Review: Early Access Games

There has been a been hullabaloo in the gaming world lately over “Early Access Games.” This is really on the tails of a larger conversation of “unfinished releases” which are more and more common. Just go watch some early reviews of Fallout 76 or Call Of Duty: Black Ops 4 – and their “day-one-patches” which are basically the same size as the game itself.

I’ve played a good handful of Early Access games. I always go in knowing they are a gamble. They are promises from the developer that they will finish, but “finishing” a project is a mutable idea. I’ve worked on several projects where the line of “done” moved back and forth for damn good reasons – you run into a hurdle that you just don’t have the time or money or energy to meet the original line. Or you moved the line and then had to move it back again.

The bad about Early Access (EA for short) is making those promises public. Saying, “We’re going to add 100 items” and then only hitting 97. Or saying when you initially launch in EA 100, upping that promise to 150 and only hitting 115. “Oooooh…. you lied to us!” they cry, “you owe us 35 more!” Ummmm… no, you still got a bonus 15. In my experience, this idea of “promise vs. delivery” is the most common issue. Not the only one, but definitely a very common one.

A more serious but less common issue is getting distracted. Prison Architect was a very well done Early Access. They laid out a lot of their plans and stuck to it. The things they added, they focused on after core promises were met. Or because “oh, so adding A broke a bunch of stuff.” or “Adding X made it too easy, we need to re-balance.” And that is a VERY different issue. Ark: Survival Evolved, is absolutely an example of EA done poorly. They kept adding more and more without going back and making sure to keep their original scope in balance. So early-game dinosaurs (like the parasaur and trike) became worthless and ignored – even in early game!

This happens in released games too – unbalanced play occurs often in the FPS games like Counterstrike and Overwatch – hell, how many times has DOTA (I know it isn’t FPS, but whatever) rejiggered specific character play to try to “balance” the game? Dozens of times? Weekly? I have no idea – but in order to keep the games “competitive” they constantly look at the idea. Somehow the image of this rebalancing is worse (usually) in Early Access games.

Again, I am going to use Prison Architect (PA) though. There were several things they added (like tunneling out of the prison) they when they implemented it – they asked for feedback. And they responded quickly. The PA team made regular YouTube videos – for a while Introversion Software had about a weekly video of whatever they were changing/tweaking. They were open. They apologized sometimes. They told people what was still broken and they knew it. They expressed their understanding of how frustrated people were.

Ark on the other hand would go weeks and weeks without an update from anyone. Silence on their own forums, the Steam forums, their reddit forums…. Did they devs ignore the bugs? Did they care? The community would grow more and more frustrated and became more and more toxic. They had less patience for bugs, glitches, and experiments. I 100% am convinced this is because the devs were terrible about communicating.

Which, let’s be clear, is absolutely the theme here. The games where Early Access was successful and made the game more fun (Prison Architect, Stonehearth, Subnautica, Starbound, and others I know about – like Eco but haven’t played) all had developers who communicated a lot. In blogs or videos or something. The games I know that either failed Early Access entirely or at least were poorly received include (Ark, Towns, Spacebase DF-9, Timber and Stone, DayZ, and dozens more- you can Google them). If you look at places like their own development forums, their Steam news feeds, and press releases – they are terrible about communication.

I don’t know if this is just a correlation thing, but I think it’s notable for developers to consider. If you decide to go the Early Access route, have a communication strategy. Set someone up to watch Steam forums, your own forums, Discord channels…. and acknowledge those bugs quickly and loudly. Weekly videos or streams seem to be a great way to get that kind of conversation covered without making players toxic.