What happened to Steam's First Early Access Games?

AlphaAtlas

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Many promising titles come out of Steam's Early Access program, but how many actually make it to the finish line? Unfortunately, some games never leave Early Access, while others leave it in a sorry or unfinished state, but these botched releases usually don't draw as much attention as the original pitches. The Guardian took a look at the original 12 games selected to launch Steam's Early Access program, and found that only 9, including Kenshi, Kerbal Space Program, ARMA 3, Prison Architect, Drunken Robot Pornography, Gnomoria , Gear Up, and Kinetic Void, were ultimately "finished". Under the Ocean's and Pattern's development failed, while Kick It was seemingly abandoned by its developers over the course of a few years, even though it's still up for sale. The Guardian made an effort to reach out to some of the developers, and their responses were interesting.

When customers are paying for an unfinished product, expectations are high. Hunt believes one of the reasons Kenshi has maintained its development for so long is through constant communication and regular updates. "If we did an update every four months, then everyone would get angry and during that gap would be saying, 'The game's abandoned!"' he says. "But if we did the same amount of work, but broke it up into an update every day, people felt it was really well maintained.'" But supporting an unfinished game's development with its sales over several years is not easy. "There was one point in development where I handed everyone their notices," Hunt says. "We were completely running out of money." Hunt planned to continue working on the game alone, reducing its overall scope. Then sales suddenly picked up, and it was back to business as usual.


Personally, I find The Guardian's definition of "finished" questionable. ARMA 3, Prison Architect, and KSP have undoubtedly done well, but I backed Starforge myself, and it was in such a sorry, unfinished state upon "release" that it got pulled from the Steam store. A brief glance on the Store shows that Kinetic Void appears to be relatively incomplete too.
 

Darunion

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I backed starforge as well actually.

I still play 7days to die, i believe that is still alpha? It has been so long I dont even know anymore lol.
 

BloodyIron

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IMO 9/12 for Alpha-stage backing isn't that bad. Plenty of games never made it to market before Early Access/Greenlight, just because they made progress, but never finished and saw outside of their dev houses.

Like, even Nintendo messes up, look at Metroid Prime 4. This kind of stuff happens regularly, and it's sometimes unavoidable.
 
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IMO 9/12 for Alpha-stage backing isn't that bad. Plenty of games never made it to market before Early Access/Greenlight, just because they made progress, but never finished and saw outside of their dev houses.

Like, even Nintendo messes up, look at Metroid Prime 4. This kind of stuff happens regularly, and it's sometimes unavoidable.

I was surprised it was that high, that's not too bad. So long as people know what they're getting themselves into and aren't being mislead then that's a pretty good goal percentage.
 

NWRMidnight

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I backed starforge as well actually.

I still play 7days to die, i believe that is still alpha? It has been so long I dont even know anymore lol.

Yes 7 days to die is still in alpha, which isn't a bad thing. Most games are in alpha for 5 to 8 years before going to beta, but we never see that except in early access releases as it is done behind closed doors . Specially when it is a new concept not building off a prior game idea or prior release. This last release, which took over a year was a complete rebuild from the ground up.

The sad thing is, 7 days to die is in a lot of respects a better game in alpha as many games are at full release. Heck, BF V, was released rittled with bugs and is still missing some of it's advertised features and game modes. And this is from a large development team working from a template already layed out from previous BF releases .

The main problem with Early Access games is that many people don't fully grasp what they are purchasing and most want instant gratification, expecting a polished game, no matter what stage of development it is in.
 

ryno9100

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The main problem with Early Access games is that many people don't fully grasp what they are purchasing and most want instant gratification, expecting a polished game, no matter what stage of development it is in.

I think the main problem is two sided. The other side is how many devs use early access as an excuse to launch a game promising a bunch of things, then abandon the game after they've profited from the hype. That's the risk you run buying early access though. There is an art to picking out the success stories from the cash grabs, but it requires time and patience, which most people aren't willing to give to video games.

Fortunately, there are a lot of success stories. I've been stuck on Rimworld lately, which is another EA game to finally go 1.0. I think EA has been a net positive for the general community. Apart from the games listed, we have Subnautica, Rimworld, Don't Starve (or anything made by Klei, really), and Darkest Dungeon, to name a few.
 

AlphaAtlas

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I think the main problem is two sided. The other side is how many devs use early access as an excuse to launch a game promising a bunch of things, then abandon the game after they've profited from the hype. That's the risk you run buying early access though. There is an art to picking out the success stories from the cash grabs, but it requires time and patience, which most people aren't willing to give to video games.

Fortunately, there are a lot of success stories. I've been stuck on Rimworld lately, which is another EA game to finally go 1.0. I think EA has been a net positive for the general community. Apart from the games listed, we have Subnautica, Rimworld, Don't Starve (or anything made by Klei, really), and Darkest Dungeon, to name a few.

Rimworld is the best case scenario for an EA game, as it was more bug free/feature complete when it hit steam EA than most games are at release. Granted, it was in a public alpha for some time before it hit steam, and not all developers are in a financial position to do that.

