Early Access Should Die In A Fire

Early Access Should Die In A Fire

Yes, that’s link-bait headlining at it’s finest. No, I am not ashamed, because I’ve been thinking about EA recently and the more logical weight I put behind it, the less appealing it sounds.

Of course I’m guilty of buying into early access, so this isn’t  some high-and-mighty commandment or some born-again fire-and-brimstone sermon. From day one, I’ve been honest with myself about what EA means to me and to the producers of the projects I’ve supported, but I’ve done so with the understanding that there is no guarantee in early access or crowdfunding. I’ve looked at EA much like I look at Kickstarter: it’s an investment, and with any investment there’s a chance you could lose your shirt and have nothing to show for it.

But recent discussions and events surrounding early access (and Kickstarter projects for that matter) have started to turn me off of the practice of EA. Not the purpose, just the practice. Here’s why.

Over on Google Plus, Rog Dolos had posted about his thoughts on early access. In his post, Rog talks about how the purpose has merit — allowing developers to interact closely with their audience — but also that games in certain genres benefit best from being finished, and how they tend to lose a lot of their impact when played piecemeal. I feel the same way, in that I might be interested in 100% of a game that’s 25% done, but there’s not enough there to keep me playing until there’s 50% done, or 75% done. After become satiated with the 25% that’s complete, I might not return until it’s 100% done, but there’s also a good chance that (me being me) I might never return.

I ran across an interesting quote from the guy behind the @Steam_Spy statistic scraping account, talking about some interesting trends that can be gleaned from looking at publicly available Steam numbers:

Every game still has only one launch event and if you’re going to release it in Early Access that date will [be it].

With EA, players get to have interactions with the developers so that they can feel that they’re the “fifth Beatle”, thereby investing more than just money, and developers get an attentive testing group, and financial backing. Done right, this can be quite the boon for developers who are able to keep one hand on the wheel and one hand massaging the community. As an example of a company who does this well (so far), look at Wildcard, creators of ARK: Survival Evolved. Their EA launch day was terrible, but they quickly turned it around and earned back the trust of their players and have sold enough to earn over $10 million dollars in revenue.

Being one of those people who picked up A:SE on launch day — and I specifically say “launch day” because I wholeheartedly believe in that quote above — I played for a week, but haven’t been back since. Why? It’s because of the sentiment Rog expressed and that I support: what’s present in EA is nice if it works, but it’s never going to be enough to keep the fires burning though until the end. I can either enjoy what’s there for as long as possible, which isn’t going to be very long, or I can put it on the shelf and wait until it’s “done”. Or I can just not jump on the EA bandwagon.

The problem is, what is considered to be “done” in this era of the Internet and Steam-delivered overnight patches? Developers may have a design document with checkboxes they use to determine when a game is “feature complete”, but it’s an arbitrary line from the consumer point of view. One day it’s EA, the next it’s “done”. Look at Heroes of the Storm. It was in “beta” for the longest time, but there were keys in the wild for anyone who wanted one. When they announced a launch date of early June 2015, it was a shrug; the game had been available and accessible for so long that insinuating that it needed an “official” launch date was pretty much a non-event just to say it was out of “beta”. There are mental ramifications, though, and I suspect that has more to do with our silently agreed upon acceptance of what “released” means than any idea of being released as being the product’s finish line.

And what about games that can’t manage to summit Mount Deliverance? Too many gamers reserve a special circle of hell for “broken promises” and “lies and dishonesty”, thinking that every overreaching project or development team that underestimated their scope had deceit in their heart from day one. Just today, it was announced that Windborne would be closing down development, despite having been a staple in my wishlist on Steam for over a year. I thought that the developer framed a decent explanation, and I’m certainly in no position to refute what they say, but sadly, that can’t be said for some people who are commenting with venom:

If the [Early Access] community was a bank you now would been bankrupt, because we would make a massive class action against you, we would go to our lawyers to get back our money, because when you decided to stop developing the game you broke the contract. You did not go bankrupt, you still have the money, you are just a bunch of thief, liars, trolls and assholes.

It’s a chance that developers take, asking for money before a project is complete, with no idea if they’ll be able to complete the project to their — or the community’s — satisfaction. As someone who’s not comfortable taking chances with my financial future on the scale that indie development requires, I can’t fathom the mindset that people have that leads them down this path. Personally, it doesn’t seem worth the risk, but I’m happy for those who manage to make it work. I’m also saddened and angered by people who project their regret at having partaken of EA onto the developers without absolute proof of their accusations.

What’s the alternative? As much as I’m sure no one wants to hear it, maybe traditional publishing shouldn’t be replaced with crowdfunding methods. The rise of crowdfunding through KS and EA campaigns was due to a backlash against corporate bean-counters getting in the way of a developer’s ability to make a really fantastic product by only green-lighting known quantities like franchise shooters, or by forcing a shift in focus to an nascent mirage like mobile. Look through Steam’s front page and you’ll see a dearth of EA titles crowding out all but the AAA projects. It’s getting harder and harder to surface games that aren’t EA, and I believe that it’s indoctrinating people into believing EA to be just another step in the process we need to endure. Traditional publishing isn’t a panacea: they cancel projects just like indies and smaller studios do, and they sure as hell generate their share of ill-will, but they’ve got track records and enough successful properties that today’s failure is overwritten with tomorrow’s successes. At the very least, cutting down on EA and KS projects would thin the herd.

The ramifications for the industry and the community of continuing to support EA are just too great, in my opinion. I’ve got an average track record when it comes to KS and EA titles I’ve purchased. Some have come through, like Shadowrun  Chronicles and Wasteland 2, while some have gone belly-up in a spectacular fashion, such as Greed Monger. I’m still waiting for a few, like Meriweather: An American Epic, which was one of the very first projects I contributed to through Kickstarter over two years ago. Sometimes I get my money’s worth, but other times I’m throwing money into a hole with no return. Technically, no return is expected; the only thing I do expect is the worst, so I’m never let down…only pleasantly surprised when a project comes through.

I don’t think the gaming community knows how to invest wisely. I know I sure don’t, but I don’t think it’s entirely the fault of a segment of the population that susceptible to a really good PR campaign. In the real investment world, backers have a wealth of information that they can research to help them make a decision. We don’t really have that in the games space. Sometimes we can focus on the track records of developers, if they’ve made games before (like Brian Fargo and Chris Roberts, believe it or not). Having been able to “get stuff done” in the past is about the only criteria we have for judging the viability of project, and sometimes that’s not enough. Game consumers lack the kind of information that we need to make “informed” decisions, which is made worse by the fact that there’s no way that developers can actually provide that kind of information. In short, it’s a crap shoot for everyone.

It’s become en vogue for indies and smaller studios to turn to EA and other crowdfunding, offering a back-stage pass in exchange for cash up front, but after the ink dries, all bets are technically off. Not every failure is a bait-and-switch, despite consumer’s angry assertions to the contrary; sometimes, things don’t work out, no matter how hard you work to try and ensure they do. We as a community, by and large, aren’t able to absorb this, either financially or emotionally, yet we seem powerless, unable, or unwilling to stop supporting EA because we feel that it involves us as part of the industry we love, feel that it “helps the little guy stand up to the big guys”, or simply feeds our entitlement culture by giving us what we want, as soon as we decide we want it. Even though it would remove an avenue for the scores of indie and smaller studios, I think we need to stop supporting EA and crowdfunding efforts, at least until we can come up with some method for better investment decision making on the part of the consumer, and to somehow help indie, small studios, and neophyte developers plan and execute in a way that mitigates the potential for failure as much as possible, if at all possible.

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