Community-Developer Interactions in Early Access Game Development

Pardon the university title. It is becoming more common in game development for teams to release “early-access” games into the marketplace, and then alter the game over a series of patches over the next few years. The game is released early, filled with bugs, and then patched over time. Eventually, the game will be complete. At first this method of releasing games was met with widespread critique. It was seen as a cheap way to make profit off an incomplete game. You get fans attached to the hype of what the game might be when finally completed so the fans give you money. And then you abandon the project, leaving behind a buggy, incomplete mess of a game and dissatisfied fans.

Fans want complete games released, not buggy messes. I disagree with the complaint held against releasing early-access games, and instead see a lot of potential in early-access game releases, so much so that I argue here that all companies should rethink the way they conceive of game development and release.

The original model (a), oversimplified, flows something like this:
a. 1) Research -> 2) Development -> 3) Release (complete game) -> 4) Profit -> 5) Patch (if needed)

I propose that this new model (b) is better for customer satisfaction when properly implemented.
b. 1) Research -> 2) Development -> 3) Release (early-access) -> 4) Profit through donations/cosmetics -> 5) Community feedback and interactivity (reddit/ surveys/ reviews) -> 6) Patch to further develop game based on community feedback and in-group decision making/Implement additional content -> Repeat steps 5 and 6 as long as game is making you profit and fans are interested in seeing the game develop.

This ideally works for online, multiplayer games with an aim at a long lifespan of committed players. If you are looking to simply release a new game every year like with sports titles, then model (a) applies. The same can be said with games that aim to be released as a complete, campaign or story-driven experience. I present my argument as simple as I can.

When you release a product, traditionally, you have to wait a long time before assessing the customer reaction to your product. If you are taking a big risk with your product, but the product remains hidden, and is not given to the public to test out, then your product could become a flop, like No-Man’s Sky. Imagine if Hello Games were honest with the fans about the game, and released it as an unfinished, early access game that fans could play for free, and buy optional cosmetics for, if people wanted to further support the development of the game.

First of all, people would appreciate this honesty. They would also adjust their expectations to more realistic levels regarding the game. Furthermore, the developers could discover months in advance precisely what the biggest flaws of the game are and redirect their further attention towards fixing those problems as soon as possible. Simply put, the more active game developers are in engaging with their fans, and the more flexible they are in development, the happier the fans will be and the more willing they will be to give you money for your product to continue being developed.

The games I have in mind for this style should not aim to be complete at any point in time, but instead embrace flexibility in development to offer fans a series of subtle variants on a core concept that they enjoy. Sometimes fans will be upset, but as long as there is clear and honest communication, and a mentality aimed at indefinite development and improvement, the fans will be happier in the long run, and the product will be better in the long run.

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