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Robert Lashley: What’s the Deal with Early Access?

By Robert Lashley on April 29, 2016 | Columns | Comments

What’s the Deal with Early Access?

Can we all agree that the glut of games on KickStarter, Indiegogo, Fig, random flavor of the month crowdfunding site, are more than enough to last most of us a lifetime? While some of the games appear to be from professionals, and others from true enthusiasts, and I applaud their efforts, there are also those that seem to whipped up by used car salesman that just want to get their hands in our pockets. If you are a used car salesman I apologize and didn’t mean to insult you. Replace used car salesman with lawyer. If you are a lawyer and read this… too bad. I’m in a non-extradition country. The reality is most of these pitches and early access games are following a guiding philosophy. That is the way of the lean start up.

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The concept of Lean is simple enough to grasp. When I hear the word lean the first thing that pops to mind is a steak with most if not all of the fat trimmed off. This concept of trimming the fat made its way into business in the mid-1900s beginning with manufacturing. Trim out the fat, or the items you don’t need on hand to cut down on your manufacturing costs. This concept eventually made its way in the early 2000s to influence the creation of companies. Don’t become too dependent on capital, figure out what the core product your intended customer needs and provide them with that service and iterate. That last part is the minimal viable product (MVP) in a nutshell. The MVP is the only thing created that requires a leap of faith. The rest of the process is driven by data you collect from the users. These iterations allow creators to quickly pivot and change focus if they were wrong about what the customer wanted but figure out what it is they need in time. The lack of capital used allows them to abandon the idea all together if they completely whiffed. This works well for software platforms and has permeated Silicon Valley.

The number one reason that developers take this approach is to lower their risk profile. This allows developers to make leaps of faith in new directions with their MVP and possibly survive to try again if they completely fail. This has quietly worked its way into game studios. If studios sent radical concepts into full production and failed it would probably spell the end for their company. So distributing this risk is not inherently a bad thing. It allows developers to try new and crazy ideas that a publisher would never fund.

The last few years we have also seen the rise of game engines that have become accessible enough that anyone can afford them. Unity 3d, Unreal 4, Lumberyard, and Game Maker are all free for enthusiasts. Some of them you have to eclipse 100,000.00 USD in annual sales before developers have to secure a professional license.

Most of these engines will provide the basic tools to make a survival game in a day. They really aren’t that difficult if someone has the time and determination and there are tutorials all over YouTube to bridge the knowledge gap. That’s not to say making a good game isn’t hard. I think we can all agree that is extremely difficult. But churning out a swill bucket isn’t that difficult.

It used to be that it was hard to get a game on Steam. That really isn’t the case anymore. With Greenlight a community, or in a reality a few individuals, can get a game on Steam. With Steam’s rise as the dominate means of digital distribution for PC games it used to effectively act as a gatekeeper. It would keep some of the swill buckets away. Some will argue gatekeeping in any sense is wrong. Personally I’d like to see some type of filter but understand why others may not. But if you are wondering why there are survival games a plenty on Steam? There is your answer.

So we have reached a confluence of great ideas that have left us with a pool of crap to wade through. The lean philosophy has taken a hold of the games development industry. It hasn’t contained itself to just indie studios either. H1Z1 and Landmark are great examples of a AAA studio, in this case Daybreak, taking ideas and making MVPS and iterating on them until they have created complete games. In H1Z1’s case they have ended up with two separate games. In Landmark they ended up with a game instead of what appeared originally just to be a toolset. In both cases their success could be argued but they have entertained a player base and kept the studio afloat in the process.

MVPs don’t always end up so well. Pathfinder Online is a text book example of falling short of what is an acceptable MVP when taking a leap of faith. Fortunately for Paizo they didn’t suffer irreparable damages to their brand even though the Goblinworks studio went under. Unfortunately for the consumer they were left holding the bag when iterative design goes bad. It doesn’t stop their either. Some games are so bad it’s almost criminal, looking at you WarZ, and the list goes on. I’m sure by this point if anyone has been involved with crowdfunding you have backed a stinker or know someone who has. If not consider yourself lucky.

But for all the warts that come along with early access we also get games like Minecraft. Unicorns that are fundamentally so unique they change the landscape. If it wasn’t for people buying into that game in beta it never would have made it. So the question then becomes one of a personal nature. As a consumer is it worth it to you to back a few stinkers to get the games out that eventually will define a generation? If yes then be cautiously optimistic and continue to selectively back projects. If not then run away.

On a final note stop buying into early access and expecting a full game. That’s the point of early access. It’s not complete. The developers are going to use your money and your feedback and make a complete game. Also know that development could stop at any time. If not enough people show interest why would the developers continue to waste their time and money? Would you? I know I wouldn’t. That’s also why I don’t buy into EA games. It’s not a gamble I’m willing to take.

Robert Lashley / Rob is a Staff Writer and jack of all trades for MMORPG.com. When he isn’t blinding people with the glare from his head in front of a camera you can chase him down on Twitter, PSN, XBL, and Nintendo @rant_on_rob.