Yes, I know I’m hopelessly late with this update – but I’ve been busy
I do wish you all a happy 2014, and I promise that once Divinity:Original Sin is out, I’ll update my blog more frequently. For now however, my entries will be pretty sparse, just because I’m so swamped.
A thread started on our forums that I thought might be of interest because it touches on the topic of Steam Early Access, something I guess pretty much every developer is thinking of nowadays.
A player named Kamatsu argued against Divinity:Original Sin going on Steam Early Access based on the bad treatment Wasteland 2 was getting. The reason for starting the thread was a Eurogamer preview about Divinity:Original Sin in which it slipped that Larian might be planning to release Divinity:Original Sin on Steam Early Access.
I didn’t actually check how Wasteland 2 was doing but from watching a couple of let’s plays and reading some previews, my impression was that it was actually doing well. And its position in the Steam charts indicated to me that they were making quite some revenue too which I assume will in turn allow InXile to make their game even better.
Somehow however Kamatsu didn’t share my opinion about everything being fine & dandy.
He or she said that basically every new thread in the Wasteland 2 forums for the past weeks has been a complaint about it being a beta, about it being a so expensive for a beta, about people being sure that it’ll never get finished, that it should be free & that Steam Early Access is an invention of the devil. The others in the thread seemed to agree and concluded that Larian was never going to be so crazy as to contemplate Early Access.
Right - Larian was of course contemplating that very thing at the very moment that thread went up For a while there, I suspected somebody was using one of them NSA things on me.
Funnily enough, as I was going through that thread, a video from Jim Sterling went up in which the Jimquisition tackled Steam Early Access. The summary of it seemed to be that gamers should watch videos from youtubers and read previews to inform themselves before buying a game on Steam Early Access because clearly there were people in the games industry abusing the system. Which seems sensible to me (even if it came from someone making money with such videos & previews ) but no earth shattering insight.
Of course there are people that try to abuse a system like Early Access, just like there are games out there on Kickstarter that will never see the light of day and pre-order campaigns that lie through their teeth about what’ll be in the final game. You can’t have good things without bad things and it seems obvious to me that if you want to have safe sex, you should wear a condom. If you don’t want any bad surprises when buying a game, wait until it’s released, unless you want to support the developer or you want to have an impact on a game by giving early feedback. or you just can’t wait.
I thought all of that was something that was really obvious with Steam Early Access, but apparently it’s not .So I delved in and wrote a post in reply to Kamatsu and asked the Larian community to explain to me why there was so much complaining going on. Clearly I was missing something.
I argued that it seemed to me that every gamer should be pro the system. Just like Kickstarter, it opens up sources of funding which I wished were available when we did Divinity II or Divine Divinity. Those games would’ve benefited from that. (Well ok, maybe not considering that the decision would’ve been in the hands of the publishers, but still, it would’ve opened up possibilities where otherwise there were no possibilities, and that could’ve drastically changed the initial success of the games .)
I received a pretty good reply from a friendly weresheep named Robcat who quoted a reddit thread from a developer who listed the pros and cons of going on Early Access. I’ll quote said post here for convenience:
- More revenue now - In theory, launching on SEAG means an injection of cash right now.
- More exposure - Word of mouth marketing seems like it would get a shot in the arm, just from the increased number of people playing the game.
- Steam Front Page - Some SEAG games get front-page treatment, and that can be a huge marketing boost.
- More feedback before launch - Assuming you’re interested, more players means more feedback. And more feedback could lead to a better game.
- Bad First Impression - This is probably the biggest and most tangible risk I can think of. If your game isn’t ready, this is one way to let as many people know as possible. In many cases, first impressions stick, so this can be a rut that’s near impossible to get out of later.
- Player Misunderstanding - A different shade of the above, some players don’t “get” that SEAG is unfinished games, and will castigate devs for selling a “faulty” product. This can burn bridges with customers and create bad press.
- No Critical Mass - Many games become popular when enough people are talking about them simultaneously. Call it “going viral” or “10,000 fans” or whatever. Does SEAG diminish the “big spectacle” on launch day? Do we get two mediocre bangs instead of one big bang? Does that matter?
- Delayed Gold Launch - Integrating Steam during development takes time away from the game development process. If you’re planning on launching via Steam anyway, this risk is moot. However, the timing of this delay could be non-optimal (e.g. latest build has a bad bug, and next patch is delayed by SEAG integration efforts).
- Less revenue later(?) - Does the lifetime revenue get impacted by SEAG? Is there a chance that we’re choosing between 10 sales now with 10 sales later, versus 0 sales now and 100 later? This is just another implication of the “no critical mass” above, but is worth pointing out.
