In defence of Early Access – five of the biggest devs speak out

Steam Early Access

Early Access is a funny old sort. Steam’s commercialisation of the open beta allows developers to sell their games before they’re finished, working with the community they build around that initial promise to deliver – hopefully – something much better. There have been successes, and there have been some colossal failures, too. Four years into its existence, the jury is still out on whether it is the future, or the ruination, of game development.

But let’s focus on the positives for today, eh? In this feature, we chat with five developers who succeeded in Early Access – in fact, they are perhaps among the poster children for best practice on the service – to find out what went right for them, what dangers lurk in the process, and what advice they would give other devs who are considering jumping in.

Failbetter Games – Sunless Sea

Failbetter established themselves as masterful storytellers with the excellent Lovecraftian browser game Fallen London. It would have been easy for the studio to get complacent after that, but instead they turned to Early Access, seeing it as an opportunity to expand the limits of their game design with the permadeath exploration title Sunless Sea.

“We were a really inexperienced team when we started work on Sunless Sea,” game director Liam Welton admits. “Real-time combat felt beyond what we were capable of delivering.”

Sunless Sea

After implementing a basic real-time naval combat system, feedback from Early Access players inspired Failbetter to revamp it. “When we realised the extent to which it was damaging the atmosphere (something that was incredibly important to us), we decided to move in a completely different direction,” he says. “I’m really glad we had the opportunity to switch out the old system and get guidance along the way from our Early Access players.”

Failbetter learned not to present players with the full scope of their game in future Early Access stints, but instead to aim to introduce it in digestible chunks. “In Sunless Sea we had one giant map that we slowly filled out as we went along, which often meant that players would head out into the unknown and find that there was nothing for them out there,” Welton says. “For [follow-up] Sunless Skies, we’re going to be introducing people region by region, each of which is about a quarter of the world size. This will give us more focused feedback on each of the areas we develop, and provide enough content and challenges to keep our players interested.”

Amplitude Studios – ‘Endless’ series

It takes an audacious studio to debut with an entire saga of interconnected games – especially when those games are mostly set in the complex 4X strategy genre, ruled for aeons by the likes of Civilization, Age of Wonders, and Galactic Civilizations. But from the start, Amplitude had things under control, sending Endless Space, Dungeon of the Endless, and Endless Legend into Early Access in quick succession, and duly establishing themselves as a leading 4X developer.

Amplitude developed Dungeon of the Endless (DOTE) and Endless Legend concurrently. The games had separate teams working on them, but Amplitude co-founder Romain de Waubert confesses it was still overkill. “DOTE was meant to be released earlier than Legend in order to explain the link between the games, but in the end we had to ship two games in the space of a month,” Waubert explains. “It was extremely painful and left us exhausted, but we’re very proud of what we achieved. [But] if we want to keep working on more than one game at a time, we will manage their release better next time!”

endlesslegend.jpg

Feedback from Early Access players had a big impact on Amplitude’s games; they completely reworked the tech tree for the recently released Endless Space 2 – it was originally going to resemble Endless Legend’s – while players helped “drastically modify” Legend’s battle system, just two weeks before the game came out of Early Access.

De Waubert doesn’t believe that Sega’s recent acquisition of Amplitude will impact their propensity to develop in Early Access and work closely with their community. As an Early Access veteran, he also has some sage words for newcomers: “Keep Early Access short! Six months max, and plan your content to be delivered gradually to keep players interested, and feedback focused.”

InXile Entertainment – Wasteland 2

On the frontlines of the Early Access revolution, post-apocalyptic RPG and long overdue sequel Wasteland 2 is one of the earliest and highest-funded Kickstarter games. Expectations were astronomical. Even so, and despite Early Access being uncharted territory at the time, designer Eric Schwarz says that InXile never succumbed to the strain. “There was no shortage of comments, but it was hugely encouraging for the team to know that the game was resonating with its audience from the start,” he says.

