Publishing 3.0: Is Steam Early Access really a game changer?

Mastertronic's Andy Payne quizzes indie developers about their experiences with Valve's experimental platform
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Just over two years ago, Valve launched an initiative aimed to help developers reach out to the huge Steam community whilst they were developing their game and seek support and feedback. This was system was called Steam Early Access.

To some, it was simply a way of asking gamers to pay for a beta and seemed be a viable method of funding their games – indeed some games gained funding and momentum as a result. The truth is, this was yet another bold initiative from Valve, a company known for bold initiatives and just doing things differently for the good of PC/Mac/Linux games.

Two years on and some of those games have now been completed and have launched as full games. There are a few that are still in Early Access and will no doubt come out one day, and there are some games that may just be gathering digital dust, never to see the light of day again.

At Mastertronic, we have worked with a number of developers who wanted to put their game through Early Access. I think we have all realised that there simply are ‘no rules’, but there are definitely learnings that we have made and would like to share.

I asked five questions to some of the teams we work with around the Early Access process and the feedback was both varied and really interesting:

  • Alan Zucconi, who single-handedly developed 0RBITALIS, which came out of Early Access earlier this year.
  • Andrew Smith leads Spilt Milk’s development of Tango Fiesta, which is still in Early Access.
  • Ashley Stancill is one third of the Hypersloth team who developed Dream, which will come out of Early Access this week.
  • Stuart Morton and Neil McKenna are producers at Mastertronic who have worked with these teams and more, to bring their games to the wider world via Steam and other digital stores.

First up, I asked the teams what made them decide to put their game into Early Access on Steam in the first place?

Ash Stancill (Dream):
"We announced Dream really early on in our development and there were quite a few people interested and following the development cycle already. We had previously sold copies in return for donations made by supporters, so allowing them to get an early copy on Steam, via Early Access in August 2013 seemed like a great idea. There were also many people interested in supporting us and playing Dream but didn't like the idea of waiting a full dev cycle to play."

Andrew Smith (Tango Fiesta):
"We've always believed in open development, and seeing Valve make an 'official' channel for us to do what we believe in on Steam was just too good an opportunity to pass up. Making games is all about learning, so not only were we going to be able to learn about Early Access and how to run betas, but also how to make our game better. We're not so proud that we think we know what's best. Of course you have a great idea for a game, and its rules and components, but all of that can and should get thrown out of the window as soon as players find holes or issues. Early Access was the best way to do that."

We've always believed in open development, and seeing Valve make an 'official' channel for us to do what we believe in on Steam was just too good an opportunity to pass up.

Andrew Smith, Spilt Milk Studios

Alan Zucconi (0RBITALIS):
"When I started working on 0RBITALIS I knew it was a very experimental game. The Steam community can sometimes not be the most welcoming space for innovative content, and this is why I opted for a soft launch in Early Access. I wanted to be sure the game was going in the right direction. At the same time, I fear people would have perceived its minimalist aesthetic for a lack of quality. Early Access for me has been a way to lower players' initial expectation, to gather feedback vital for development and to build a bigger audience for its actual launch."

Stuart Morton (Mastertronic):
"We wanted to see how the games would perform with actual people playing them. There is only so much feedback you can get from internal (and friend) testing so it’s always exciting (and scary) to see how a game holds up in the real world. Early Access is a great way to get feedback, some good, some bad but it all has its uses."

Secondly, I asked the teams about their experiences so far and whether they felt Early Access has helped or hindered development, and if so how and why.

Ash (Dream):
"We love Early Access. We had no idea that the support for Dream, a narrative game missing most of its narrative on Early Access, would do so well. Early Access for us is all about the community and being able to see their ideas and have discussions is a great way to help shape Dream. Even the few negative comments have been really helpful and informative to us."

Andrew (Tango Fiesta):
"So far, so good. We've got a really dedicated core of players who love telling us what they think of each build. We decided on an almost weekly update schedule which pushed us to make content and decisions quickly, something that's definitely been a good thing for Tango Fiesta.

