For many gamers, the mere announcement of a title coming to early access is enough to dent their enthusiasm. After all, for every successful title that makes it to full release, there are several more perpetually locked in endless development. There are even games that developers abandon entirely, leading them to be pulled from Steam or whichever platform they launched on. Regrettably, early access has proven to be a quagmire of abandoned projects, low-quality cash-grabs and incomplete games being forced into full release.
That being said, things are changing. Despite inherent drawbacks of the early access model, there’s great potential to be realized, both from the perspective of developers and from that of the players. Done right, early access presents a win-win situation for both parties. Done wrong, and it’s a surefire way to tarnish your reputation as a developer or publisher for good.
So, what does a successful early access title look like? How do you keep fans satisfied when they’re paying for a game that’s not yet complete?
The answer lies in communication. With that in mind, let’s look at some of the most common complaints that players have regarding the early access model:
- The developers aren’t accurately communicating the current state of the game
- They aren’t listening to and acting on feedback
- They’re slow with updates or aren’t providing updates at all
- They pushed an incomplete game into full release
- They fail to quickly resolve game-breaking bugs reported by players
Developers planning to launch their games in early access need to realize the special commitment they have to their players. Given the amount of early access junk on Steam, for example, they must differentiate themselves – and that requires solid communication.
Enter the online community: they have the power to fulfill your obligations as a developer funding a game in progress with early access sales.
Why Do People Buy Games in That Are Still in Development?
When players buy an early access title, they tend to have a few specific demands that might not always apply when they’re buying a finished game. Most importantly, they expect you to clearly communicate the development progress through regular updates and patches. Secondly, many early access players expect to be part of a community that is closely involved with the development of the game. They want to be listened to, and they want you to act on their feedback. Since you’ve giving them behind-the-scenes access to a project in progress, they expect the developers be present to listen to their feedback.
The problem is that too many developers approach the early access model as a way to fund a project in progress, without giving thought to what their players want. That’s what makes a lack of communication a killer of any early access project. Rather than be advertised to, players expect to be part of a community with an active role in the development of the game. That’s what makes community-based marketing the main driver behind early access success.
There are, of course, players who buy early access games out of a lack of patience. Sometimes, a game looks so promising, even in its pre-release state, that players simply don’t want to wait for the full release. Unsurprisingly, these players tend to be the hardest to please, which is why you need to clearly communicate the current state of your game.
How to Define Your Player Base and Set Realistic Expectations
All successful online communities have one thing in common – they’re made up of members who share a common goal or interest. In the case of early access, your community will serve as a space for testing and feedback, questions and answers and general chatter surrounding your game and its genre. To build a healthy online community, you first need to define your player base (which is also something you should start long before you launch your game in early access).
Many gamers are wary of early access, and some will never pay for an incomplete title. Even those who regularly buy early access games still have their expectations; chances are they’ve been disappointed on multiple occasions as well. Unfortunately, this is often due to developers not setting the right expectations and communicating the current state of the game accurately.
To build a healthy online community, you first need to define your player base (which is also something you should start long before you launch your game in early access).
Building your early access community and launching your game starts with setting realistic expectations, which is just as important as communicating your unique value proposition. Success in early access demands transparency, and an online community platform will give you exactly that – the opportunity to forge honest and lasting relationships with your player base.
Setting the right expectations with a game that’s not complete is your first, and one of your biggest, challenges. You need to find a balance between showing off what you have to offer and being transparent about the current state of the project. While most platforms, such as Steam, provide their own disclaimers warning players about the limitations of early-access games, it’s imperative that you clearly communicate the specifics of your title as well. In other words, your priority must not be to sell your pre-release game to as many people as possible, but to build a community of devout fans who have a vested interest in seeing your game through to completion.
Aside from clearly communicating the current state of your game on the store page and your own website, you’ll also want to explain your proposed development path to set future expectations. Do you plan to add additional features or levels further down the line? If you’re serious about it, mention it. If you’re not exactly sure which path you’ll end up taking, don’t be afraid to communicate your uncertainty in a way that gives your players a voice in the development of your project.
