The Era of Early Access

Astronaut or Rock Star? Those were the two career choices I’d given myself by the times was 8.  A little cliché? Maybe, but I was already so into Power Rangers and Lego that I’d surpassed caring if that was the case. I also had a little trouble with my s’ so had a little difficulty pronouncing the word consumerism.

I’ve always loved PC games from the second I launched up windows 95 for the first time and bounced my way around Microsoft’s 3D maze that was ‘Hover’. So you can imagine my excitement when I had gotten word that ‘Video Game Tester’ was a job. I guess that the folks at NASA and all those screaming fans would have to wait. Growing up I always wanted to be a Games tester. The idea of making a living playing PC games whilst wearing my pants seemed to be  too good to be true.

What is Early Access?

What is Early Access?

So is that what Early Access is? A community of Game Testers? I suppose that would save the development team a little bit of money when it comes to their budget. There is a degree of truth to that, given that our purpose as early access users is (partly) to dig and dig until no buggy stone is left un-turned.

Steam at the moment seems to be the mother hub of early access games. So where better to start than their definition of the term.

As a new poster here I will be putting links to all games mentioned in because these are after all just my opinions, and despite maybe having a few negative things to say about some of them I’d recommend you take a look yourselves!

Early Access:

Get immediate access to games that are being developed with the community’s involvement. These are games that evolve as you play them, as you give feedback, and as the developers update and add content.’

 As a keen PC gamer, when this concept first came to light I was delighted. You can spend hours talking about things that fully developed games could have had. Things that are only brought forward by the community once the game has been developed and (if the developers are smart enough) are then penciled in for the expansion.

 So what is early access really? Let’s take a look at the standard development plan for some of our favorite games.

  1. Concept:
    What is the game going to be?
  2. Pre-production:
    This will involve things such as coming up with a storyline, writing a storyboard, and detailing the game’s level designs, goals, gameplay mechanics. A blueprint of what’s to come.
  3. Production:
    This is where you start bringing in your team. Producers, designers, artists, programmers. Building the games foundation and turning it into something playable. This can often involve building an engine, or in some cases creating a game upon an existing engine (if it ain’t broke and all that).
  4. Post production:
    This is generally the final stage of the game’s development. All of the code has been written (not necessarily finalised). This stage can be broken down into sections:

    • Internal: This will involve a lot of internal testing of the game, as a game.
    • Alpha: The game is released to testers. Played by third-party users (both developers and specified testers), as much a QA as a testing of user experience. Still filtering out any bugs that arise during gameplay and ironing out the majority of the creases.
    • Beta: This can arguably be a stage of it’s own however generally I’d consider this post-production. This is where the game is opened up to users to test. Often done via an ‘opt-in’ feature created once the game is announced, where players can offer themselves up to test the game in the beta stage. A handful of them are then chosen and sent out beta keys and test the game as (pretty much) a finished product. This version will be missing some features, or maybe not quite be optimised fully but is in essence the finished version of the game.
  5. Release:
        Not much explanation needed here really. Get your wallet out and pay for it.

Bear in mind that this process can of course vary massively from game to game, but as a vague skeleton that sums it up.
So how does early access differ from the above. Essentially early access steps in after the Internal sections of the Post-Production phase in development; The Alpha stage. I feel the best way to explain this is to put it into some context of my first early access experience.

 This came in the form of DayZ Standalone. I was convinced by my good friend Jethro to grab a copy of it. After reading a bit about the concept of the game (the exciting new era of survival games, and in my opinion the only context in which you are allowed to use the term YOLO) and the idea of being part of this community to aid the development the game via a vast and (this is the important bit) listened to community, I was sold and paid £19.99 to enter the world of early access.

DayZ

3 Deaths in thanks to nothing more than the alpha not having functional ladders (instead of providing you with a safe and secure method of descending they proceeded to fling you to your doom) I felt I had underestimated exactly what I was embarking on.

So you’ve paid a small wedge of cash for this game, you’ve been made aware that it’s not finished, so exactly how un-finished is it?

A small portion of me has to admit that playing alongside these (and I’m using this term very loosely) game breaking bugs was part of the fun of it. I’ve outlined a few of my favorite bugs/glitches/fails from my time within DayZ.

  • As mentioned the ladders of doom (as far as I’m aware this is still not fixed)
  • All of your gear disappearing when swimming
  • If you log in within a minute or two before server restart your character is replaced with a naked man on the other side of the map
  • Constant Zombie noises regardless of zombies or not
  • Shotgun (for a good month) only fired a single pellet from the shells making it about as effective as a BB gun.

These though, of course, wear rather thin and rather quickly.