“Early Access was still in its own early access phase… At the time, nobody had really yet figured out ‘What makes a good Early Access game?’. I don’t think anyone could have expected just how big that crowdfunding wave would become, but it speaks to how hungry gamers were for those kinds of experiences.”

Wasteland 2: where cars have... legs? Are those legs? Crikey.

With a full-time staff member dedicated to reading through Early Access players’ feedback, InXile took their army of backers seriously. To the point, in fact, that players helped to change a key juncture in the game: in an early mission, the player originally had the choice to save one of two towns, but after feedback, a third choice – to not save /either/ town – was added. Schwarz believes it brought the game closer to the classic Wasteland experience. “Very few games have consequences to the player ignoring the main quest,” he says. “But that’s exactly the kind of thing Wasteland is known for, and the players helped us see that.”

Now that InXile have Torment: Tides of Numenera and Wasteland 2 under their belts, they plan to continue tapping into the tight communities formed by Early Access. “With Early Access, we get the most in-depth feedback from the most hardcore fans, which we wouldn’t otherwise be able to,” Schwarz says. “It absolutely helps make better games.”

DoubleDutch Games – SpeedRunners

SpeedRunners’ time in Early Access was hardly the quick sprint befitting a game about bite-sized superheroes outrunning each other. The beloved multiplayer sprinter was in Early Access for the best part of three years, and while designer Casper van Est admits that “wasn’t the plan” – the original intention was to be in Early Access for no more than six months – he says that at no point was it at risk of getting bogged down in some development quagmire. “The game kept growing and growing, and more fun and interesting features kept getting requested and added,” he says. “The scope of the project simply grew a lot.”

SpeedRunners

Being a game about momentum that featured precise mechanics, SpeedRunners was an obvious target for plucky players looking to exploit every little trick and glitch to traverse its levels that little bit faster. When players made these “unexpected and un/intended/” discoveries, van Est would often turn them into proper mechanics, such as adding the ability for players to increase their momentum by landing at the bottom of a slope. Player creations in the level editor, meanwhile, also inspired him: “These user-made maps had a tremendous impact on even my own understanding of the game, allowing me as a game and level designer to create better maps.”

Development and marketing are inseparable for van Est, who believes that SpeedRunners is a game that largely sells itself: “A lot of indie developers will first focus on developing a game and only start thinking about marketing when the game is almost finished,” he says. “What we learned with Speedrunners is that the game /itself/ needs to have elements that make it marketable – for instance, by making it clear in any single screenshot what the game is about and why it’s fun.”

Larian Studios – Divinity: Original Sin/2

The Divinity series had been plodding along for over a decade by the time Larian launched a Kickstarter campaign, but it was the crowdfunded Divinity: Original Sin that put the stalwart RPG on the gaming world map. With Original Sin, Divinity evolved from a good series into a great one, and Larian founder Swen Vincke believes that the combination of Kickstarter and Early Access helped unleash the series’ potential. “It gave us room to give our game the extra iteration it needed,” he says. “In the past that was never possible due to financial pressures.”

But the Kickstarter campaign’s success, and associated stretch goals, came with their own pressures. For one thing, they “removed the option to cut things, which is a nice ability to have if you are in the final stretch of development.” Of course, this was outweighed by the positive impact of Early Access players. In Original Sin 2, the entire beginning of the game was changed, and more recently the durability mechanic that degraded weapons was scrapped entirely. “To be honest, I expected durability to survive Early Access,” Vinke says. “But the community was so vehement about it that, in the end, it didn’t. I was surprised, but as it’s a community decision, I think it’s a good thing.”

Being able to track player actions in Early Access is invaluable to Vincke, and with Original Sin 2, Larian are doubling down on the analytics it enables. “In Original Sin 1, we didn’t have any analytics, and missed out on a lot of data because of it,” Vincke says. “In Original Sin 2, we monitor where people die, what talents they use, and what skills they use, so we can better balance the ones that are underused, make them stronger, and so forth.”