How Steam Early Access revolutionised publishing

Alex Calvin
How Steam Early Access revolutionised publishing

One of the biggest successes at the end of last year and the start of this one was not a triple-A title.

It was not polished to a mirror sheen and had not benefitted from a huge marketing push. 

Rather it was an unfinished zombie game from a studio based in the Czech Republic called Bohemia Interactive. It was not even promoted, but still managed to sell 1m copies and make over £20m in its first four weeks on sale. To date it has sold in excess of 1.7m copies. 

This game is of course DayZby popular developer Dean Hall. It was sold through Early Access, a service on Steam where consumers can purchase unfinished games and support their development. 

And it is not the only game to make it big through this service. Rust by Garry Newman and New World Interactive’s Insurgency are among the titles to achieve sales success on the platform. 

So why are people dropping their hard-earned cash on games that are unfinished? 

The answer is very simple – people just want to be involved with the game’s development from as early a stage as possible. Fans want to see a game grow into the product that will finally hit ‘proper’ stores and even be involved in the development process. 

“There is something fundamental about engaging with people at a personal level that attracts people to being involved in the early phases of a project,” says Dean Hall, the man behind DayZ. 

“There is the excitement of what is around the corner, and watching a concept grow and develop. It gets even more exciting as the project gets the additional resources and attention it needs to foster growth. 

“People naturally enjoy watching ideas and concepts they love grow and thrive. It gives people a sense of ownership and a vested interest in a project’s success.” 

Jeremy Blum, game director at Insurgency studio New World Interactive adds: “Certain people want to know about and play a game before their friends, even if it may not be ‘complete’.

“They love to interact directly with the team and become an integral part of a feedback loop that helps shape the game’s direction. They even learn about how a title is made from the process.”

Garry Newman of Facepunch Studios, the studio behind survival title Rust believes that one reason for the success of Early Access is that fans have become tired of the polished pre-release trailers and preview footage. Much like the way people are turning to YouTube and Twitch for ‘honest’ coverage of games prior to their launch, fans are going to Early Access to discover new titles in a different way. 

“Fans have always been involved. But in the past it’s been a passive experience for them,” he says.

“They haven’t been able to play the game. They’ve been teased and lied to with CGI trailers and staged screenshots. The game finally gets released they are hyped up, they buy it, and they’re totally let down.

“The heart of Early Access’ success is removing the long wait for games, removing months of screenshots and teaser trailers and becoming more reactive to the audience.”

ROOM FOR EXPERIMENTATION 

This is both great for the fans and for the creators. As game budgets have soared developers have been under pressure to produce content that will sell by the millions. Publishers – perhaps understandably – want to take less in the way of risks. 

And let’s face it, making games is not cheap. The fact that these studios are still able to explore new ideas and get funding for the duration of their development is a win for studios. 

“The traditional publishing model simply wasn’t delivering results for those involved,” Hall explains. 

“Triple-A game budgets have been steadily increasing, which means projects become more and more risky. Big titles can’t take any risks they can avoid, such as trying out experimental new design ideas or coming up with creative concepts from scratch. 

“They can’t grow, change their scope, or evolve, without taking on enormous risk. This meant the same IPs would be bought out, dressed up a little, and then put on shelves using the same recipe again and again. 

“The traditional model was also not fun for developers, who like to have the freedom to explore new ideas, make interesting new games, and let concepts evolve over time.

 

"People naturally enjoy watching ideas and concepts they love grow and thrive. It gives people a sense of ownership and vest interest in a project’s success."
    

Dean Hall, Bohemia Interactive

“Customers want and demand innovation, Early Access directly allows customers to control the projects that exist and get support. It’s really an extension of social media and crowd-sourcing methods like Kickstarter.”

Blum adds: “We needed to establish an audience and cash flow early enough in the development process to sustain ourselves. The measure of success for indies is affording the ability to keep making games. It’s like how indie musicians need to make enough money from a gig to drive to the next city.

“From a creative standpoint, we were able to experiment and discover the direction we needed to reinvent Insurgency, and not make a carbon copy of the mod on a new engine.”

In principle Early Access is a win-win for all involved. Developers can play with crazy ideas that triple-A studios may not be able to, and fans get to try the game early and get an honest depiction of what it is like.

EARLY BIRDS

Some big publishers have already been eyeing up Early Access. Earlier this year Ubisoft put the latest entry in its Ghost Recon series, a free-to-play title, on Steam’s platform. But surely the idea of Early Access is to support penniless developers with great ideas, not huge companies, right? 

“Anything that gets games in the hands of gamers faster is better,” says Newman. 

“I would much rather a triple-A publisher put their game out in an alpha form on Early Access than tease us for months with staged screenshots and CGI trailers.”

Blum adds: “There is nothing wrong with it, and truthfully if our company gets larger we
won’t necessarily stop utilising Early Access. 

“It is a great way to receive creative and technical feedback, to experiment in front of a smaller audience before garnering more widespread attention.”

In reality Early Access isn’t a concept designed to help studios but for consumers looking to discover the latest games. 

Hall concludes: “Personally, I think of buying an Early Access game as a kind of investment so I always do my due diligence on the development team.

“As a consumer myself I really enjoy watching these projects grow and develop.”

CASE STUDY: INTROVERSION’S PRISON ARCHITECT 

Steam’s Early Access might have popularised the model, but there were developers selling alpha-state video games well before Steam’s platform came about 

DayZ was not the first big title to be sold in an unfinished state. A number of titles paved the way for the release of its ilk, such as Prison Architect by UK studio Introversion. This was a game that was initially sold in 2012 in alpha form and has not actually been finished to date but is updated on a monthly basis. 

“We definitely weren’t the first,” says Introversion studio director Mark Morris. 

“Minecraft and Overgrowth were amongst the first and having seen how well an alpha release worked for them we decided to give it a go. We’d been through a rough time as a company prior to Prison Architect and we didn’t have a lot of money so this seemed the best option for getting the project off the ground.”

One would assume that – especially without Steam’s Early Access platform – people might be worried about buying an unfinished and potentially broken game. So how did Morris and his team assure consumers that the game was of a high caliber and will actually be finished?

“We’ve got a track record of making games that we’re really proud of and whatever funding model we use ultimately all we care about is producing great video games,” he explains.

"The revenue that we’ve generated means that we can scope the project and not have to rush out something half-baked in order to get some cash to be able to continue as a company.”

Morris and his team had no idea that the concept would work. He attributes the success of Prison Architect to the gamers who connected with the title. 

“Gamers are very passionate people and a large number are very keen to be amongst the first to play a new title,” he explains. 

“A lot of people dream to be an indie developer themselves and an alpha introduces a way for others to see how things work for aspiring indie devs or those who are currently studying.

“To be a part of a games development and seeing it grow throughout the alpha stage is very appealing to a large majority. We find that a lot of our fans like to feel ‘part of Introversion’ by being involved in Prison Architect and sending us their suggestions and feedback.”

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Tags: steam , early access , dayz , dean hall , rust , Garry Newman , insurgency

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