In this week's edition of the Etch Play blog, we're going to be looking at Early Access, and whether this could be the right approach for you.
What is Early Access?
If your game is in a playable state, but perhaps not feature complete, you may opt for what is commonly referred to as an Early Access release. What this means is, you are able to release your game to the public, giving the community a chance to play, as the title continues to be developed. Early Access is the name Steam gives it's programme which enables developers to do this, but you may have also heard it referred to as a "Game Preview" on Xbox.
Early Access games aren't free - players pay for the chance to play these games early and take part in what is essentially an Alpha or Beta test version. It benefits the developers, as they are able to gain valuable feedback from real players who are invested enough to pay for the game, and players are able to get their hands on upcoming games much earlier.
The Early Access programme launched on Steam in 2013, which saw 12 games being made available. That number has ballooned since. In 2021, roughly 10-15% of the nearly 11,000 games released on Steam were in Early Access, according to SteamDB. This growth shows how valuable developers clearly find the programme.
The idea is that the programme allows developers to create better games, by gaining a greater understanding of what their players do and don't like about their game during the creative process. That means the developers have a greater chance at a successful game, and players have a greater chance of getting a fully-released game that they're going to love. Win-Win!
What Early Access is not
As great as this programme sounds, and is, before we all start getting too carried away and rushing to put every game into Early Access, it's worth noting what the programme is not - as it is won't be right for every game.
Although Early Access does provide an opportunity to generate revenue, it isn't intended to be a way of getting people to pre-purchase your game, or to crowdfund the development. I'm not going to sit here and tell you that bringing in some revenue during development isn't helpful, but if that's your only reason for going onto Early Access, then maybe you shouldn't. By going onto Early Access you are essentially asking players to put their trust in you that you will eventually deliver a finished product, and if the fate of your game is reliant on Early Access sales to keep the lights on, can you in good faith commit to ending up with a finished product for the people who have bought in?
Steam has put in place specific rules around Early Access, encouraging developers not to promise anything specific about the future of the game. Players need to understand that they're buying the game in its current unfinished state, but with the understanding that the game will continue to be developed.
By its very nature, this programme is designed to allow developers to fine-tune and tweak their game based on feedback. So if you start promising exact features and specific release dates in the distant future, you're opening yourself up to scrutiny. How could you know that you're not going to change aspects of your roadmap when more feedback rolls in? Although it is hard to enforce, Steam also lists a rule about setting player expectations, and the need for transparency throughout the process. Developers shouldn't be putting a game on Early Access and disappearing without providing regular updates to their players about what is happening with the development.
As discussed above, the beauty of Early Access is that you can get players to play your game, and help in the development process by providing feedback on how you can improve the experience. That said, it is not intended to be a platform for QA and ironing out bugs. The intention is to get your unfinished product in front of players so they can start to experience the game as it's developed, and shape the game that it becomes.
So although bugs are somewhat to be expected, you therefore must have your game in a playable state before releasing it to Early Access. To be honest, if you try and use this programme to replace the QA function of your development team, you're only going to be hurting your future sales of the game. Players will soon become wise and not want to play an Early Access game considered unplayable, and may lose confidence that your full-release will be the quality that it should be. Rough edges are allowed. But the sanding down shouldn't seem like an enormous undertaking.
Also, if you're taking your first steps on a new project, and wanting to test out a concept, or to figure out what will make your game fun, without reaching a playable state - then going down a different avenue to collect that data is the way to go.
What makes a good Early Access game?
As you are trying to collect feedback and data throughout the Early Access process, having a "streamable" game can be really helpful. Getting your game in the hands of players who are active on Twitch can be a help in spreading the word about your title, so not only can you pick up feedback from those playing the Early Access game, but also anecdotal feedback and opinions from the comments of people watching your game being played. Having your game streamed while in Early Access can also help your community to grow, and increase your pool of players, those who already warmed up and aware of the game, when you are ready to put bigger spend behind full release marketing.
Another consideration of whether Early Access is right for you, is the genre of game that you're making. For example, a linear puzzle game is likely not the best candidate for Early Access, as those titles are more likely a one play through experience for most players. So unless you plan on adding a lot of extra content through the Early Access process, then maybe it's not right for that. On the flip side, roguelikes and run-based games are a good fit for Early Access, as are sandbox games as these genres are likely to benefit more from repeated plays and more thorough exploration over time.
