Once Bitten, Twice Shy: The Psychology of Early Access
By Isaac Smith
We’ve all done it: preordered a game, or bought something in early access. Like sirens singing their beautiful songs, the amazing adverts, good reviews and developer interviews goad us into supporting something that just doesn’t deliver.
And hell hath no fury like ten thousand jilted neckbeards writing Steam reviews for No Man’s Sky.
I’ve been on the player side of getting scammed by preorders and early access games that aren’t worth their weight in platypus dung, but I thought I’d take a step back and explore the reasoning behind this god-awful practice that sends more games (and studios) to the indie graveyard than an EA talent scout.
Never have I developed a successful game for any platform. I’ve been involved in the development process for many games, and I’ve always been more interested in the people who make them than the people who play them (sorry, Game Grumps). Because the Early Access/Preorder phenomenon has such a terrible track record, there’s got to be a pretty tempting reason for developers to pursue such a risky option. If I think very hard, I’m sure I’ll discover what it is.
Wait, it’s money!
Okay, now that we’ve established the elusive cause of developers haphazardly releasing unfinished games to a bloodthirsty public, let’s talk about why it’s so deadly.
Early Access vs. Open Beta
Anyone who’s read my writing knows that Minecraft is my gold standard for the development of games. Believe it or not, they had an “early access”, selling their incomplete game for several years before the full version 1.0 came out.
But they labeled it an “open beta”. (For the uninitiated, the “beta” is the second phase of playtesting a game, to fine-tune balance, receive user feedback and correct more insidious bugs). Okay, read that parenthetical sentence again, even if you think you know what “beta testing” really is. The benefits of beta testing are all on the developer side of the relationship. You distribute your game in order to make it better. Even though people are paying for it, you’re the one reaping the benefits of their support and involvement, because you get information and feedback from a large number of people to help make your game more polished! (Which, in turn, is a huge benefit to the people playing it. Hooray!)
“Early access.” The language they use to describe what’s essentially the exact same process that Minecraft employed makes it sound like the developers are giving the users a gift. “We know you want it, so have it early!” This is dangerous for quite a few reasons.
First, you’re getting rewarded for work you haven’t done. You may think that money doesn’t motivate you (and that’s a good attitude to have, because your game isn’t going to make you any money). But in the end, not having the carrot at the end of the stick saps the driving force many devs need to push through the final few steps and put out a polished, completed game.
Second, you’re tricking yourself into thinking that it’s a reward at all. It’s an investment. If a friend trusted you enough to pay you for work you haven’t done, you know that it would irreparably damage your relationship to flake out and neglect the work. The same relationship applies, but with thousands of faceless internet people who have the power to bury your studio so deep that Gabe Newell and a backhoe couldn’t get it out of the ground.
Foolish developers don’t use the information and money their players give them as a resource to improve the game that they profess to be working on. It’s an easy mistake for rookie devs to make, and it has killed several promising studios this year.
Third, you’re giving a product to people. Read Steam Early Access reviews. They are nearly never full endorsements of the game, they are nearly never recommendations to purchase it. Those reviews don’t go away after your full game comes out, either. Maybe you want reviewers to go easy on you, so you put “Early Access” next to your fully playable game, but in the end, cautious optimism from your players about the potential of your game won’t sell, it won’t motivate you, and it won’t help the finished product. Don’t let people tell the world how they feel about your game until they’ve already had ample opportunity to inform you about it.
Pre-ordering vs. …Please Just Don’t Pre-order
All of the gentle things I’ve said to help people understand the viewpoint of game devs as they step into the career-devouring maw of Early Access do not apply to Triple-A studios who encourage users to pre-order.
Big studios are there to make money. They have a business model. They cannot directly control the absolute quality or reception of a game, so they build maximum hype to get back some of their bottom line before the game even has time to be panned by critics. It’s the equivalent of playing Blackjack, and then taking part of the pot before you’ve even flipped your cards.
EA: “Hey, dealer, I see your 21, and I reveal my 4 of spades, a coupon for a free tire wax, and an exploding kitten.”
Dealer: “You lose.”
EA: “Yeah, but I already took half of your winnings, sucka. Hope you enjoy the next SimCity!”
Even the allure of free, premium, or exclusive stuff that comes with a pre-order doesn’t mitigate the fact that those studios take advantage of your confidence that a game will be good, when they don’t even know themselves whether or not it will be (or worse, they know it will be bad but hype it anyway).
Scarcity is a thing of the past. You don’t have to wait in line at GameStop anymore to buy new games. The vast majority of new games are available digitally, and if they’re not, they’ll be available within a couple of days of their release (or sooner!). It’s worth waiting a couple of days to read the reviews and avoid paying 60 bucks for a shiny piece of poo.
I realize most of the people reading this are gamers, not devs. Maybe you understand their motivation a bit better, but what you should take away from this is:
Don’t pre-order. Don’t buy early access games.
The first is a vote of confidence that no Triple-A studio deserves. The second is an encouragement of a system which doesn’t benefit players or gamedevs.
“Be the change you want to see on the interwebz.” – Gandhi, probably