The Issues of Early Access

A video from the Extra credits team that i hadn’t seen until recently and seems rather apt at the moment. It’s an episode that looks at the issues with early access games and in times like this I found myself nodding to a lot of the points, having experienced and being worried about them.

Positives

As they mention there are benefits. That early influx of money can be very helpful for developers as can getting in a number of people that have no prior knowledge to actually test the product. This can help after the close work of development as many issues can be often overlooked. It’s also nice when these companies really do take community ideas and thoughts into practice, and incorporate these within the games. Games like project zomboid that I’ve been following have actively done this, even incorporated mods within the game and it makes it feel like that much more of an involved and inclusive process.

Problems

The problems are rather numerous too, the main of course being that you may never receive a completed game which has happened a few times. From small and larger studios. It’s also a disease that has seemingly spread amongst the bigger publishers now who ask for, basically, an extremely early preorder with a constant side order of “but it’s in beta”. However for smaller, mostly single player titles I see it as a good thing. It’s just when you enter the multiplayer, and especially the MMO scene that I feel the issues far outweigh any supposed benefits.

I think the greatest issue facing early acces style mmo’s right now is retention. Your spreading the hype and the active player base along a rather large time frame and it’s quite obvious that not everyone will continue to stick around until some supposed release. It ends up basically fracturing the playerbase into parts based on when you played which has an effect on the overall feeling of the world. Without the buzz and focused playerbase of a release it mostly feels rather barren at times, and of course loses out on the main draw of an mmo. What’s the point of playing if there isn’t many to play with.

MMO’s live and breath based on this retention. They need a constant influx of funds to continue development and cover overhead and investors and publishers want a lot extra for themselves. Players will often stick around when it is busy but with this fracture of groups it seems this no longer lasts as long. Some don’t want to pay and some no longer what an alpha, and so the initial playerbase is smaller. Then you get eventual release and by then large parts of the community have often stagnated. Burn out has hit a few, some just left from lack of development, others might periodically pop in without any real purpose, and of course you end up with less people on release and less enthusiastic early adopters as well.

I’ve seen some seemingly great multiplayer games like secret Ponchos suffer from this quite badly as you end up a smaller population and as people go in to check on a title they see a mostly empty game, the inability to pick up matches and then just log out rather quickly. This effect is exponential: people can’t play properly and don’t have fun, they log in less, other people then come in and see the same. The playerbase logs in less, and less until it’s a ghost town. It’s a sad ending really.

First impressions do last. This can be like the example above and the idea that no one plays the game or it can be like what is happening to H1Z1 right now. It is getting known for a game that is buggy and filled with hackers. This image will persist regardless of the “Early Access” tag well into the future to inform potential players.

Even in situations like Landmark when you have a lack of mechanics, features and gameplay this idea and image of the game will persist to inform new players. It then has the effect of making people leave rather early in the development cycle with a bad image of the game that they will and do spread. Or it might just end in another customer that leaves and never comes back.

Even the core group of players are subject to that. The hardcore ones that write guides, engage on the forums, are active in game, run guilds, or even write blogs can often burn out before release and this has an affect too. There will be less community buzz and less word of mouth about the game. Less guides and resources for many to fall back on an less engagement amongst the various media forms.

The Hype machine for these games can only do so much over so long a time before it just becomes little more than white noise amongst the rest of the gaming news. We just become numb to it. Who the hell cares about landmark now… really? Even the big recent update that fleshed out caves further, brought in monsters and gear and combat as well as a few more integral mechanics was mostly forgotten. These are the things I was expecting far earlier in the experience and then because they were missing, forgot about it and went off elsewhere… never to return.

This all hurts how long an mmo will last. You need that larger player base to begin with. You need a focused and active player base during a more narrow release schedule. It isn’t something you can abuse and expect no consequences. Getting some money early on is great but you also want it to be semi-constant throughout in order to pay overhead and continue development. You just want people all playing together, or beware.

My other quick question about this is, what kind of people are actually getting involved?

Do we really want the most hardcore, the ones that will pony up the money early on and be excited about posting theories, and ideas, and bug reports to be the ones controlling the direction of the conversation around the game? The have a certain set image that will always persist. They are buying into with an already positive view when it is times like this you want more criticism. I would think getting the a better cross section of the interested playerbase in ways like beta giveaways would far more beneficial. A great diversity in the ideas that are presented and the communal discussion is a very good thing and mostly helps to keep that echo chamber in check, that can and does ruin games.