"Admittedly we'd be mad if we didn't want more people playing, because the more people, the better the game gets, sooner. But frankly, it's been great. It's a great motivator to have short deadlines, plus having eager gamers very quickly reacting in both negative and positive ways to what we've made is just a wonderful rollercoaster. Sure you can have down days which are compounded by negative reaction, but when people say nice things within minutes of it going public, you can't really beat the feeling. It's totally helped.’

Alan (0RBITALIS):
"Early Access has been a positive journey for me. Despite being a niche game, 0RBITALIS has a very dedicated community of players. When most people buy games in Early Access they know they might be incomplete or buggy, so they are willing to play more experimental products. I believe Early Access allowed me to reach a more precise audience for my 0RBITALIS and that’s all good."

Stuart (Mastertronic):
"I think it very much depends on the game. Overall, it has helped progress the games to a state where they are better games. We released 'Over 9000 Zombies!' and that game is a prime example of this, as it evolved hugely in its time in Early Access. I am not convinced that every game benefits from Early Access though. If a game has the kind of mechanics that are open to evolving then it works really well, a narrative driven game? Not so much."

We had no idea that the support for Dream, a narrative game missing most of its narrative on Early Access, would do so well. Early Access for us is all about the community and being able to see their ideas and have discussions is a great way to help shape Dream.

Ashley Stancill, Hypersloth

Timing is everything, so understanding more about when a developer decides to come out of Early Access was pretty crucial too. So exactly when do you make the call to come out of Early Access?

Ash (Dream):
"Dream will be leaving Early Access on Friday, July 31st complete with its full story, localisation and gameplay implemented. We made that call because we think the game is now a full game and ready for commercial release. We don't plan on putting this version in Early Access as we feel it gives the current supporters something to look forward too without spoiling the story we want to deliver."

Andrew (Tango Fiesta):
"When the game's ready, which we hope to be within the next month or so. Obviously you can tweak a game until the cows come home, but having an eager audience out there – you can see how many people have the game on their wishlists, for example – is the best motivation you can hope for.

"We've been careful about putting the word out too far and wide while we make sure the game's up to scratch, but basically as soon as you're happy as a developer and you can hit that big red button... but ultimately if you're not asking your fans if it's ready, then you're kinda doing it wrong."

Alan (0RBITALIS):
"There were a few features I believed my game needed. When all of them were done, I believed the game was ready to be launched. To be honest, I actually feel like we, me and 0RBITALIS, are still in Early Access! I'm still making changes and I'm still replying to all the comments of players. And I believe players appreciate this immediate feedback-loop." 

Stuart (Mastertronic):
"When the game was, and is, ready. Once a game is polished and has all the features that were planned it is time to plan the release. You just kind of know when it is ready."

When most people buy games in Early Access they know they might be incomplete or buggy, so they are willing to play more experimental products. I believe Early Access allowed me to reach a more precise audience for my 0RBITALIS and that’s all good.

Alan Zucconi, independent developer

I wanted to see if the developers had any regrets. Indeed if they could turn back the clock, would they do the same thing again and put their game into Early Access?

Ash (Dream):
"If we were to put a game into Early Access again, there is not much we would do differently other than give out more regular updates. As most fans know, we have had our university work to finish whilst developing Dream so there has been a few stale periods in terms of regular updates and for that we can only apologise and spread our love. But even with this, the community has been super understandable and supportive."

Andrew (Tango Fiesta):
"Absolutely, but not in the same way with the same game. Early Access naturally lends itself more to games with rich systems that can evolve in plenty of interesting ways. Not to belittle how much fun an action arcade game can be, but once you have played it, you can have a pretty accurate mental image of how it'll end up.

"What the Early Access audience wants is something a bit more adventurous in terms of features. Survival games seem to tick a lot of the right boxes. That said, Early Access is about more than just getting an avid fan base from the get-go. We'd do it again with an action game, but we'd just launch onto Early Access a good deal alter so that the game was more polished."

Alan (0RBITALIS):
"There are several ways of doing Early Access in my view. When 0RBITALIS first arrived it was very rough compared to its current version. If I could turn back time, perhaps I'd release content in a different way. Rather than improving the game update after update, I'd release something very polished (but small) on launch day, and then adding content which is never changed. Infinifactory by Zachtronics did this, and I believe is the best way to do Early Access." 

