How to do Early Access the Right Way™
The Early Access category on Steam is a quagmire, and it’s not Valve’s fault. The blame for the wasteland of neglected titles and disaffected gamers lies squarely with game developers. I’m here to share with you how to do Early Access the right way, so that we as developers can restore trust with players and refurbish a useful tool in our gamedev arsenals. But first, who the heck am I and why should you listen to me?
I’m the game designer behind Hive Jump, a run n’ gun roguelike platformer that has been in Early Access for the past six months, and just released today on Steam. At the time of writing, we have a 94% positive rating with our users on Steam, and have built a small but active community over the course of Early Access. Hive Jump has had limited financial success in Early Access, but we’ve finished our game with the help of players, and gained a lot of wisdom that we want to share with the gamedev community. Now, let’s get on with it, shall we?
Should you even bring your game to Early Access?
Most likely, the answer to this question is: no. Too many developers think that Early Access is a solution to their funding woes, but it isn’t. There are better ways to fund the development of your game that don’t involve the amount of marketing work, game polish, and good fortune needed to become an Early Access hit like Darkest Dungeon or Crypt of the Necrodancer. If you’re considering Early Access because you need to fund your game: stop it.
Even Early Access launches require excellent marketing if you want to make a hit!
Before bringing your game to Early Access, you should consider if it is a good fit for the platform and whether players can enjoy the game in its current state for dozens if not hundreds of hours. A linear narrative game would make a terrible candidate for an Early Access title, however there are discernable qualities for games that do well on Early Access. Here are my personal recommendations.
Qualities that make for a GOOD early access title:
- High Replayability
- Online Multiplayer
- Steep Difficulty Curve
- Roguelike Elements
- Depth of Content
- Complex Simulations
- RPG Mechanics
- Open World Exploration
- Survival Mechanics
- Physics Sandboxes
There’s no mistaking that some games are viable candidates for Early Access based on their design and some are not. One element from the above list is not enough, but a thoughtful combination of the elements above should result in players engaging with your game for extended periods of time. So, you’ve considered the above and decided that your game design is viable as an Early Access game, now what?
You must COMPLETE your game before going Early Access.
“But, I need the money from Early Access sales to finish my game!” Did you not listen earlier when I said that Early Access is not a viable way to fund the development of your game? Both Early Access and Crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter require you to craft and execute entire marketing campaigns to even have a shot at funding your game. That is time and money that you could spend completing your game. If you want to know more about how we funded Hive Jump’s development, and the methods we used, read this article by my colleague Matt Raithel.
Hive Jump prototype stages versus Early Access launch. Don’t launch a prototype.
“Wait, if my game is complete, why would I need Early Access?” Now we’re talking! If we’re not going to use Early Access as a funding method, and the game needs to be complete, what is Early Access for? Chances are, your game may be complete, but it is far from finished. Early Access is a tool for finishing a game that already has most its game loops and aesthetics complete, but has not yet achieved its full vision or high levels of polish.
These are the PROPER uses for Early Access as a gamedev tool:
- Gather player feedback
- Refine gameplay
- Balance the variables
- Discover and fix bugs
- Build a community
- Test online functionality
- Improve “Quality of Life” for new players
- Test across a variety of hardware setups
When we brought Hive Jump to Early Access, it was a complete game, but it wasn’t finished. The distinction I’m making between these two words is important. A complete game can be played from start to end, and preferably replayed many times over. A finished game contains all planned features, is relatively bug-free, and is refined like a fine wine. Hive Jump was a suitable couch co-op game when it launched on Early Access, but throughout that process we collaborated with our players to make Hive Jump shine.
Have a BLUEPRINT and a TIMETABLE for Early Access.
Now that we’re using Early Access as a tool for finishing our games, instead of funding or completing them, how do we do this effectively? You must have a plan of action in place, specifying exactly what features you plan to add over the course of Early Access, and how long you think it will take.