The author concluded that the pros were a known quantity, the cons an unknown quantity so it made sense to go ahead with launching his game on Steam Early Access. I concur, not only because of the pros, but also because I don’t think the cons are such a big deal.
The pros on this list are very big pros and speak for themselves. Feedback before release is worth gold, at least if you listen to it. Revenue in the final stages is worth gold because some horrible compromises don’t need to be made. Without it, the chances that you can actually listen to player feedback are lowered because making changes does cost money. And word of mouth, well that’s really what you’re after. That’s worth more than gold, which to be fair hasn’t been having such a good track record of late
So what about the cons?
Bad first impressions & player misunderstanding
The same risks of players having bad first impressions exist with any alpha/beta program and the benefits of actually having a lot of people participate in such programs far outweigh the negatives I think. Clear & honest communication about what to expect, like Day Z did, an early access game that’s been riding the top of the charts, seems to be the most important thing here.
Speaking for Larian, we’re releasing our game in alpha/beta state to all of our Kickstarter backers, and thus share our development process with them. That creates some confusion but in general it’s a gold mine of feedback. I don’t see why we should not extend that to the much larger community we have on Steam. The more feedback we can integrate, the higher the quality of the final game will be, and that will eventually shine through, just like I’m sure it will for Wasteland 2.
In reading through certain comments I noticed that a lot of people seem to be concerned that negative threads aimed against faults of an alpha/beta or against the fact that a game is on early access itself might influence future buyers. I’m an optimist so I don’t think that’ll necessarily be the case, first because I assume that our audience is smart enough to read through certain comments and second because you may not overestimate the impact of such threads. What matters at the end of the day is going to be the quality of the game – if it’s good, people will tell each other that it’s good.
It might also be worth pointing out here that as a developer at this stage we don’t really care about the form or tone in which we receive the feedback – what interests is how we can improve the gameplay experience. So if somebody writes something like “this is the worst game ever because you can’t change the turn-order. Larian designers are morons, XYZ did that so much better. ” we only remember – changing turn-order seem to be in demand.
In the same breath however I have to admit that I’m guilty of the same thing, criticising games that are on Steam Early Access. I have a few games that disappointed me in my Steam library, even if they shouldn’t have, and I’ve been vocal about it. As a developer I should know how fast seemingly big things can change for the better (and vice versa), but as a player that somehow doesn’t register.
So yes, some misunderstanding about what’s in an alpha or a beta is inevitable, but I think that as people play more of these early access games, it’s something that’ll correct itself over time and they’ll learn how to judge things. The same will apply to those reporters who are thinking of reviewing Steam Early Access titles just as if they were finished products, something I think is a pretty bad idea, for the aforementioned reason – they cannot possibly know what’s still going to change. That they review Steam Early Access titles is fine, but as an alpha or as a beta – not as a finished product.
No Critical Mass
Judging from my own limited experience and watching the Steam charts, I don’t think that’s a really big issue. Take Wasteland 2 for instance – it was a hit on Kickstarter, it was a hit on Steam when Early Access went up, it’ll be a hit when it launches. I’m pretty sure the same will apply to Day Z or Starbound. Or comparing it to pre-orders, which is the only thing I have experience with: Dragon Commander did very well during its preorders, but that didn’t stop it from going to number 1 in the charts on the day of its release and spending some quality time in the higher regions of the Steam charts.
Delayed Gold Launch
Everybody in this industry and beyond knows by now that it’s better to release it when it’s done, even if everybody keeps on sinning against the principle. Not really a con if it’s for a good reason.
Less revenue later
If you release it with feedback integrated, even at a later date, you will get more revenue, not less, because the game will be better for it and word of mouth will be better too. Larian is still in business after all these years partially because we’ve tried to integrate feedback post-factum into our games. If it’d been up to my publishers, nothing would’ve changed in our games and they’d be long forgotten. Selling games nowadays is about lifecycle management, not day 1 sales only.
That leaves me with little cons.
In our case you could add backer backlash because we’ve been on Kickstarter. But like I wrote in that forum thread, I can’t see an objective reason why there should be such backlash. Backers got Divinity:Original Sin at 25US$ + extras + plenty of exclusive extras at higher tiers. Our alpha is free to all backers. Given this, why would any backer feel upset if he sees the game on early access at a higher price point?
So I must be overlooking something given the amount of noise the internet is making about Early Access, but I don’t see it. If Kickstarter is ok, why isn’t Early Access ok? I would be grateful if somebody could point that out for me.
For the record: This does not necessarily mean that we will be releasing Divinity:Original Sin on Early Access. It’s fair to assume that we’re thinking very hard about it and even preparing for it, but honestly, no final irreversible decision on that has been made yet.