James explains how early access can lead to things going horribly wrong.
By James Pinnell on May 1, 2013 at 4:23 pm
Does getting access to an alpha allow you to influence the direction of a game — or simply constitute paying for an unfinished product?
This is the question we need to ask before we begin to fully embrace “Early Access”, the popular new trend that exploits the need for impatient gamers to play something, anything, that resembles or constitutes a game — and all for a fee, of course. “Supporting a developer” is the guise under which this particular scenario is being offered, in that the full amount is effectively a pre-order for the final product. Not only is this an entirely dangerous prospect for a potential customer, it’s actually quite a poor business model for the developer.
The explosion in crowd sourcing over the past year or two has had a profound effect on game development, especially when it comes to independents. Games that might not have sold well to a mass market audience are now able to be funded by the gamers who actually want them. Whether or not this is a workable model is yet to be known, with many of the first generation crowdsourced titles still in the middle of development, but a common theme has emerged where the demands by the community on top of the limited funding offered (compared to a large publisher) has made things a little more difficult.
Gamers want their games now.
Developers have obliged, offering direct access to the entire process via a series of incremental alpha builds and in-depth developer log of progress. The latest success story for this model is probably Introversion’s Prison Architect, a prison management simulation that emulates a lot of what made games like Theme Hospital entertaining. It’s a great game, and the small dev team (of two) have been releasing regular updates and videos that detail their changes and modifications based on feedback from players.
What concerns me about Prison Architect and other early access games such as ArmA 3, is that they risk sitting in development purgatory, destined to be endlessly stuck in beta, with the developers scared too scared of a player backlash to ever declare the game completed.
I have nothing against many of the new generation of business models for many titles, and I’ve been a defender of Free-2-Play on various occasions. I understand that many games, like most software, are gradually moving to become services that evolve, rather than standalone titles. But this model does not fit every game, and it’s telling that many of the games that are offering early access are indie titles that traditionally do not rely on upfront funding. This is because, essentially, you have no idea what you are going to get. It’s the ultimate gamble, with the developer already pocketing your funds, leaving the end date completely open. What motivation does the developer have to finish the game in a reasonable space of time when you’ve already committed, well, forever?
The answer is none, and this is a worrying trend. Money has always been a terrific motivational tool for people to complete their work in a timely manner, especially when they have the opportunity to sell to a large market of open-minded customers. Offering a seat on the development train is usually nowhere near as glamorous as it sounds – most alphas (or pre-alphas), are horribly buggy. Most of them are missing major features, working engines, as well as sound and art assets. People are generally less interested in the process and more interested in playing something early; take a look at any beta forum for examples of this — while many people are happy to offer bug reports and constructive feedback, most are simply complaining that the idea they bought into isn’t working properly yet.
This plethora of feedback is more likely to be a curse than provide anything honestly constructive. An indie developer with 5000 customers all wanting to push the project in various directions is likely to take on significantly more than they originally intended to. Extra game modes that would push out the release or, in the worst case, completely overrule the original design matrix. There’s already been casualties from this sort of overreach – Take the Kickstarted game Haunts, a promising little turn-based horror game, that began as a half built, pre-funded prototype that needed an extra $25K to get over the line. Success, as has been the case for most crowdsourced games, got the better of the team — and they began offering stretch targets to squeeze just that little bit more out of the orange.
Over the next 6 months, it emerged, whether due to their own aspirations or a slight design fork to value add for backers, that the team had decided to abandon their original plan for a lengthy single-player campaign. A few weeks later, it was gone entirely – resulting in a dramatic turn around for the game’s direction towards a multiplayer only affair. Salary costs blew out and engulfed most of the remaining funding, leaving the concept’s creator holding the bag when the money train stopped and his team evaporated. By the end, what was originally a promising project well on the way to completion, became a nightmare example of what can go wrong during indie development.
This unfortunate ending is not the rule in these arrangements, but it’s hardly the exception either. Game development requires stringent dedication to goal setting and completion in order for the title to be completed on time and on budget. Crowdsourcing creates too many potholes for possible derailment; whether its the constant updates, the pressure to act on feedback or the funding lost covering rewards. Funders stand to lose because there is nothing protecting their investment. Large publishers sign hefty contracts with requirements on meeting completion benchmarks, quality assurance and balancing budgets. They’re also guaranteed something tangible at the end for their trouble, but Kickstarter and Early Access participants aren’t really promised anything other than what they are given outside of that T-Shirt.
So what about being able to put your fingerprints on the finished product? Whether your purchase entitles influence or even impacts the course of the game at all is debatable. What’s honestly going on here is that the team is given access to a wide pool of paying beta testers. Where once testing was done by friends, family or a special few in the community, people are practically begging for the opportunity to spend hours waiting for unoptimised maps to load, hearing ear splittingly loud and broken sound assets, or having their save wiped. If you expect that your wild, creative and downright revolutionary game concepts are going to find themselves manifested before your eyes after your 10,000 word forum thesis, get ready to be distinctly disappointed.
Lets be honest with ourselves. The consumer isn’t the winner here at all, and frankly, neither is the developer.
Gamers will find themselves yearning for working code after a few weeks of novelty tinkering, teased by developer logs and heavily restricted preview builds. Developers will tire of the constant emails, threats, refund requests and release date requests filling their inboxes, forums and social media networks. The feeling of being part of some mysterious inner circle community, a big wide world of developer and consumer working together for a better game, is a utopia disconnected from reality. Both sides are in this for different reasons, in the same way that K-mart doesn’t invite you to the sweatshop where your $4 shirt is made.
It’s not pretty, and frankly, they don’t really want you there gawking at them either.