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Early Access to the Future

Columns By Paul Nadin on January 04, 2016

Early Access to the Future

Hello and welcome to 2016. It’s great here in the future, there are flying cars and special programs to rehabilitate Reddit users into society. Also, videogames are never released anymore, staying instead in a constant state of development. It’s wonderful, there’s no more disappointment as every day we remind ourselves how much potential all the games have. All is well, remember to increase your pledge amount for exclusive bonuses at release!

I always enjoyed dystopian futurism as a theme in movies and literature. The Director’s Cut of Blade Runner, Orwell’s 1984, Fallout. I’m looking forward to Cyberpunk 2077, although I have to say it’s becoming increasingly difficult to enjoy nightmarish visions of a world gone mad when our own world more closely resembles one every day.

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Back in the distant past, some people considered 2015 a disappointing year for games we call video, big games were broken, smaller games were often unmemorable. While the solid gold 10/10 classics may have been thin on the ground, I had tons of fun and I can think of plenty of games that will be influential in the years to come.

Then I think about 2015 MMORPG releases, and I ended up having a crisis because I enjoy being melodramatic. Skyforge launched, and that’s pretty good, Trove had its official release and is a really great ‘My First MMO’. Monster Hunter 4: Ultimate came out, which is probably the best MMORPG that doesn’t count as one ever (seriously, it’s worth buying a 3DS for. I cannot recommend it highly enough if you’re a veteran MMO player, especially if you have a friend or two to play with.)

My crisis was all down to the fact that my favorite MMORPGs of 2015 were not finished, some not even close to it, and there was a decent handful. Star Citizen, Camelot Unchained, Crowfall and Albion Online are in development, some others are fully released in other territories and waiting for localization. I think I played more unfinished MMOs this year than released ones.

Now that I think of it, I played Skyforge and Trove far more in beta than at release. The last few years has left me feeling like a launch is the end of the road, as the excitement drains and players move on to fresh ground. Logging in after launch feels like the day after a music festival ends. The chilly wind you didn’t notice suddenly starts to bother you.

I always say the worst time to play an MMO is at release. I used to say it because it’s buggy, it’s crowded, the self-defeating obsession with efficiency means that everyone is miserable and the game feels thin because of it. Now I think it’s because the excitement of discovery has drained out of it on top of all that.

Wait a year for all that to blow over and you’re walking into a much more pleasant experience. The real haters have moved on for the most part, the game breaking bugs have probably been taken care of, game updates and balance patches strengthen the game. Not to mention it’s often much less of an investment money-wise.

It really is the best way to go about it, but our puny human brains don’t see it that way.

We want the excitement, we crave the new, we go through the constant cycle of having our unrealistic expectations crushed by yet another videogame that’s just a videogame and not some kind of transformative experience.

So we sprint with glee into early access, we pay for the privilege of early, we pay even more for the privilege of getting in even earlier. We beg for keys on forums and Reddit threads, we watch livestreams like it’s our job and allow our Facebook walls and twitter feeds to become marketing platforms in giveaway competitions.

We do everything we can to get in, and more often than not the experience just can’t stand up to our expectations. Not because the game is bad, it just needs a little more time in the oven.

I like the oven analogy, because for me, game design is much more like a recipe than a blueprint, especially when it comes to MMOs. While a blueprint would look something like an M.C. Escher painting of a Rube Goldberg machine, a recipe insists that all the elements touch each other and reciprocally affect every other component in a way that defines the whole.

Watching these ingredients react with each other can be part of the fun, like watching a cake rise, but very few recipes are as enjoyable part-baked.

Having said that, I have enjoyed my time in many unfinished MMOs this year, some at extremely early stages of development. They’re usually buggy, unbalanced and basically shadows of skeletons of their intended final form, but they’re wonderfully raw and unpolished, and there’s a joy to the discovery of these early days. The excitement isn’t gone, it’s just evolved.

Is early access a good thing for MMOs? Well without some kind of early access or crowdfunding we wouldn’t have Star Citizen, Camelot Unchained, Crowfall or Albion Online at all, so I’m willing to stick my neck out and say it’s a brilliant thing for MMOs.

If it’s a choice between ‘Some New MMOs’ and ‘Better Luck Next Year’, I know which column I’m in. Having said that, I also really enjoy MOBAs, Minecraft and the Survival genre so I’m good whatever.

One thing that makes MMOs fare better than other games is the very reason many of us play them in the first place. Early access communities can be a great place to make new friends, join new guilds and make new connections. There’s an optimism to an early adopter community that is difficult to replicate.

It’s true that I often say the worst time to play an MMO is at launch, but I also say that the best MMO is the one you play with friends. Maybe those two ideas are now dated, maybe they have always been mutually exclusive, or maybe the whole situation is incredibly complicated and tied up in subjective feelings in a way that means we should all stop worrying and just get on with the serious work of playing games.

Welcome to the darkest timeline, a hellish future where things are confusing and different than they were and it seems to make even less sense as you get older.