I’ve seen a lot of talk about early access and the pros and cons of it. I wanted to share some experiences on this.
The very first commercial retail PC game that allowed people to pre-order the game and get access to the beta was called Galactic Civilizations for OS/2 and the year was 1993.
Every single Stardock game has had early access for over 20 years so this is a good opportunity to share some experiences about it.
#1 You can’t fund your game this way
I’ve seen many gamers (and even some game developers) believe that they can fund their game through early access. It doesn’t work that way. Most people (95%) won’t buy a game in beta. The sales/revenue graph of a game is a straight line that turns into a cliff when a game is released. So if you think you can pay for development this way, forget it.
There are notable exceptions (Star Citizen) but the reason they get a lot of attention is because they are so unusual.
#2 Early Access is good for compatibility testing
I’ve seen people online talk about “paying to beta test” which is, well, a crazy thing to say. That said, Early Access is wonderful for compatibility testing. For example, mixing video drivers, sound drivers, network drivers, and the OS is largely impossible to do well for smaller studios and publishers.
The setup has gotten insanier (that’s now officially a word) even in the past few years. Right now, as you read this, right click on your sound system tray options, select play back devices. How many of you get a noticeable delay in getting that dialog up? The answer is about 10% of you. This is caused by AMD high definition audio devices being added which can cause some games to get a lot of stuttering in their sound. It can be worked around but without early access, it would be really hard to solve this (you can fix this on your end by disabling those devices).
It’s even worse on Windows 8 btw where people who don’t have Windows 8.1 UPDATE (not to be confused with Windows 8.1 normal) because there’s a bug in the OS that causes the sound driver to not get enough CPU which affects games using DirectX 11. And these are sound issues. Video, well, that’s a whole different world.
The point being compatibility is a good use of early access.
#3 Early Access is good for fan feedback
One of the best elements of Early Access is that you get people who are committed to the concept of your game. We took some blow back from people because Galactic Civilizations III: Founder’s Edition was $100. It includes everything we will ever make for GalCiv III (all DLC and expansions). The idea behind it was to find a way to not have casual players in the alpha program. The feedback from these players has been amazing.
This is why #1 is so key: Not only will you not get very many sales (relative to the final game) of your EA game but you don’t want too many. If you get too many EA players, the feedback gets way too muddled. You want people who are already sold on the concept and not people who will try to push you to make a different game (like MOO fans who always seem to wish GalCiv would become a MOO style game, I love MOO but GalCiv isn’t MOO).
#4 PR is a limiting factor on Early Access
As some of you know, Stardock sold Impulse to Gamestop some years ago. With that capital, we created an investment fund which has been used to help start-ups and get some amazing games off the ground. Over the next 36 months or so, we’ll be releasing around 7 new games. You know about Galactic Civilizations III. That’s one.
I would love to announce these games over the next year and get Early Access going for them because most them are brand new IP. The limiting factor for us is PR. That is, how many games do we want in Early Access at once? We don’t know that answer but we do know there’s a threshold before you create what marketing calls a “negative narrative” that becomes very hard to get away from once it has been created.
Galactic Civilizations III was an easy one because people already know what it is. Right now, we have 3 other games that we play daily internally that aren’t even announced (one of which we play at lunch every day competitively multiplayer via the Internet between the teams).
The point being, many people don’t like the concept of Early Access and it does put the brakes on how many Early Access games are available at a given moment and keeps the bigger studios from doing it.
#5 Fan interaction is a major motivator
Most people I know who make games do so because they enjoy making things to share with other people. No one becomes a game developer for the money. If it weren’t for fan interaction, I wouldn’t be making games at all. It’s my primary motivation. I’m a creature of the Internet. I’m notorious for lurking and participating on forums outside our own because talking about our games or other games is very enjoyable.
Early Access is particularly fun because you can actually make meaningful changes to the game based on intelligent feedback. Nothing sucks worse for a game developer than to get a great idea from a fan only to not be able to use it because it’s “too late”.