Early Access: Will it Help or Hurt Your Game?
April 13, 2020

Steam’s Early Access program provides a wealth of unfinished, usually cheaper titles available for purchase long before their official release. The program is popular with indie and mid-tier developers, but many big-name companies also participate, including EA.

Not all games are destined for success in Early Access, however. Some fail miserably on the platform and their reputations never recover. Others simply aren’t a good fit for pre-release access.

Early Access is a tricky platform, but there are ways to do it right. Below we discuss the pros and cons of releasing games on Early Access along with tips on how to maximize your chances of success if you do put it to use.

What is Early Access?

Early Access is a program where game developers can release early builds of their titles for the public to purchase. These aren’t demos or simple pre-orders, they’re unfinished, unpolished, and sometimes buggy alpha and beta versions of a game that’s still a work in progress.

When customers buy an Early Access game they get to play current and all future builds. They’re also entitled to the final version of the game once it releases. 

Most players who participate in Early Access purchases develop a sense of ownership from the moment they hit the buy button. They offer feedback and suggestions the developers often add to the final build. This creates a sense of ownership and helps turn one-time buyers into lifelong customers.

Advantages of Early Access for Developers

The most obvious advantage of releasing a game on Early Access is the ability to engage in public beta testing. Developers can collect valuable feedback from Early Access buyers before the game’s final launch, saving the studio both time and money fixing major issues after release.

MoonQuest developer Ben Porter shared a few thoughts about his game’s time on Early Access:

“I see Early Access as just a public beta test, so it’s cool that people are into that. I had a bunch of testers buy and play the game and give great feedback that improved the game. At that point I had been working on the game for about 6 years.”

The marketing potential of releasing on Early Access can’t be ignored, either. More eyes will be on your game if you take this route, and if there’s something uniquely entertaining about it, word will spread. Steam users are likely to wishlist your game even if they don’t buy it outright, which adds to the potential pool of customers once you release.

Even if your game stays in Early Access for long periods of time it can still benefit from accumulated hype. For example, the number of concurrent players and Twitch viewers skyrocketed when Besiege released after 5 years in Early Access.

The Early Access market is extremely volatile and unpredictable. One rocky launch could cause irreparable financial ruin for your game or studio. Steam specifically warns against using Early Access solely for generating income.

Without any player feedback, testing, or the QA you’d get from an Early Access launch, it’s hard to gauge whether your game will sell successfully. That’s why it’s a good idea to softly launch an alpha or beta build of your game in Early Access first, gather feedback and fix bugs, then use all of the above to prepare for a successful launch.

There are a few examples of ultra-successful Early Access runs, but they’re exceptions, not the rule. While it’s possible your game might earn as much as DayZ did during Early Access, don’t count on this being your platform to success.

Drawbacks for Developers using Early Access

Unfortunately, Early Access has its own reputation, and if you choose to release here first, some of that reputation might rub off onto your title. A lot of shovelware and low-quality asset flips dominate Early Access from time to time. Many players see the platform as a haven for these throwaway titles. If you don’t separate your game from the rest, people may subconsciously label your game as just another cash grab.

While you might be months or years away from official release, remember your Early Access customers still expect updates and bug fixes. They’re doing your dirty work by testing the game and it’s your job to fix bugs as they arise, otherwise the public will start to lose interest. Worse still, unresponsive developers during Early Access can lead to a complete loss of trust. It isn’t easy to fix a bad reputation after years of ignoring community feedback.

Going with Early Access also runs the risk of stealing momentum from your official release. If you have a rocky pre-release launch, you aren’t able to address community feedback, or business concerns slow development, you run the very real risk of players ignoring your game. Keep in mind you’re charging a discounted price during Early Access but you’ll be asking full price at launch. You want to maximize buyers at release.

Early Access also might be a bad thematic fit for your game. Simon of Legends of the Traveler mentions why he chose the crowdsourcing route over Early Access: “Our game was very story-driven, so there wouldn’t be a point at all for early access.“ In this case, releasing early would essentially just spoil the game and directly subtract from launch sales.

Wolcen: Lords of Mayhem, on the other hand, found success in Early Access as a story-driven game. Its developers started with a Kickstarter campaign in mid-2015 and released on Early Access early the next year. Their trick was to only offer a limited number of chapters during this period, almost like releasing a demo. Players had the chance to experience the game’s mechanics without spoiling the story. This allowed some speculation and anticipation for Wolcen’s official launch in February of 2020.

When to Release on Early Access

If you’ve decided that Early Access is a good fit for your game, there are some considerations you can keep in mind to maximize your chances of success. As with many things in life and business, timing is critical.