I keep buying into this cycle as well so I’m not blaming anyone. Indie games and kickstarter is a little different in my mind. They’re usually products with a more manageable vision and one that mostly doesn’t rely on other players for the majority of your fun. MMO’s or multiplayer games on the other hand do and I’m trying to remedy that within my own play now. I haven’t played the Repopulation in a bit just because it is an Alpha, there will be wipes and improvement to the game and now I’m thinking of just saving my excitement for release.

I’ll probably still continue to support worthy projects though, even budding niche mmo’s but whether I actually play them in that state from now on is a harder question to answer.

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8 thoughts on “The Issues of Early Access

  1. I’m beginning to think there’s a real disconnection taking place between what players want and what they need and a similar, separate disparity for producers. The evidence is very strong that many players cannot or will not wait a moment longer than they have to before trying a new game that interests them. Any number of warnings that it’s a prototype, an alpha, unfinished, have little or no impact: they see a game.

    What’s being satisfied here is the desire to purchase not the desire to play. Players shell out their dollars, get a “pack”, install the game, run around for a while, get bored and move on. It fits in with the “Steam Sale” issue that was highlighted by many bloggers last year, where players buy far more games than they have time to play. I don’t think the gamers who are doing these things are willing to acknowledge it yet but they are sliding from being game players to game buyers. The act of buying IS the content.

    Game producers, meanwhile, observe that players are willing, eager, to give them money for an extremely unfinished product. No only that but a lot of players will even pay a premium for a few virtual extras that take little of no time to produce and have little or no intrinsic value. The producers’ revenue model is beginning to adapt to one of selling that experience – early access, virtual bonuses – rather than producing a complete, finished game that will hold a lot of players’ attention for a long time.

    It’s more than just a change to the stage in the development process to which they offer us access: it’s the beginning of an entirely new transaction model between producer and purchaser. My feeling is that even if all these Early Access titles do eventually reach full and final release (which many won’t) by that time neither the producers nor the players will be interested in them. Instead everyone will have moved on to the next tranche of heavily-promoted, early access titles.

    It won’t stop until producers stop making a killing on it. We often forget these are all commercial enterprises set up for one reason alone: to make money. If a company can make money more efficiently by selling unfinished products and not finishing them, why would they instead finish their products and not sell them until they are completed?

    • well put.
      definitely fall into this a lot of the time. I have so many games to play at the moment, games I really enjoy and yet I bought another early access game yesterday haha. IT’S A TRAP!!

      It’s like that dorkly comic… it’s more like a game of pokemon now, especially with steam sales… you just gotta catch them all… or at least all those your semi interested in. And yes buying is some of the content, get that hit of dopamine as well which continues and heighten those feelings of happiness around a purchase

      the producers and marketing is to blame as well, they are taking advantage of the situation and basic psychology to entrance people.

      Just wondering how long this stage is going to last. Are people going to get bored or more sceptical of the model. AAA certainly isn’t helping things with their big budget games being completely broken. Might it get worse first though?

  2. For some reason this post got me thinking about a lot of things developers might experiment with doing to sort of make early access more useful. Right now it’s like Bhagpuss said for the player: they’re purchasing a game with very little regard for the testing aspect of an early access purchase. But this is as much the fault of the developers as the players, since they invariably treat early access NOT like a test. Players, by and large, are NOT doing any active testing themselves. It’s just devs monitoring performance as players play the game.

    I’ll need to think on this a little more. Of course, what you and EC say is true. I don’t want early access to go away as much as I want it to be treated like early access.

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  4. The Landmark thing irked me greatly when I originally got in. They called it a Beta, but Beta implies most features are implemented (which they very much weren’t at the time). Rather, they had delivered an Alpha at best, but called it Beta, meaning I went in with expectations that were much higher than they probably wanted. As you mention, it’s tainted my view of the game significantly. Frankly, the game is probably quite different now, but *shrug* my hype is “spent” and I’ve permanently moved on to other games.

    • SAme here… I went in for the alpha and what I got was more of a tech Demo… barely a tech demo. It was an idea that had only just taken form. I would say it has only just entered alpha now.

      Weird Ideas they have of “Beta” and that’s not just me talking from the perspective for a consumer with a warped view of beta..

      Unfortunately it tainted my view as well although, with the no questions asked refunds it didn’t taint my view of the company.

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