When setting up an Early Access game on Steam, Valve asks: “How is the full version planned to differ from the Early Access version?” Valve also asks “Approximately how long will this game be in Early Access?” These two questions should serve as the backbone to your Early Access blueprint.
Here’s what Hive Jump’s feature additions list looked like.
We had a defined list of features to add that we estimated would take us three months. We figured we’d be finished and launching a full release in time for the winter holiday sale. We figured wrong, and you will too. But that’s okay! In fact, it’s a good thing.
Our estimates for adding the above features might not have been far off, but they didn’t account for addressing player feedback. Another key element that Valve tries to drive home in their documentation is that the game shouldn’t be so finished that there’s no room for players to see their feedback implemented in the game.
Hive Jump took us six months to finish in Early Access, but was made better by the benefit of player feedback in very tangible ways. We added a special challenge mode for speedrunners, as well as one for hardcore players that wanted an even harsher permadeath experience. We also added a variety of multiplayer improvements, fixed issues across a variety of hardware setups, and tested the online network play and matchmaking extensively.
Treat your community with respect and care.
Obviously treating your players well is important, but what that entails can be a time-consuming process. Be ready to have some of your precious development time stolen away by your fledgling community! Don’t worry though, if you take care of your community, they will take care of you.
First, open and honest communication with your players is key. Post development updates, respond to comments on your Steam developer forum, include as many details in your patch notes as you can, make yourself available for one on one communication with a player via a channel you feel comfortable with. Do all these things and you will build a healthy report with your new community.
Second, a regular update schedule for the game is critically important. I recommend launching an update every week or two weeks. If you cannot commit to this rapid a development cycle, your game likely isn’t ready to be on Early Access. If you miss an update, be sure to post an announcement explaining why.
Players are people, developers are people. Let’s treat each other well.
Third, acknowledge and address all player feedback. Player feedback can be insightful, helpful, tangential, confusing, or even unhelpful. Regardless of the quality of the feedback, it’s important to acknowledge that you’ve received it, evaluate it openly and honestly, and communicate whether you can act on the feedback, and when that might happen.
Positive example: “Yes, we agree it would be a good thing for players to be able to group up faster around doors in the level. I think we could have a recall feature implemented in next week’s update.”
Negative example: “While it would be awesome for players to be able to crouch and crawl, we’re too far along in development to make that happen. It would take a considerable amount of rework to our player prefabs and would throw us way off schedule. We also don’t think it would add as much value to our players as the other features we have planned.”
More often than not, you can win over a disgruntled player by acknowledging that you hear their concerns and telling them the steps you plan to take to address the issue. If you don’t plan on addressing their request, explain why. They may not like your explanation, but it’s likely that this one individual isn’t the only player with that issue or request, so it’s beneficial to handle the concern before it snowballs.
Discord is an app that combines VOIP lobbies and Chat Rooms to great effect.
Finally, use Discord to manage your community. This is just a personal recommendation, but it takes a lot of time and tech to create your own forums. We tried this with Hive Jump, but switched our community over to Discord when Early Access started. We used Discord to coordinate multiplayer playtests, field off-the-cuff feedback from players, and share dank Starship Troopers memes to build comradery. I highly recommend using this app in addition to your Steam community forums. Post Discord invites in your patch updates and your most dedicated fans will find their way to you.
Only you can prevent Early Access garbage fires!
Valve has provided developers and gamers with a tool for making good games into great games through the Early Access process. I wholeheartedly believe that if you follow the advice in this article, your game will not become another derelict vessel floating through Early Access space, but rather will be refined by the crucible of Early Access into the best version if itself.
Early Access is not for funding your game. Unless your game has certain qualities, it shouldn’t be on Early Access. If your game isn’t almost complete, it has no business launching on Early Access. If you don’t know how long the game needs to be in Early Access, it’s not ready for Early Access. If you don’t respect your players, they won’t respect you. If you just skipped straight to the tl:dr section, you probably shouldn’t put your game on Early Access.
I sincerely hope this advice helps you make a good decision about bringing your game to Early Access.