Darkest Dungeon, a turn-based RPG roguelike, was an OG early access hit in 2015, ranked amongst top 20 best sellers on Steam. "This [Early access] gave us an instant audience to help give feedback on the game, and also gave a much-needed financial boost,” Tyler Sigman, co-founder of Red Hook Studios told Axios in an interview.
More recently we have seen the likes of Hades and Valheim perform really well through Early Access, the latter of which is actually still yet to have its full release. Valheim sold 3 million copies in less than a week when it first entered Early Access, and went on to sell over 10 million! Not a bad advert for the programme if you ask me.
In even more recent times, another game that rode the Early Access wave fantastically well is PowerWash Simulator from FuturLab. People were so excited for this game and when it launched in July of this year, because it had built up such a great following and reputation during it's time on Early Access. When the time came for the full release, it was featured on the Steam homepage, ranked highly on the top seller list, and amassed thousands of overwhelmingly positive reviews - pretty good right? PowerWash Simulator spent just over a year on Early Access, starting on 19th May 2021 and launching on 14th July this year .
Building a community through Early Access
A massive advantage of going onto Early Access is that you can build a thriving community for your game prior to full release. It is possible to do this without Early Access of course, but having people actually being able to play your game is a big help when growing that community, as well as when keeping it active and engaged.
However, it can't be understated how much work this requires. If you go onto Early Access, you are asking players to buy your game before it's finished, so you owe them to a degree - they deserve, per Steam's rules, to be kept updated with what's going on. That means being present in forums, providing dev diaries, being active in Discord servers, and on social networks like Twitter. Basically what I'm saying is, you're likely going to need a Community Manager!
Chances are, going into Early Access may actually slow down your development and delay your pencilled-in release date plans, but overall it could be worth it, as you'll have got so much valuable information from your players. And if you've done it right, you'll also have a well-engaged group of evangelists who are ready to shout your praises and spread the good word once your game fully releases.
Early Access Pricing and Marketing
If you do decide that you are going to go down the Early Access route, you will need to consider your pricing strategy. You must bear in mind that you are essentially selling an incomplete game, but also consider what your full release price is planned to be. You may struggle to get Early Access players if you pitch your game price too high. And if you go too low, you may get a huge Early Access following, but eat deeper into your full-price paying audience before the game is at that stage. Do some research around price points for similar games to yours, both that are in Early Access, and have had a full release. That will give you a good idea of what your potential players are likely willing to pay at each stage, to ensure you can remain competitive.
What you may not know, is that with Early Access, you can still take part in sales events and offer discounts on your game. Essentially you can treat your Early Access release like a full release, as long as you and your players continue to bear in mind that the game is not complete. That means you can, and should, market your game as much as you can. The more feedback you can generate, the more you will get out of the programme. As long as you follow the guidance that Steam provides, and you make clear what players should expect from your Early Access title, there is no issue in marketing the game.
Steam requires as a minimum that you have a trailer that includes gameplay, so you should have that in your arsenal already to share on socials and use in advertising campaigns. Producing dev diaries, be that through blogs or videos, can be key beats in your marketing plan. They not only keep current players informed, but also equip them with content to share to their friendship groups, to get the word out to more players.
When your game is in Early Access, although not the full release, it is still released, so you should also be prepared with your full strategy for marketing it. As we said earlier, over a thousand games a year are now released on Early Access, along with the other 10 thousand full releases. You won't get much traction if you aren't ready to market your Early Access release.
Is Early Access right for you?
That is the million-dollar question. There are loads of great reasons to enter Early Access, so it is definitely something worth considering if you feel like you're game ticks a lot of the required boxes for the programme. It isn't something to be taken lightly, as this is still a public release for your game. It shouldn't be done on a whim. It's the first look players are really getting at your game, and getting to go hands-on with it, so make sure you're ready and go about it the right way.
If you want to talk more about whether Early Access is right for you, or you're ready to get started but not sure how to go about marketing it, then get in touch and we'd love to help you out!