Pre-release & Alpha access – Lazy profiteering or development genius?

A trend has set in over the last few years in PC gaming that has caused no end of controversy, bringing us us fabulous success and horrendous debacles. That is ‘early access’ to games still in so-called pre-release builds. Labelled as Alpha access or with other similar terms, it has entitled developers (especially indie devs) to a new freedom in which to pursue their ideas and goals. Take Minecraft for example – a stunning one man effort to create his dream game, going on to capture the eye of the internet whilst in early Alpha. Eventually, what was a small development from Notch blossomed into one of the most popular games ever, eventually selling to Microsoft in 2012 for $2 Billion. However many similar projects attempted since then have caused mistrust in the community, stemming from factors such as non-delivered promises and developers straight up lying. This raises the questions, is pre-releasing games being abused by developers as an excuse to deliver unfinished and broken content? Or is it a valuable tool in which the community may help mold the game to their preference – allowing the developers to give people exactly what they want?

Minecraft: A resounding success, but is it's development model becoming the norm?

Minecraft: A resounding success, but is it’s development model becoming the norm?

The increase in crowd-funded games has been massive in recent years, due to the opportunities offered by programs such as Kickstarter and Steam Greenlight. It is easier than ever to get game development supported and funded – especially when you have a solid core ideal or objective from which to build your game. If the community like what they see, they can pledge to support you. Now, the trade-off for backing a developer prior to release is that the benefactor usually receives rewards in some form or another. This type of promise-reward system have existed in the past in the form of pre-orders, but nothing like the scale that exists today. These rewards range from unique in-game items to early access to the game. The difficulties arise when developers fail to deliver in some way what the customer was expecting when the game eventually comes to light. A good example of this in a ‘Kickstarted’ game is Planetary Annihilation, from Uber Entertainment. Crowd-funded from the ground up, in September 2012 PA reached it’s goal of $2.2 Million and the Alpha was on it’s way by June 2013. The game was being shown off with tech demos and livestreams, and eventually everyone who had pledged the $90-100 got their access codes. The initial reception was lukewarm at best. It was revealed to have huge problems from the get go, with bad frame rates and optimisation limiting any hope of smooth gameplay to only the most powerful of PCs. There were bugs and errors and crashes, but this was to be expected – the game was in alpha after all. Unfortunately the bad taste left in the mouths of the backers was long in being cleansed, instead emphasised by the seemingly ineffectual response of the developers in righting the game. PA was more or less a trainwreck in the early stages, with 11 patches released in the first two weeks. The beta was released that September and whilst it fixed many of the issues,  an underlying issue still plagued it. Once the gimmick of throwing planets into each other had worn off (it did take a while for that to happen admittedly) the core mechanics of the game were just the same as any other base-building RTS. And not a very good one. The UI was poor, the interplanetary battles were confusing and the AI struggled to make full use of any planets other than the one it spawned on. The game, upon release, was proven to be distinctly average with no sign of the exceptional game that had been promised and paid for – some of the funding packages were in excess of $200. Unfortunately for Uber, the negative press revealed dismal post release sales, prompting a hopeful price tag of $60 to make up for this fact. This has proven to be a very high profile flop with , with Uber receiving less that a quarter of the backing requested for their next game, Human Resources. Obvious problems were arising in the pre-purchase system.

Planetary Annihilation - An interesting concept, but poorly executed. A planet is seen being destroyed in the game engine.

Planetary Annihilation – An interesting concept, but poorly executed.

The advantages to indie developers however, seem to offset the drawbacks – at least for now. Talented and dedicated teams are able to show their concepts to the world, and if the world likes them, devs get to build them. The lack of requirement to find publishers has meant many individual and interesting projects have come to fruition that may never have under a large publishing company. Take Stranded Deep and Subnautica for example. Both games began as little more than engine and graphical demos, but the core mechanics of the games captured attention. Brought onto Steam as part of the Greenlight program, both soon found a following and were eventually voted onto the Steam store as early access titles.The titles have both made steady progress towards ‘full release’ (I am not sure if this is an outdated term now), utilizing the biggest advantage that early access provides – community input. Whilst aided by the relatively cheap buy in price of ~ £10.99 and £14.99 respectively, the fact that the consumer can input and tailor games to his or her taste is hugely valuable – everyone can put a piece of themselves into the development and invest not just their interest and cash, but their creativity. Indeed, the developers of Subnautica, Unknown Worlds, hit the nail on the head:

“Some games are built inside boxes. No one can see inside the box, they can’t enjoy the game while it is being built, and its strength depends completely on the skill of the people inside the box. Other games are made out in the open in full view, with countless people contributing to them in innumerable ways. They can be enjoyed while they are pieced together. At Unknown Worlds, we like making games in the open. It’s more fun that way, and we think it makes better games.”

This is undoubtedly the most advantageous way of building games in regards to motivated developers and dedicated consumers, and is only short of professional mods in terms of delivering what individuals may desire from the game. Both games continue to grow with a steady community and I am sure we can hope to see more titles and further progress from both Beam Team Games and Unknown Worlds.

The strength and passion of indie devs behind games like Subnautica is what drives them to success. The image shows a beautiful underwater scene from Subnautica.

The strength and passion of indie devs behind games like Subnautica is what drives them to success.

However, despite the view of Unknown Worlds the success of any game really does depend on the strength and passion of the development team behind it.Take a look at the Day Z standalone game by Bohemia Interactive. Based on the immensely popular mod for Arma II by Dean ‘Rocket’ Hall, the game was Bohemia’s attempt to take the brain behind the mod and craft a single title using a modified version of the new engine used in Arma III. Given a team, the creative drive was in place as Hall helped the development progress. However, the game was released into an early access with a vast array of issues. The team simply was not large enough or skilled enough to craft a game in the same scale as the Day Z mod from the ground up, and the Alpha was not comparable in any way. It has taken over a year to get the game to an anywhere near playable state, despite having the community to help add to it. Put in layman’s terms, you can’t set foundations in sand. The engine was badly optimised and the team were overwhelmed with the task set before them. So then, perhaps the key to a successful and popular game of the new format is much the same as always – a good team with an accessible and interesting idea and the motivation to carry it out.

The danger posed by early access games to the community is that it allows studios to provide poor content, with no publisher to ‘filter’ what is and is not fit for release. I believe that this may be down to the swap in pressures placed on the devs. Instead of a publisher, the developers only need answer to the community – maybe the lack of pressure from ‘bosses’ (especially the funding type) is to blame for the influx of poorly put together titles. It is a proven fact that some companies will simply stop listening to their consumers when faced with an angry mob – also an easier thing to do as the crowd funding cannot be taken back by the people. There are exceptions to the rule of course, as in any case, but whether the risk/reward of crowd funding and early access buy in is acceptable to the community will be  evident as the industry as a whole develops. Perhaps publishers will become a thing of the past, or maybe the community will find an alternative way of ensuring the quality of games delivered to their screens.





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