Steam's Early Access program has had a bad run in the past few weeks with scammy titles and abrupt cancellations. But what's it like to be part of it as a developer? I spoke to Maia dev Simon Roth about the program and what it means to a small indie studio.
Maia is a world building game originally funded through Kickstarter and now available through Early Access. The version I was sent to try before this interview was 'about 42% complete', which straight away introduces a major issue with Early Access: why play an unfinished game? More pertinently, why pay for one?
According to Simon consumer expectations are changing: "it's a completely different world," he states. "The kids that play Minecraft? They expect to be able to play the alpha. If they couldn't play the alpha of a game they're not interested in it. There's a literal entitlement to be able to play the game before it's finished." This different world now means that, "talking with the audience is part of the design process". Whether it's the result of social media or better communication overall. Simon sees Early Access as "a completely new way of thinking about game development," with people "paying to be part of the process and not just for the finished game."
"[This new situation] is far more healthy than any triple A dev I did", he thinks. "Decisions would be made and there would never be a clear reason why. People might be tired. Or it would come from management and you don't question that, you just implement it." By contrast in Early Access, if something happens, "a thousand people will want to know why. Everything has to be done for a reason. A lot of people think this kind of open development would be toxic in some way. People would be like 'why don't you add laser guns or why don't you add this?' We do get that, but it's a lot easier to ablate those issues because our design's completely open—people don't get frustrated when the thing they want doesn't go in because they can see why".
It's that involvement, visibility and feedback that he believes make the platform safer when the subject of potentially fraudulent games come up. "I think it's no easier to abuse than any other system," he says. "Those things came up and within hours, or even minutes, of going on sale people picked up on it and it got sorted". For comparison Simon points to another well known outlet: "the App Store is full of thousands clones [and] pieces of crap that don't work. Apple have very little interest in it, even when there are big complaints".
The gradual transition in the developer/player relationship has, according to Simon, been driven by the public and changes in how games are funded in recent years. "It was completely the audience: the funding models have bent to that... You can get money in lots of different ways. That's not really the core benefit of Early Access." Instead one of the key elements for a small developer is having your audience playing the game, says Simon. "The sooner the better. People who don't know what it is, they'll see it, learn about it and buy it. It won't be the people who've been backing you for two years. [It's] people with no initial investment you've got to convince".
While Simon might not think Early Access' revenue is the big win for a developer, its effects have been enough to cause an industry-wide change. "I've spoken to distributors who were always against selling alphas. Now, in the last six months, they're pretending they've just come up with the idea when really they've just been missing out on millions of quid".
The influx of Early Access content has been blamed by some for the deluge of Steam games this year. "People attribute the recent flood of new games to Early Access but I looked through them and about 50% are publisher backed titles, so it's the trusted publishers who are spamming Steam at the moment", reckons Simon.
"There was a day last week where eight Putt-Putt games were released and, while they're great, they're on new releases and a bunch of interesting indie games got buried by them". These publisher-led games might bury more needy indie offerings, but Simon sees the fact that Steam's no longer picking favourites as "a massive leveller": "everyone has to compete on the same playing field".
So exposure, community and a level playing field are all working in favour of Early Access. But what about one of my biggest issues: fatigue? Surely there's a risk when selling a game early that people will lose interest and not stick around to see the finished version? "People do get fatigued with alphas," he agrees, "which is why I think it's good to have a road map where every update is a feature thing as well as bug fixes. Every time I do an update a see a huge explosion of people playing the game again".
He points to a few other Early Access successes to reinforce this: "I think a good example might be [Sir You Are Being Hunted]. They went 'we're 1.0 now' then suddenly they're up in the top of sales charts. And Prison Architect, I think they were a top seller the other day because they put out an update that was a bunch of features coming to completion. Basically there are tiers of people with different flags to go up in your game before they touch it". (In Maia's case that includes a £1000 Kickstarter backer Simon met at Rezzed who said he'll, "probably check it out when it's done".)
If Early Access works, it's because it's built on a bond of trust and communication between developer and gamer. It's another spin on crowdsourcing where honesty and inclusion draw the consumer in to become part of the process, with their involvement in the game's development becoming as much an experience as the game itself. Done well it seems to be a benefit for both parties, with communication leading to a better game.
"It's a toxic thing to start making assumptions about what your audience would want without actually knowing who your audience is," explains Simon. "No one got in a real tizzy at me for releasing a really early game, because they knew exactly where it was going and what we were doing with it".
It's that defined vision that's perhaps lacking from some Early Access titles. But it seems, nonetheless, that plenty of people are willing to take a risk.