If you use Steam regularly, then you have probably noticed a ton of games taking advantage of Steam’s ‘Early Access’ program. All types of games are using this model – from the incredible Prison Architect (I had an interview with the developers behind the game last week – I highly recommend listening to it) to the worldwide sensation DayZ to the addictive mobile game Plague Inc. (which is now making its PC debut via Steam Early Access). There is something unique about a game that takes advantage of this type of release. Allowing customers to purchase the game while it is still in the early stages of development (and thus, having an opportunity to have a helping hand in the development process), the model isn’t without its faults.
So what should you know about Steam’s Early Access program before deciding if it’s right for your PC game? Here are a few advantages and disadvantages of one of Steam’s flagship programs. First: the advantages.
Earn revenue now rather than later
This is one of the most common advantages of Steam Early Access, but it’s also one of the most important. Using Prison Architect as another example, if the guys over at Introversion had opted not to release the game via Early Access, it may have been shelved by now. At the very least, the game would take a lot longer to be released than it’s currently taking, and while the game is far from perfect it is undoubtedly making enough headway. Add to the fact that word of mouth has been spreading about the game more than ever thanks to Early Access, and it’s easy to see that by using Early Access, Introversion has certainly benefited by getting funds now rather than later.
Your game will also gain exposure over time. Rather than building hype before your game goes gold, going the Early Access route will allow your game to get exposure months earlier. The chances of word of mouth marketing spreads more quickly as a result, and because players are able to provide you with insight regarding what they want to see in your game? A community grows as a result, thus increasing the chances of your fans telling others about your game.
Aaron San Filippo told me in an interview on Game Academy Radio that by interacting with those that backed his studio’s Kickstarter campaign for Race the Sun, people became excited about the game and as a result, many in the community began spreading the word about the game. This caused more people to back the game and in the end, the Kickstarter campaign was a success.
Moral of the story? By interacting with buyers of your Early Access game and using their tips to improve your game, people are going to be blown away that their feedback means something to you. As a result, they will be more willing to go out of their way to promote your game.
And speaking of feedback…
Feedback you can use
Players aren’t shy about telling you what they want to see in your game, and when they have a place to voice their opinions like they do in the Early Access program? They are going to tell you what they want to see in the game and how it can be improved. Sure, a percentage of the feedback you receive will be absolute garbage (you want more zombies in an asteroid mining simulator?), but there’s going to be feedback given to you that will make you think, “aha, why didn’t I think of that?”
Resulting in an improved game.
Now what about the disadvantages?
First impressions sometimes stick
Most people that purchase an Early Access game know what they’re getting themselves into: a game that is almost always in alpha and will at times be riddled with bugs and virtually unplayable. Yet, first impressions can stick with a lot of players, and if your game is so unready for primetime that it flat out sucks when it first hits Early Access, this will leave a bad taste in player’s mouths.
Again, a game that has bugs and isn’t close to complete is to be expected. Yet, the game needs to be fun. There is a such thing as releasing your game for Early Access too early, so be certain that although your game may not be anywhere near completion, it needs to be fun to play. No exception.
You sacrifice ‘launch day’
Do you remember the day Minecraft was officially released? No? Neither can I, but I can tell you the exact date The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was released in North America without looking at Wikipedia: November 23, 1998.
What’s my point? If you have a game in Early Access, the day the game is out of beta and goes ‘gold,’ arrives with a mediocre bang. Launch day hype becomes nonexistent when your game is on Early Access, as everyone can play the game in some form months before the game officially launches. Think about it: how excited would I have been if I was able to play Ocarina of Time anytime I wanted a year before it was released? By the time the official launch date arrived, I wouldn’t have been excited because I was used to the game by then.
Is this a bad thing? It depends on how you look at it. Launch day hype can certainly lead to a ton of extra players buying your game, but with Early Access, you have a bigger window of time where people can get excited about what features are being added to your game, what’s coming up, and so on. Thus, launch day isn’t the traditional ‘launch day’ we know: it’s simply the last big update for a game players have already been playing for months.
Steam Early Access is a new way to look at not only developing indie games, but how revenue is earned. Thus, I will hand the article over to you guys. Are there any other advantages or disadvantages associated with Early Access that wasn’t mentioned in the article? Any opinions you would like to voice? For those that have released a game via Early Access, are there any tips you would like to include? Let us know in the comments below!