One of the additional features that falls side by side with the game, and plays a large part in both the involvement and I’d like to think development of the game is the community hub. Where better to have this than our trusty Reddit.

DayZ Subreddit

The DayZ Subreddit is both brilliant and awful depending on what you expect of it. Like any forum it’s overflowing with screenshots and funny gifs/memes. Those within this are countless suggestions, feature reports, guides and most importantly status updates. The most substantial thing about this subreddit is the Dev involvement. With regular and sometimes daily dev posts, and plenty of dev responses a dayz user definitely feels that their opinion is important and where possible, listened to. I’ve seen many features start as a suggestion from a player, sometimes adjacent to a crudely made Photoshop mockup. Then pop-up in the game a few months later, designed, developed, and nearly functional. DayZ is a great example of early access, providing the user understands that BEFORE buying it, and before going off on one about how the game is broken and doesn’t work. I’ve sunk nearly 1000 hours into this game, and nothing will quite get your heart racing like a firefight in an abandoned town against a deranged russian donning nothing more than his underwear, a childs briefcase and an M4 assault rifle.

Another few great examples of Early Access games are the likes of Prison Architect, Starbound, Space Engineers and Godus. All of these can be found by following the respective links. There is an aura surrounding Early Access that can paint it as a model done simply as a money grabber for developers, making money based on concept and promise without having to refine anything into a finished product.

Some examples of other Early Access Games

Prison Architect

Prison Architect

Starbound

Starbound

Space Engineers

Space Engineers

 

 

 

 

 

All of these games do very well to prove this idea wrong. Some may progress a lot faster than other, of course depending on certain dependencies, graphical requirements and size. However it is fundamental that the people playing these games feel the sense of development that IS early access. It’s not about leveling your character, gearing yourself up or progressing through levels as such. It’s about witnessing the games evolution from within throughout this stage of development, and in some cases being a part of that games evolution.

Sadly there are a lot of games that fall into the category of early access that don’t follow these important rules of sustaining a community for their brainchild. Being a big fan of the uprising and soon to be saturated genre of survival (zombie or otherwise) I gravitated towards the game Nether. It sat on my wish list for quite a while before me and few gamer buddies eventually decided to give it a go.

Long story short, the servers didn’t work and the client fell on it’s arse for the first 3 weeks I owned it. I did eventually receive an update email addressing the fixes only to find out that when I did get in the game, I got wedged under a rock and couldn’t move/die/respawn. Awesome right? I took to the forums over the course of my Nether ownership only to find a swarm of complaints, similar dilemmas and various other potential shortfalls. I haven’t been back to Nether. Not because it was a bad game, not because it didn’t work, but because I didn’t feel like these problems were addressed in the way you would expect from any game, even with the Early Access L plates.

The Stomping LandSecondly, and I have no personal experience of this so I can’t comment on the gameplay itself. But the game ‘The Stomping Land’ was recently pulled from the Steam Store due to a complete lack of updates and attentiveness from developers. The exact same thing happened with another game ‘Earth: Year 2066’ in July. The Stomping Land has since been placed back on the marketplace, however reviews don’t seem to give potential playersmuch reassurance as to why they should buy it.

So what makes a good Early Access game? Well a lot of that is up to you, the community. If you go for an early access game, get involved. Explore beyond the game, find a few forums, follow the devs on twitter, anything you can get your hands on. You’re not buying a finished game, you’re certainly not going to complete anything!

The rest is up to the developers. If you’re releasing an early access game you need to be ready for a world of abuse. Most of it from people who didn’t read the big banner on steam explaining the concept of ‘not finished’ and kick off because their server crashed after the patch. But most importantly remember your users. If you’re not going to listen to your community and utilise them to the best of their ability then you may as well keep your Alpha to yourself like you’re used to. A games community is invaluable, so having access to that during the development stages lays in front of you the opportunity to create the game that they really want. After all, that’s the reason games exist right? To be enjoyed.

Early access is the chance to be a part of a games journey from what it could be to what it is, and it’s up to you to make sure that’s the best it can be. One point I feel compelled to make is that this category needs to be separate. There is now an early access section on steam, and that’s great. However if you look at the top sellers you’ll find more than a few early access games. On more than one occasion you’ll see these early access games pop on up steams daily deals and a lot of the time during the summer sale. This can unfortunately be done without necessarily consulting the developers. I know DayZ was at 20% off without the lead developer and project manager even having a clue! We’re all guilty of impulse buying, during the summer sale especially. This brought a wave of players who didn’t buy it for the right reasons and launched it up without the knowledge that it was unfinished. The ramifications of which involved a lot of dissatisfied customers due to no fault but their own and a further warped community. This eventually receded, but the point still remains:

People need to understand the concept before investing in the game.

Thanks,

Ross

 

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