And yeah, I think EA has helped fund a lot of good games that would've otherwise never seen the light of day.
 

Seventyfive

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I paid $7 for 1 hour of gameplay on Bright Memory but I don't regret it. The game was very fun and it's a single guy making the game so it feels good to support a developer like that. Also he's very responsive in the forums so you get the feeling he's dedicated to the project.
 

ryno9100

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Rimworld is the best case scenario for an EA game, as it was more bug free/feature complete when it hit steam EA than most games are at release. Granted, it was in a public alpha for some time before it hit steam, and not all developers are in a financial position to do that.

And yeah, I think EA has helped fund a lot of good games that would've otherwise never seen the light of day.

Rimworld also had the advantage of a very active modding community. The development "team" was one technically one man, who got some help along the way with programming and music and design (literally copy pasted a lot of designs from Prison Architect, with permission from their devs, of course). The modding community were generally more than happy to give up their secrets to Ludeon Studios.

Speaking of music, the Rimworld soundtrack is amazing. It's best described as "Wild West in Space." Check it out if you like sound tracks.
 

sfsuphysics

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While in principle I will never go in on Early Access, I like it in general, it's basically similar to kickstarter except instead of simply being presented grand promises require the developers to at least have some working title ready to play, something which in many cases would be really late alpha or early beta versions. This is two fold, first it requires a developer to show that he does at least have the skill set to get to that point, and second it does give the "backers" something to play around with, and in cases like Prison Architect and Rimworld that beta was VERY playable to the point where you'd almost wonder why v1.0 isn't out yet, and it was like that way for years. Meanwhile you have Kickstarter who tells you all the cool stuff that will be in the game, and maybe gives you a screenshot or video every few months.
 

Brian_B

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I don’t think Early Access means what you think it means.

It’s just an excuse to have unfinished bugs.

When the (arguably) biggest game in the world is into Season 7 and still is “Early Access” - the term loses all logical meaning.

To me, when a game starts accepting money for services - they are live, no more alpha/beta, no more “early access” excuses. That’s really the only distinction that matters to me. They are selling a product and have a responsibility to clearly communicate what they are providing to the consumer - just as the consumer has a respnsiubility to perform their due diligence before purchase.
 

AlphaAtlas

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Rimworld also had the advantage of a very active modding community. The development "team" was one technically one man, who got some help along the way with programming and music and design (literally copy pasted a lot of designs from Prison Architect, with permission from their devs, of course). The modding community were generally more than happy to give up their secrets to Ludeon Studios.

Speaking of music, the Rimworld soundtrack is amazing. It's best described as "Wild West in Space." Check it out if you like sound tracks.

Yeah it is, and p-music is great too. As for mods aiding development, I'm not sure how much code they actually contributed, but one thing modders definitely did was "field test" features (particularly QoL features/bug fixes) before they made it into vanilla. Mods also served as a kind of informal poll for what existing customers wanted in the game.

I'm a huge fan of the developer's approach actually. IIRC, he's talked about how he only goes for features that offer the maximum benefit for the development time required, and how he would readily drop work features that were taking too long. Quite a few EA games get bogged down in development hell trying to implement things that are way beyond the developer's capabilities, and I think many could learn from his more practical approach.
 

M76

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Well it's no surprise early access is a get away with never finishing a game card. You can literally collect money for an unfinished product, then what would be the incentive to make a final release?
 

DNMock

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Well it's no surprise early access is a get away with never finishing a game card. You can literally collect money for an unfinished product, then what would be the incentive to make a final release?
With the exception of shovelware type stuff, I would have to imagine the amount of time and effort needed to start and run a studio long enough to get to the early access point would be considerable enough that using early access as a cash grab then cutting ties just wouldn't be cost effective.

Finishing off the game, growing your fan base and moving on to the sequel/next project seems like the more likely course of action.

edit: with the exception of star citizen...
 

katanaD

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my only real complaint against early access is the long beta testing of a game. I dont have the time to do that anymore, just want a game thats "finished" which means often nowadays, LOL, having to wait some time after release for the patches to make it "complete"
 

M76

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With the exception of shovelware type stuff, I would have to imagine the amount of time and effort needed to start and run a studio long enough to get to the early access point would be considerable enough that using early access as a cash grab then cutting ties just wouldn't be cost effective.

Finishing off the game, growing your fan base and moving on to the sequel/next project seems like the more likely course of action.

edit: with the exception of star citizen...
Like Ark developers did with Atlas? Putting out a mod of their old early access title as a new title? No, I think early access is as good as development hell. Once a game goes early access it's a very slim chance that it will ever become a complete game that you'd expect from a final product. They are kept in early access for so long that most become outdated before they get a release, and the devs focus on adding new content to keep existing players interested instead of actually focusing on finalizing the game. Early access is a catch 22.
 

lucidrenegade

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Like Ark developers did with Atlas? Putting out a mod of their old early access title as a new title? No, I think early access is as good as development hell. Once a game goes early access it's a very slim chance that it will ever become a complete game that you'd expect from a final product. They are kept in early access for so long that most become outdated before they get a release, and the devs focus on adding new content to keep existing players interested instead of actually focusing on finalizing the game. Early access is a catch 22.