Stuart (Mastertronic):
"Good question. There is no hard and fast rule that I can see to be honest. I probably wouldn’t put all of the games we have worked on into Early Access if we could turn back the clock, but the majority of our games have worked out well from being in Early Access."

Finally, I wondered if the developers had any thoughts on how Early Access could be changed and/or improved.

Ash (Dream):
"We were very fortunate to have great support with Dream but as a consumer of Early Access games myself it is a little frustrating to see some games being abandoned and mis-sold via their store page. I think that the Early Access games should have a clear section on the store saying what the current version offers, what is to come and the current ETAs or something along this line to help ensure people have a good idea of what they are getting. At the same time Valve could possibly run check-ups with Devs to see how they are doing so games do not get abandoned."

There have been some high profile games which have come out of Early Access too early. They cannot go back into Early Access and suffer from very poor user reviews.

Andy Payne, Mastertronic

Andrew (Tango Fiesta):
"I think it's a pretty great system, but I'd like to see some kind of attention paid to the review system. We've had some nasty reviews from very early adopters who were clearly not reading all the available info about what we were doing, the tone of the game, and our plans for updates. Partially that's on us for not being clear enough, but ultimately I think allowing people to post negative reviews (or reviews of any kind) after less than an hour on a game is damaging, especially when so many users look at that average to guide their purchases.

"You can message the authors and try to figure out what they didn't like as often the comments they leave are reactionary rather than constructive, simply rebranding the reviews as 'feedback' and then not having them feed into an average rating before the game is out of Early Access would be a good way of limiting the damage that can be done by careless commenters."

Alan (0RBITALIS):
"It's a shame that many games on Early Access never really get completed as they should. As happens with Kickstarter, is always hard to keep up with the promises made to players. Many developers are using Early Access as a way to get funded though their development, making the fate of the project uncertain. I believe Early Access is a very powerful tool to get amazing feedback from the right audience, but at the same time is easy for smaller developers to get lost into it."

Stuart (Mastertronic):
"The Early Access process is fine, people just need to use it the right way. Don’t use it as a way to fund a game and don’t launch too early with broken/not good enough builds. Treat customers the same as you would when you launch the final game."

Neil (Mastertronic):
"Early Access releases are practically invisible on the store page nowadays and in an ideal world, there would be more prominence given to it. That needn’t necessarily be amongst the full price new releases, but a clearly marked separate area and some storefront visibility would be nice. It would be good if Steam could get behind some Early Access titles more, only they can really help change the negative perceptions that cling to it at the moment.’

Don’t use Early Access as a way to fund a game and don’t launch too early with broken/not good enough builds. Treat customers the same as you would when you launch the final game.

Stuart Morton, Mastertronic

I think there are some clear lessons to be learned from Early Access.

  • It’s a complicated process and demands that the developers be open, listen, react, counter and above all work with their community, for good or bad. That can be both rewarding and exhausting.
  • Not all games are suitable for Early Access and consideration should be given to how early stage the game is when you decide to put it into Early Access in the first place.
  • Timing is crucial and that goes for when you decide to put the game into full release. There have been some high profile games which have come out of Early Access too early. They cannot go back into Early Access and suffer from very poor user reviews.
  • Early Access does not suit every type of game though. Narrative games may not be an ideal choice.
  • Early Access is definitely not a way of funding your game though. If you want to do that, you will need to get your funding elsewhere, maybe crowd fund it, or find investors. 

So is Early Access a game changer? It may not be for every developer – indeed, there are many developers who want to follow the auteur route and that is also to be encouraged as it brings variety and diversity, plus some awesomely brilliant games from great minds.

But if Early Access is used properly, then I would say definitely and literally, yes it is a game changer. The games development community is in a better place for it and it has helped many developers bring their games successfully to the world with the support and advocacy of vibrant fan communities who feel included and empowered.

Andy Payne is CEO of Mastertronic. You can contact him via andy.payne@mastertronic.com or via TwitterRead the rest of Andy's Publisher 3.0 columns here.

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