Keeping Your Fans Engaged with Ongoing Conversation
As we’ve seen, success in early access revolves around the power of communities. Players want to feel like they’re part of the process or, at the very least, they’ll want to have a place to turn for regular updates like patch notes and developer diaries. For some players, the first place to look for news will be the official website, while others might head to social networks or the platform’s community forums (such as the Steam Community Hub on PC). You ideally need to offer all three options to maximize your exposure. Nonetheless, the one you have the most control over is your owned community, which will typically have its home on your official website.
How to Talk to Your Fans
Let’s look at a perfect example of early access done right: Subnautica.
Subnautica is a survival adventure game, published in early access by developer Unknown Worlds back in December, 2014. Although the full release didn’t come until four years later, the title enjoyed universal critical acclaim both throughout development and once it was fully released. The reason? Unknown Worlds knew exactly how to communicate with their fans and use the power of online communities to make it possible.
For example, they had a public Trello board providing extensive details on development progress. They even included a feedback system in the game itself so players could easily log suggestions and complaints. In other words, they respected and treated players as members not only of their community, but their entire development process.
To give another example, Rockfish Games’ Everspace launched their community the moment they started their fundraising campaign on Kickstarter. By maintaining close contact with backers and fans, they were able to raise more than enough money to get the game into early access. By listening to and acting on feedback and keeping their players informed on their community forums and elsewhere, Everspace blasted out of early access in May 2017 to glowing reviews. They chose Vanilla Forums as their community platform, and you can read our case study here.
Success throughout early access and beyond comes with a marketing strategy that’s less about trying to sell a game in development and more about getting players on board as active members of a community.
Another great way to talk to your fans is by empowering them with the ability to build mods. While this doesn’t work with every genre, it proved highly successful for the developers of ARK: Survival Evolved, who ended up hiring some members of their community to develop additional content for the game.
While ARK received mixed reviews, it remains one of the top-ten most played games on Steam, reaching a peak of almost 41,000 players at any one time. One of the main reasons for its success is the enormous reach of its modding community, which has spawned thousands of mods, some of which were sponsored by the developers themselves through their Sponsored Mod program.
Developers Wildcard Studios also made a point of formally recognizing its most valuable contributors though its monthly Community Crunch, which showcases everything from fan art to sponsored mods to winning in-game screenshots.
So, what can developers learn from the above examples? Success throughout early access and beyond comes with a marketing strategy that’s less about trying to sell a game in development and more about getting players on board as active members of a community.
Let’s sum up the key factors that define great communication with your player base:
- Listening to feedback and incorporating it in your vision
- Rewarding players for participating in the community
- Communicating the current state of the game transparently
- Setting realistic expectations on development goals
- Providing regular updates to keep players engaged
- Using a mix of tactics from forum-based communications to social media
With these points in mind, you’ll have everything you need to establish strong and lasting relationships with your fans – and that’s the foundation of a successful early access launch.
Are You Ready for Early Access?
As we’ve discussed, communication and community building are the pillars of early access success. Nonetheless, far too many developers are launching their games too early and without the proper infrastructure in place to communicate effectively with their players.
There will always be some guesswork due to the inherent nature of game development and alpha-funding, but that’s precisely why you can’t ask your players to bet on the future of your game. Instead, they should be buying it based on realistic expectations and the current state of the game.
While a solid community marketing strategy will increase your sales significantly, you should always be willing to continue development of the game, even if you don’t reach your initial sales goals. But if you can prove to your players that you’re ultimately committed to a full release (even if you can’t give them an ETA), through regular updates and consistent community involvement, your game should market itself. No matter what, you’ll still need something tangible to offer.
It’s important to recognize the difference between crowdfunding and early access. In a crowdfunding campaign, it’s fine to start with a gameplay demo video, since no one will be expecting to download a playable game. It’s quite a different matter with early access, however, where people expect a playable game, even if it’s not complete. If what you have to offer is little more than a tech demo with minimal playable content, it will likely not be accepted by the platform anyway. Remember, people play games for fun, regardless of whether they’re finished or not.
On the other hand, you should never release your game in early access if you’re done with development. If all that’s left is some final bug testing, you’ll be better off taking care of it internally before heading for a full launch.
Early access communities are undoubtedly some of the liveliest gaming communities of all. A successful early access community hub is a hotbed of innovation. Players are excited to be part of something and will be more than happy to share valuable feedback with you. If you’re able to maintain a consistent presence, engage players regularly and empower them by making their feedback meaningful, you’ll foster an environment where player advocates are born.