Ever since its inception around a decade ago, the early access model has seen a fair amount of criticism. Allowing game developers to sell an unfinished product would hardly sound reasonable a few years ago, yet now it is very much the norm. In fact, some of the most popular indie video games of all are in early access, since the model gives smaller studios a chance to fund the ongoing development process.
There’s no doubt that early access can be enormously beneficial to developers in need of additional funding. For players, early access offers a say in the game’s direction, which rarely happens with AAA developers who usually have their own internal testing teams. But that doesn’t mean it’s always easy to successfully launch a game that’s still in the alpha or beta development stages.
Let’s look at five things developers can learn from the good, the bad and the ugly of the early access model:
#1. Get Your Pricing Right
Wildcard Studios, developers of popular dinosaur survival game ARK: Survival Evolved, released a paid DLC for a game still in early access before hiking the price up to $59.99 (which is typical of a fully released title). They were met with a barrage of bad publicity, the ratings and reviews for which on Steam have never recovered.
It stands to reason that an early access game shouldn’t cost the same as a final version. As a guideline, an optimal price is no more than half the expected price for the final version.
#2. Listen to Player Feedback
Too many developers release their games in early access to help fund continuing development while failing the obligation that comes with it – to listen to what their players are saying.
Funding goals aside, the early access model is just as much about getting players involved in the development and direction of your game. That’s why many successful early access titles are packed full of features requested by players themselves.
#3. Provide Regular Updates
The worst early access titles are often defined by a lack of involvement of the development teams behind them. Since they are works in progress, players expect an early access game to have its fair share of bugs and perhaps be lacking certain main features – but they also expect regular updates. While your game may show all the potential in the world, a lack of frequent bug fixes, feature updates and interaction with developers can quickly leave players feeling sour.
#4. Start Your Marketing Early
As with crowdfunding, you must kick off your marketing campaign well before early access. After all, you’re relying heavily on early access to fund continuing development, so you must bring as many players on board as possible.
That’s why you should get your social media profiles, website and other resources up and running as soon as you’re ready to announce the imminent launch of your game in early access. If you’ve been using a crowdfunding platform to raise funds for early development, then announcing the release of a playable game is sure to win over the loyalty of your backers.
#5. Build a Strong Community
The previous points all come down to one thing – the importance of having an online community where you can engage your player base directly, ask for feedback and answer their questions. In fact, Steam’s community platform is one of the biggest and liveliest gaming communities of all, particularly when it comes to titles that are still under development.
However, while you mustn’t disregard the enormous reach of official platform communities (such as Steam’s or XBOX’s), it pays to have a community forum on your own website where you can bring your players together under your own terms.