Early Access— Steam’s option of selling games to consumers while they are being developed has had a lot of both positive and negative press. Recently, Double Fine’s failure to finish their early access title: Spacebase DF-9 joins the growing number of failed projects on the service.
Early Access may be crowd-funded base like kickstarter, but there are differences between the two that are important to understand.
Why is Early Access Popular?
Early Access’s popularity is similar to that of kickstarter and crowd-funding in general — it allows consumers to support the developers directly while developers are able to create a fan base and get the income needed to develop their game at the same time.
The two big differences between Early Access and other crowd-funding options is that it’s a part of a digital store as opposed to being on a crowd-funding site like kickstarter. This is an important point which we’ll be coming back to in a minute. And that with early access, there is no way to track the amount of funding raised/copies bought and promotions like stretch goals don’t happen.
Titles that are put on Early Access can come in a variety of development states: From those that just started in Alpha to games that are done and just need to test a few features before release. Unfortunately, the lack of a standard for what’s on Early Access has led to many consumers hating the service and questioning its use.
Early Access Problems:
While Early Access is a part of the Steam store, Valve has openly stated that they are not enforcing any parts of Early Access and that consumers are basically “buying at their own risk.” This means if a developer decides to stop working on a game or goes on break, the consumer has no protection or insurance from Valve to get the game they were promised.
As you can probably guess, the consumer confidence in Early Access is very low at the moment and has many consumers on the Steam forums complaining about it. It’s easy to think that Early Access and Kickstarter are two halves of the same coin, but their differences in marketing and development have a different mindset attached to them from the consumer’s point of view.
Donations vs. Products:
The basic goal of crowd-funding is the same regardless of whether you are on Kickstarter, Early Access, Indie Gogo or any site that allows consumers to give money to products. However it’s the mentality and the expectations that go with it that are different and must be minded.
Kickstarter has never been about ordering products regardless of how much or how little people give to projects. The point of Kickstarter is that you are donating money to get an idea created. The people who are looking on Kickstarter for projects to help fund are not consumers in the sense that they are paying for a product, even if their pledge entitles them to it as per the reward tiers.
Because of this, people are far more lenient when it comes to delays as long as work is being done. But once you move to Early Access, there is a different mentality that takes over.
Early Access is a program that exists solely on Steam’s store and anything that gets put up there regardless of its quality or price is viewed by consumers as a product. It may be an unfinished product that has months or even a few years worth of developing needed but a product nonetheless. Even though you as a designer may not think of it as such, when your game is being promoted on the front page next to finished titles, people are going to treat it as a product.
And when you’re pitching a product vs. a project, there are far more considerations running through the minds of the consumers than the pledges on Kickstarter. They assume that if you are selling something on Early Access that you already have a thought out concept and foundation of your game set already. While a game may still need years of development, people still expect results and updates.
If you’re trying to earn enough money to continue development through Early Access, you need to put your best foot forward when you get onto it. Launching on Early Access with either a prototype or literally your first actual build of your game is not wise as a bad first impression can affect how consumers perceive your title and your company.
On kickstarter it’s customary after a project succeeds for the developers to take time before releasing builds to people who pledged for alpha/beta access. But once you get on Early Access, consumers demand more which Double fine had to learn the hard way.
Double Fine’s disappointment:
Double Fine decided to base their profit structure and development funding of Spacebase Df-9 on Early Access or what they called an “Open Ended Production Plan.” We’re going to explore this concept further in a few days with a post exclusively examining this model.
“We started Spacebase with an open ended-production plan, hoping that it would find similar success (and therefore funding) to the alpha-funded games that inspired it. Some of its early sales numbers indicated this might be the case, but slowly things changed, and it became clear that this was looking like a year and a half of production instead of five or so.” Tim Schafer — Owner of Double Fine
But what happened was that when communication broke down and the sales stopped for Spacebase, so did its funding. This caused a snowball effect of consumers not buying it anymore and therefore not funding it while the people who already bought it were left with many of the features unfinished.
Basing your game’s entire development on Early Access is a very risky venture as Double Fine learned as consumers are far more judging of a game that is being sold vs. a project that is asking for donations.
But despite that, there are things that Double Fine failed to do correctly with how they handled Early Access and that all developers need to pay attention to which will be the subject of our next post.