Early Access is meant for games in the alpha or beta stages. A nearly-complete game won’t fare-well, and it would remove many of the beta testing benefits you would otherwise receive. Customers actually expect significant changes during Early Access. If your game is almost finished, releasing here could cement your reputation as a developer that ignores community feedback.

At the same time, releasing an early pre-alpha build won’t work very well, either. Your game needs to have enough substance to get people excited about it. If it’s unplayable you’ll set a bad first impression that might jeopardize your launch. You also won’t receive enough feedback at this stage to make it worth your time. People can’t offer substantial advice if they only have a proof-of-concept to work with.

Simon, Creative Director of Legends of the Traveler, chose to avoid Early Access while his game was under-developed:

“When we were looking at funding options, we just had the framework of the game. Nothing to show for it, only a few visuals and a plan. We didn’t want to disappoint people with something they might not be able to enjoy. We wanted to be honest.”

Similar to a real launch of a finished game, try to avoid releasing your Early Access title alongside AAA debuts. Aim for the slow months, in-between release cycles and holidays, when people have extra time and cash to spend on less polished games.

When to Leave Early Access

Some games sit successfully in Early Access for years. DayZ, for example, was in Early Access from December 16, 2013, to December 13, 2018, only a few days under five years. Before its official release, DayZ sold a whopping 4 million copies.

MoonQuest’s Ben Porter says that sales during Early Access will likely be higher than the official release of the game. Both Ben and Remy of Snake-Eye Studios agree on this point, stating it’s the only way some small indie games have a chance to get made.

So, why launch at all? Why not stay in Early Access with no real pressure to launch before a hard deadline?

Remy mentions that staying in Early Access for long periods of time is a bad idea:

”Players pay to be testers of an unfinished product which is constantly in a state of flux. It’s often an excuse for not knowing what you are doing, both in terms of project management and with the game design. A lot of games in Early Access are just immature projects launching too soon.”

And it shows, too. DayZ’s review section on Steam has 82,000 negative reviews. The comments largely complain that even after seven years of development, many fundamental problems with the game are still unfixed. While it might seem like Early Access has less pressure than an official launch, at the end of the day people will have paid for a product they believed would eventually be worth their money. If it doesn’t turn out that way, you can expect to hear about it.

As you can see, choosing the right time to leave Early Access is tricky. Exiting too late or too early can damage your reputation and your game, and you may never recover from that hit. You also miss out on valuable feedback if you mismanage your release date.

The best advice we can offer is to carefully consider the state of your game and what work is left to do before going gold. Pay close attention to the reception of your game, implement feedback, and only release a finished product that will make your early players happy.

Alternatives to Early Access

Don’t worry if you’ve come to the conclusion that Early Access isn’t right for you. It’s a tricky platform to tackle, and with your game’s success on the line, you’re better to be safe than sorry. But what can you do to still capture the interest of early adopters, gather feedback, and market your game early?

Crowdsourcing is one viable alternative to Early Access. Launching a crowdsourcing campaign and providing a demo as one of your milestones is a great way to drum up attention and get constructive criticism before launch, all while generating income at the same time. You’ll have a similar time window to what you would have with Early Access, just structured differently. With a demo you cherry pick what people can experience, so you can save your full story for the official launch down the line.

Posting your builds on indie-friendly sites like itch.io is a great way to get your game out there. Release a demo, prototype, or proof-of-concept, and watch the comments pour in. That way there’s less at stake with the full launch of your game, and it’s a perfectly safe way to test the waters.

Celeste, the uber-popular platformer created by Matt Thorsen and Noel Berry, started out as a Pico-8 standalone on the Pico-8 forums. Carried by the amazing support shown for the standalone game, Celeste was eventually realized as a full-fledged game that officially launched on January 25th, 2018. Matt revealed on Twitter that the game had reached over 500,000 total sales by December 2018. Not bad for what was once a proof-of-concept platformer made in only 4 days.

Conclusion

Early Access is great for games that meet the following criteria:

  • You have a solid alpha or beta build with mechanics that are polished enough to take full advantage of testing.
  • You’re early enough in the development cycle to implement player feedback, but far enough in to show that your game has promise.
  • You don’t need additional funding if your launch is quiet, but you would be able to hire more staff, pay for better assets, and other opportunities presented by an early injection of capital.

Don’t rely on Early Access to fund your game, but do look at the platform as a potential avenue for additional income. Make sure you’re ready to implement feedback in order to keep interest in your game high until the official launch. Make sure your game is playable and professional to garner positive attention and stand out from the rest, but don’t release a finished game either. Be aware of the potential PR nightmares often attributed to a rocky Early Access launch, but don’t expect to ride the wave of a good launch either.

Games like Minecraft, Starbound, Subnautica, PUBG, and Darkest Dungeon were all born in some version of Early Access, but many more have failed on the same platform. Early Access isn’t for everyone, but if you do it right,

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