The team behind Ark and Atlas are sketchy as hell. Releasing a paid expansion for Ark when the game wasn't even out of early access yet is pretty pathetic.
 

ryno9100

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With the exception of shovelware type stuff, I would have to imagine the amount of time and effort needed to start and run a studio long enough to get to the early access point would be considerable enough that using early access as a cash grab then cutting ties just wouldn't be cost effective.

Finishing off the game, growing your fan base and moving on to the sequel/next project seems like the more likely course of action.

edit: with the exception of star citizen...

The issue is that most of the bad games are exactly that. Shovelware. Use someone else's engine, someone else's assets and someone else's code, smash them all together into some semblance of a "game" just long enough to make a trailer and a few screenshots, sell the game on promises of better stuff in the future, and respond to all criticism with "but it's early access."
 

defaultluser

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I don't usually do Early Access, but I backed CrossCode as Early Access two years before it's final release.

I only jumped in because the game had a top-notch free demo, and after buying it, I could see the game was already well on it's way to being complete.

I've spent the last four months playing the final release from start to finish, and had a ton of fun . Well worth the $20 investment.

As long as you do your due diligence before you give them money (or you check out the current state of the game in your 2 hour demo time before you have to return it), it can be a worthwhile system for funding new games.
 

hurleybird

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I'm a huge fan of the developer's approach actually. IIRC, he's talked about how he only goes for features that offer the maximum benefit for the development time required, and how he would readily drop work features that were taking too long. Quite a few EA games get bogged down in development hell trying to implement things that are way beyond the developer's capabilities, and I think many could learn from his more practical approach.

Heh, while I wouldn't say that I'm in development hell, I've certainly been guilty about focusing on minutia in my own project.

The other side of the coin is if you go too far too fast and your game is complex you can often just end up with a buggy, hard to maintain mess.

When I do my KS in a couple of months-ish time, I'm releasing the current closed beta development build, close to four years effort, entirely fully featured albeit plastered with KS links, for free. Too many of these projects, whether or not they intended to, have abused the goodwill of their customers, and that's the best way I can think of to try to rectify that.
 

steakman1971

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I've bought a few early access games - but in general its something I'm really wanting and I *think* will cross the finish line. Same with Kickstarter, I will occasionally back a game from a developer I like. However, I usually do not play the unfinished game.
I don't have a lot of free time, and I really want to enjoy a finished product. I don't have to be a beta tester.
 

AlphaAtlas

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Heh, while I wouldn't say that I'm in development hell, I've certainly been guilty about focusing on minutia in my own project.

The other side of the coin is if you go too far too fast and your game is complex you can often just end up with a buggy, hard to maintain mess.

When I do my KS in a couple of months-ish time, I'm releasing the current closed beta development build, close to four years effort, entirely fully featured albeit plastered with KS links, for free. Too many of these projects, whether or not they intended to, have abused the goodwill of their customers, and that's the best way I can think of to try to rectify that.

Yeah, I've certainly gotten bogged down with specific things too...

And that's the way to do it. If you're looking for an even more extreme example of open, communicative development, all of Barotrauma's code is hosted on GitHub:

https://github.com/Regalis11/Barotrauma/

The license means you can't just fork or repackage it, as it's not truly "open source." But still, the entire game and every single modification the dev makes is out there in the nude for anyone to see. IIRC the dev gave a presentation on his approach at some development conference, and claimed it worked pretty well so far.

EDIT: I'm not suggesting you go open source, but it is an interesting approach to EA development.
 

Olle P

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From a consumer's point of view my experience is that Early Access typically gives you an okay game at a low price. I typically enter late in the Early Access and don't bother whether it reaches "release" status or not. KSP, for example, didn't seem any different in version 1.1 vs 0.9,

From the serious developer's view I think it might even hurt overall income, since the early sales are at a lower price point, and that covers a significant part (majority?) of the customers.
What could be good for all is to have early access available at a low cost, but when the game is officially released those with early access are given a choice to either pay a bit more to get the released version (so that early access plus additional fee is still less than the release price) or get stuck with the last Beta. That should provide an incentive for developers to finish their products, but will of course also inspire to premature releases...
 

Gman1979

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KSP was the best gamble I spent money on back in early access. I've gotten ages of playtime and dicking around out of it.
 

rudy

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Humans are funny creatures and that's part of the issue. The question is do you get enjoyment for the money you spent. My favority example is PUBG, honestly I thought more people were having more fun when the game was a shit show alpha than they are now with it. People set different expectations for an unfinished product and seem to even enjoy the bugs, glitches and even think the cheaters are funny, lots of people I saw definitely got their $30 out of PUBG when it was a mess. But over time they forgot about all that fun they had and their expectations went up. Same goes for lots of early release games. I think more companies need to just have a much more limited scope to what they claim they will make for a finished product. Think about games like LOL they only have one map people, ONE MAP. Then they are able to roll out updates IF and ONLY IF the game continues to generate money. new heros, new cosmetics.
 
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