Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Early Access Games

So a few years ago I stumbled onto Steam and their "Green Light" program which then introduced the concept of Early Access support for game developers. At the time I was gainfully employed and I would peruse the offerings, reading descriptions and comments and opting into the odd game here and there. This began my "adventure" of supporting these not quite ready for release games. Over the years I have supported quite a few developers and witnessed the drama, if you will, around games that failed or not quite lived up to expectations which is kind of what I want to address here.

It's very common to see two types of persons who buy into early access and they really are two ends of a spectrum. There are what I call the "True Believers", those who support the game development and defend it vehemently and then there are the "Jilted Lovers", those who had unrealistic expectations and turn against the developers and their supporters, because they feel they have been taken advantage of due to the early release not living up to their expectations. The problem with both camps is not the developers or the games, rather it is firmly with people that gravitate to either end of the spectrum. As an example I'll offer up the drama surrounding No Man's Sky.

When the developers of No Man's Sky started showing off what they were working on people went crazy. Mainly, they were showing off:

1) Their visuals, which were pretty amazing.
2) The fact that they were using procedural algorithms to generate the worlds.
3) Some of the systems you might see in the game at release.

So, people started reading into these demonstrations all sorts of crazy crap, (my personal observation), and expounding upon expected features not confirmed by the developers. From there things just got, well, bat-crap crazy. The most cited point was that people expected some kind of full multiplayer experience and at no time did the developer promise that. The closest they got was to say that you may not see another player, but you might see signs that they had been where you are. That's all. What ensued at release was a vitriol laced exchange between the above camps on various forums and Reddit. it was truly toxic and I'll admit that for a time I was tempted to side with one of the groups until my better nature kicked in.

As a person of Science I decided to continue to support the game and just experience it for myself, then I'd make judgments based on my experience and not let bias in. I am glad I did as I thoroughly enjoyed the game and have continued to do so as new content is added, which brings me around to the point of this diatribe.

I think that there are a couple of things that people need to understand about Early Access, and do when seeing something that interests them, which includes kick-starting, etc and that is:

Read for comprehension: It seems to me that this is becoming a lost art in today's society. I see a disturbing tendency for folks to read something and come away with different information that is what was in the thing they read. In the context of this article it applies to Early Access. (gonna abbreviate that to EA from now on), yet I encounter it in all subject areas. Even more disturbing is that people will see a picture or three and come away with all sorts of weird conclusions. People really need to consider what is written or shown and take things at face value.

Consider Realities: It would benefit people who are interested in EA games to learn a little about the development process, particularly with respect to how it is funded and financially supported. I come from the development world, so I do understand that is all you are doing is working on the game, or any other project, you gotta eat. If you can get a funder into a project to give you money to work on it, that's great, but you are then working for them and they want a return on their investment, so the pressure is on to release. I've personally witnessed a few projects collapsing because the funders don't want you to make something good, they want their profit and force a release that's crap hoping to make their money back on initial release sales. Once that's done they don't care if the project fails, they've made their ROI, (Return On Investment), your dev team's name is now mud and left to try and salvage the mess.

The other route is to have a real job and work on the game when you can which means that your best hours are taken up making a living and you are really not at your best while building your dream. This leads to extended development time, generally lackluster communications with fans and the stress of juggling job, development, and life in general leading to burnout. Been there and done that. The chances for project failure are greatest in this case so the developers are likely to be forced to make some quality of life decisions and start focusing on things that are really important in life like family and friends. I think that this is why some EA developers seem to vanish either entirely or for a time. So if you toss 20 bucks at an EA game idea and this happens, have a little empathy.

Visions Change: The overall concept of a game generally won't change in broad terms, however the details might and often do for a whole host of reasons. People need to understand that during development the team can run into technological problems which may change the details, or there may be other reasons such as some aspect just being too ambitious or unsolvable. These are things commonly encountered. An example may be, say in a space game, where the initial promise is a fully activate universe with thousands of star systems that are fully automated all the time. Nice concept, easy to get the SciFi fan in me salivating and technically possible. One problem: the devs find out that with current technology you need a $10,000 computer to pull it off. Oops! So now they need to scale back the promise. It happens and doesn't mean the game is going to be bad. No developer likes to have to go back to the fans and deliver this kind of news, so you have to hand it to them in some ways if they are brave enough to tell their supporters this kind of thing rather than ignore it until release. IMHO it is better to admit being over ambitious and tell people than to just sweep it under the rug and people need to recognize that.

Don't spend what you cannot afford: Actually a good thing to keep in mind for all things whether it be money, goods or emotional investment. When considering to support an EA game, really consider how much you are willing to invest. If it's a Kickstarter-type thing or something else, I'd say that you should consider the money a gift to the developers and not expect anything in return. Remember, you are supporting the developers not buying a product. Yes, the devs will often offer the product for your "donation", but get the idea in your head that you are not to expect it. projects fail in spite of the best of intentions.

Be a little Skeptical: By this I mean following the old adage of "if it's too good to be true then it probably isn't." If a dev is offering up the most fantastical thing, resist the urge to throw your precious cash at them and have some patience. It's easy to become overwhelmed and excited by something that promises to be the "perfect game" for you, so you open your wallet and start tossing coin at the studio. If you get this way, take a breath, go have a burrito or something and re-examine what they seem to be offering then ask yourself if it borders on the "too good to be true" area or not. Better yet, just wait and see what else they present. I have experienced this recently with Dual Universe. They seem to be on track and I am very excited for it, however I cannot really afford to buy into the alpha, so I force myself to calm down and wait. I follow their development when I can and repeat the cycle of excitement, calming down and continue to wait. It looks like the "perfect" game for me, but it may not be so I restrain myself and wait for release.

Learn Patience: Following from the above is learning to have some patience, which I guess is a good thing to learn for all aspects of life. Once you have learned to be patient about some things, life seems to be less stressful and more enjoyable allowing you to focus on the things that give you satisfaction and pleasure. Being excited and wanting it NOW are really not the same thing, you can be intensely interested in a game idea and have the patience to wait for it to become more than an idea at the same time.

So that's my take on the people who get into the "drama" around EA games and game ideas and what I think people who look at these things need to consider. Sure there are going to be "fly by night" developers looking for a quick buck and not producing anything, and there are going to be the odd group who go to EA with an idea but are not really prepared to develop a game, however I think those are rare and not the norm. I have seen enough of the development world in other realms of software development to lead me to think that most projects are sincere and begun with the full intention on delivering their vision.

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