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What is Early Access?

cpluta profile image Chris Pluta ・3 min read

As we develop games we normally go through several phases of development. These phases are:

  • An alpha build is a rough concept of the game. Your game is not stable and still being worked on, missing features and critical holes need to be fixed.
  • A beta build has all expected features to be completed but still has minor issues. You may opt to offer a closed-beta or open-beta format to get end user feedback.
  • A release candidate is the final product meant for players. Everything is polished and looking like gold.

When I say closed vs open is whether there is barrier to entry for access. This barrier might be a generated code, invitation or something else limiting access.

What is Early Access and how does it fit into my development cycle?

My understanding of Early Access is you are monetizing your pre-release candidate builds to help fund your project. This also means you're either providing an open-alpha or open-beta of your game.

The way I’ve seen Early Access used in the Indie Game Developer space is usually a way to gain some funding while getting feedback from their players to help tune their games features.

Personally, when I see Early Access as a developer, I see it as a way to iterate my idea and get a pulse on what is or isn’t working. As a consumer, I want to support my project before release to finalize anything that might be wrong to be polished and I’m ok with that.

In my mind there are two games that challenge the idea of Early Access and what does it mean for development. They are Star Citizen and No Man’s Sky. Personally, I have not played either of these games, however, I have talked with friends about them each and read the headlines about them as well.

In the case of Star Citizen, as of 5/26/2020, they are still in Early Access. They have been in alpha since 2011, and because of increased funding they are still in alpha adding more and more features.

In the case of No Man’s Sky it was released in 2016, without Early Access. The news around the game now from fans is that where it’s at today is where the game should have been 4 years ago. Throughout that time, they have been iterating and adding new features to the game to provide better value for the player.

In the case of No Man’s Sky I saw a release candidate, they got to a feature complete game with no bugs that could be released, however all features were not developed. For Star Citizen, they are expanding the scope of their project yet still calling it alpha and still have outstanding bugs to be addressed.

Is it fair to say that No Man’s Sky although it was a released game, was really in Early Access to achieve funding and feedback from players to create a better experience? Or to say Star Citizen is really in an alpha build if they are in Early Access for over 9 years?

In my mind it boils down to this question: Is Early Access a way just for monetization or is it really a change in our process in how we develop and get feedback?

Posted on Jun 11 by:

cpluta profile

Chris Pluta

@cpluta

Software developer by day, game maker by night. Co-Founder of Lets Build.

Discussion

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I think its a bit of both (monetization and a better process). Face it, games are expensive to make. If a studio can release a game that would not be considered ready for stores while still getting capital it's to their benefit to do so. The added benefit being you can leverage your community to discover desired features (or undesired features).

At the end of the day this is no different to how most companies approach general software development. Put the product in the hands of the customer early (before you are done) and get feedback. I think as long as developers don't oversell early access (aka No Man's Sky) then everyone benefits. For an example of this working well I would look at Super Giant Games and their game Hades.

 

I totally understand the cost of game development can be expensive. But your example seems mostly directed towards studios. However, does your opinion change in the case of individual indie devs? If an individual spends years developing a game but monetarily doesn't spend money (save for all that sweet sweet development time) then is it for money or feedback?

Also, the studio example means a level of exposure that individual or startup game developers lack, most of the time. So that could mean not only feedback but getting their name out there and game for the world to see.

 

I would still consider the time commitment a cost, but you are right, it does change the motive slightly. Perhaps that is why you don't see as many individual devs releasing "early access".