Some critics say that early access is ruining the gaming industry. But, for independent developers, it’s often the only way to fund a project and see it through to completion. There’s no doubt that this early funding model remains controversial, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the platform itself is at fault. In fact, the reason early access often gets a bad rap is almost invariably down to mistakes made by developers.
#1. Releasing your Game Too Soon
One of the more unfortunate truths about the early access model is that dishonest developers have often used it to earn money in return for minimal effort. While you obviously don’t need to have a finished product, it’s crucial that you deliver a playable game that’s fully capable of demonstrating its core mechanics and features. Any less, and your players will feel cheated.
While crowdfunding platforms are useful to acquire the initial funding needed to develop a workable product, you should only release it once you have a playable game with a robust development roadmap that you can share with your players.
#2. Not Providing Enough Support
Too many developers see early access as a shortcut to easy money, failing to provide their players with the support they deserve. The early access model requires a significant commitment to support your players by releasing updates as necessary. Neglecting your audience can lead to your game being removed, which is what happened to dinosaur survival game Stomping Ground on Steam.
Successful early access titles are those which see plenty of content patches, bug fixes and regular updates from the developers. By contrast, the worst thing you can do with early access is to give players the impression that you’ve abandoned your project, despite having taken their money.
#3. Asking Too High a Price
Early access games are, by definition, incomplete. Yet some developers charge far too much for them. Some even go so far as to charge money for additional content in the form of expansion packs or DLCs. Studio Wildcard, developer of ARK: Survival Evolved, is guilty of both mistakes which earned them a spate of bad press and terrible reviews that they’ve never quite recovered from.
While the $60 mark tends to be typical of most AAA titles and indie games offering a similar scope in terms of content, you generally don’t want to be charging any more than around a third of this for an early access title.
#4. Failing to Resolve Game-Breaking Bugs
We’ve already discussed the importance of having a workable title to present to your players. Unsurprisingly, this precludes the presence of any game-breaking bugs that prevent your players from enjoying the core features of the game. While it’s normal to encounter the occasional serious issue during development, that doesn’t mean you can afford to ignore them in early access.
If there’s one thing that even the most forgiving early access players will not accept, it’s bugs that make the game unplayable. Even worse is when developers opt for a full release prematurely, leaving players with a game that’s supposedly complete, yet completely unplayable. This is exactly what developers Double Fine did with Spacebase DF-9, much to the dismay of their customers.
#5. Forgetting about Your Community
Far too many developers make the mistake of using early access solely as a means to test their games and receive feedback for free. While these may be the main motivators for using early access, it doesn’t mean you can afford to neglect your community.
It’s important for developers to approach early access as a collaborative, community-driven effort, whereby your players are involved in the development of your game.
Far from being a one-sided effort, a successful early access program is one in which the developer maintains an active presence on community forums and social networks.