Transparency: Why Early Access is a Horrible, Horrible Thing (For Everyone)
Many of us think that it’s super cool to play a game before anyone else does. There were hipster battles in the middle of Orgrimmar in World of Warcraft or Theed, if you played Star Wars Galaxies like me. One player would say that he’d played since beta, and another would claim to have played in beta 1 or friends-and-family beta. The funniest were those who claimed to have played in alpha. However, it’s unmistakable the sense of pride that pops up when you type “/played” and your number is bigger than another person’s.
Unfortunately, game developers, or more so, the publishers are well aware of the fact that players love to be able to be in on a game before the rest of their friends. That’s why beta-key giveaways are so popular. There was a time when every publisher under the sun was giving away beta keys to their latest games.
However, that trend has fallen off because of a new trend that truly takes advantage of the player’s desire to join a game early. It’s called Early Access, and it’s not good for the developer nor the player.
The Development Process
Before diving is into the ins and outs of why Early Access is a horrible, horrible thing. Let’s take a look at the stages of game development. It should be understood that there is a process of game development, and there are names to go with the stages of that process and milestones that are hit along the way. But instead of giving you the long and boring way to describe these pieces, I’m going to give you a list and definitions, so that way if you think you know what all these things mean, then you can skip to the end where I tell you why Early Access is a bad, bad thing.
I should clarify that these definitions of the stages of game development are the general definitions, and that every developer is slightly different and so are the development stages.
Pre-alpha isn’t really a stage, it’s just something that happens. I include this in the list because you’ll hear people throw this term around, and it’s really not a term that game developers use while the game is in development. But this term encompasses everything that takes place before there is a game to speak of. Art is made here. Story development and engine testing usually takes place here. Pre-alpha ends when the basic decisions have been made and the actual game starts to be produced.
Alpha is a weird stage, and every game developer begins and ends alphas at different times. But basically, alpha is when the basic features are in place and play testing can begin. During this stage we see an actual game and many of the elements that will eventually be in the game when it finally launches. The biggest thing to keep in mind with most alphas is that anything and everything can change during this stage of the game. Nothing is married to the game; no single feature safe. If the whole thing needs to be scrapped and revisited, that can happen at this stage.
Beta usually starts when the developer has decided which specific features will be in the game. Although we might not see all of these features in the game yet, the suite of features has been decided on, and the new ideas hitting at this stage are generally based on the existing ideas already in the game. For instance, we might see a change from first-person to third-person, but we will likely not see an FPS combat system turn into a turn-based combat system. The end of beta, usually when large-scale testing starts taking place, the game is virtually indistinguishable from the launched game.
Open-beta is a term you’ll see a lot for online games. This is the stage where anyone who wants to join the game can. I don’t want to burst your bubble, but the primary reason for open-beta is to test the load capacity. Any real and meaningful changes to the game will likely not happen here. Sure, something might be altered or fixed if there is a glaring error, but that’s rare.
Launch is when the developers are ready to say it’s done. This could be when the capital has dried up, and the studio has no more money. But ideally, this is when all the bugs have been fixed and the game is ready for public consumption.
Where Early Access Goes Wrong
Where does Early Access fit in? Technically, you can drop Early Access in anywhere in this timeline. Traditionally, early access was the stage between open-beta and launch. It was when early adopters of the game could be some of the first to play on live servers. However, there is a new trend to plop Early Access just after alpha as a way to start earning money for the game before it is even close to done.
This. Is. Bad.
In a recent post on MMORPG.com, former SOE developer David Georgeson talked about what it was like to work on MMOs for the last 15 years, and he pointed out something very interesting. He compared making an MMO to making a television series.
“The closest parallel that you can make is supporting a hit TV series with more seasons after the first season was successful. The execution is completely different between games and TV, but the overall theories behind it all are similar.”
He said that the first season has a huge budget and attracts a major audience, but from that point on things travel downhill as far as budget and audience is concerned. That’s not a negative, it’s just the way it is. Very few games or TV shows actually increase the base audience after the first season.
This is all true, so why would developers think that it’s a good idea to allow people to start playing the game well before it’s finished? Well, the simple answer is money.
Don’t get me wrong; I think games need to make as much money as the market can bear, but this kind of Early Access doesn’t make things good. The audience that the game had when it started charging for Early Access might grow a bit because Early Access is usually done in stages, but for many of the games the audience is not going to increase drastically, like Georgeson said.
The way I look at it is that Early Access is a way for developers to sell people a crap game and milk as much money out of players before too many resource have been dropped into the game. We only have to look at Georgeson’s own “EverQuest” Landmark and SOE’s H1Z1 to see the repercussions of selling a game too early.
Many people have lost interest in Landmark. It’s a good game. But not many people play it and its audience isn’t increasing. Now the developers have a game that isn’t officially out of beta that’s already had the huge revenue drop off that you’d see in a game three months after launch. Although a very select group of people like H1Z1, many of the game critics weren’t sure what to make of the game. I’d venture to guess that many of its audience already has a game in DayZ or Rust, and H1Z1 isn’t going to pull them away from that game. Why would they want to buy an unfinished survival game, let alone another unfinished survival game?
I should clarify that Early Access isn’t the same as crowdfunding, where the backers should be a part of the development process, but that story will have to wait until next week. In the meantime, let me know what you think in the comments.
Read more of this column by going to our "Transparency Column" tag.