line with what makes games fun. Most people come to games for the unexpected. I want to encounter things that seem like the unintended consequence of various pre-programmed behaviors colliding with one another. I remember an early game of PUBG where my friend ran a jeep between an opening in a fence, and it tapped the side of the chain links and exploded almost immediately. Something about the physics caused the jeep to freak out and suddenly take on a catastrophic amount of damage. It was a bug, and it was hilarious, and I’ll never forget it.
For me, that moment wasn’t a mistake. It was still PUBG. And while I’m glad that doesn’t happen all the time and that PUBG Corp. patched out that particular problem, the experience added to the character of the game. I wouldn’t want to take away my memory of it and replace it only with a pristine experience that never does anything out of the ordinary.
So yeah, I’ll happily continue playing flawless technical masterpieces that have had years of polish before I get the chance to play them, but that way of making games is from another time and place or for specific kinds of games. It didn’t make a difference for Lawbreakers. Years of delays may have made it better, but no one cared. What Boss Key get right with Radical Heights is realizing that polish won’t make a game and Early Access jank won’t break a game.
We now live in the Early Access era, and developers have too many reasons to let us start playing as soon as possible to go back to the old way of doing things.