Over the last few years, early access games have evolved. Games are launching into early access more polished than ever before, and the line between unfinished early access games and "live service" games is increasingly blurred.
To find out more about how things have changed since Steam Early Access first started in 2013, I spoke to the developers of Darkest Dungeon, Baldur's Gate 3, Hades, Grounded and GTFO. They told me about the concerns and difficulties of launching a game after the first early access trailblazers, what they've learned about making games in public, and why they'd be happy to do it all again.
"We did really well in early access, our early access launch [in 2015] was actually bigger than our 1.0 launch, but the climate we were launching into early access in, early access was kinda on the fence," says Darkest Dungeon design director Tyler Sigman. "There had been a couple high-profile games that either didn't complete or midway through changed what they wanted to do because they weren't selling well. So there was actually a lot of discussion around that time asking if early access should even be a thing."
Those discussions weren't unfounded. While Steam Early Access birthed some real success stories - like Kerbal Space Program and Arma 3 - not every game from that time survived to see a full release. One example is Folk Tale, a once promising city builder that was left unfinished after its last update in March 2017. While its Steam page is still up, the game is no longer available to buy.
Even among the early access success stories, success looks different from game to game. Some early Early Access games have never left early access at all. Zombie survival game 7 Days To Die launched as an early access "alpha" in December 2013, and is still there nearly eight years later. People love it anyway, in part because its developers continue to release regular updates.
"I definitely think as an early access buyer you kinda need to understand that when you buy a game, it might never become more," says Sigman. "I think Valheim is a great example. If that never became more, it'd be super sad, but as it is I think it's well worth the 20 bucks. It's like backing a Kickstarter, like sometimes you know it may not happen."
"As an early access buyer you kinda need to understand that when you buy a game, it might never become more."
It's these games living for years under the early access banner that start to merge, to my mind, with 'live service' games, which receive frequent or seasonal updates with no set end point in sight. The main difference here is that live service games usually come with some sort of monetisation - loot boxes, battle passes and the like - while early access games are typically unfinished projects you make a one-off payment for. GTFO is an example of a more recent game that seems to blur those lines a little. It's a co-op horror shooter that came out in 2019, and its development seems pretty different from most other early access games.
"We introduce new content, new maps with tweaks on the enemies and different weapons. Then after a few months, we remove that content and replace it with new maps, new monsters, and there's a new sort of storyline to that," GTFO game designer and narrative director Simon Viklund tells me. "You can't play the previous one anymore, it's wiped forever. And that's not something that is tied to early access, that's how the game lives, even beyond early access."
Given the potential for these ongoing updates, I'm curious how developers decide when a game is ready for its full release. "The question of, 'are you working on the most important thing for this game?' can be a troubling one, because any aspect of a video game you could practically spend an infinite amount of time on," says Hades creative director Greg Kasavin. "Those decisions of, 'When do you move on? What should you be focused on?' are really hard."
For a story-driven roguelike such as Hades, it's easier to see where the comparison between early access and live service ends. The story has to stop somewhere, and now the game has left early access, Supergiant have no plans for major updates, though they give it minor patches with bug fixes from time to time.
If anything, it seems live service games are the ones more often mimicking early access, releasing games where developers expect to make changes post-release based on player feedback. Although when I posed the idea to Larian founder Sven Vincke, he told me that early access and live service games didn't remotely compare.
"The only thing you can compare is the ongoing development, but games-as-a-service has to finish things continuously, right?" he says. "Looking at early access, you should only join if you like being in a construction yard, because you're not going to get a finished thing here! We even reserve the right to change everything if we think it's better for the game, or if you tell us it's better for the game."
Over the last year or so, it's been tougher for developers to gather that feedback from players thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic. Constantly discussing the ins and outs of patch notes or trying to update players with detailed decisions can feel dehumanising when it's all done via a screen. Vincke tells me this year has been particularly difficult for him working on Baldur's Gate 3, because there's no face-to-face time with players.
"The thing I miss most right now is events, like PAX, where I can go sit next to a player and chat to them," he says. "I used to learn the most from those chats, that kind of feedback is invaluable. But that's happening less now, because if you open up a stream you instantly have so many people who jump on it, or you do a Q&A and it also becomes *boomf* [makes explosion gesture with arms]. It's like an avalanche."
Most early access developers I spoke to highlighted the importance of community management, particularly in response to the last year or so. With the world feeling as though it's more online than ever, having someone on the team who can act as a middleman between devs and fans has been vital. It's even more crucial for dev teams whose games have 'blown up' with a surprising influx of players.
"The first month after launch was like, 'Oh my god, we did it! We're gonna be ok!' And then all of a sudden it was like, 'Oh. Oh we really did it. And now we have all this extra crazy work that has nothing to do with producing the actual game,'" Darkest Dungeon creative director Chris Bourassa tells me. "We had no experience doing early access, but we underestimated the impact of community management and that aspect of walking the community through the early access experience, which thankfully we did, but it was not easy. Our animator was like, 'I just wanna animate, I can't keep doing these Steam forums'".
"I think that games like Darkest Dungeon started to change the perception of what an early access game could be."
While there were successful early access games before it, Darkest Dungeon was brought up as an example by multiple other developers I spoke to. Red Hook seems to have paved the way for many other developers, particularly those making excellent roguelikes.
"I think that games like Darkest Dungeon started to change the perception of what an early access game could be," says Kasavin. "Now there are more early access games that learn from each other, and focus on both regularity of their update cycle and the communication back to their communities. I think it's made more players more comfortable that participating in early access can be a positive experience, that they're not just testing a game for free."
Grounded's game director Adam Brennecke believes there is a notable change from the old days of early access as well.
"There are a lot of early pioneers, and now it feels like we're kind of like the second wave, or second generation of early access games," he says. "Right now, I feel like the games are a lot more polished, I think they have to be because the market is probably a little more flooded. You have to kind of be at a place where you can stand out from the crowd."
From what I've heard, I think it's safe to say that a lot of early access game developers really love early access. But I'm curious, would they do it all again? While GTFO's Viklund says that it's not the answer to every project, he certainly wouldn't rule out making another early access game.
Neither would Sven Vincke, for whom Baldur's Gate 3 is his third early access game. "It's worked really well for us, and as long as it works, we're not gonna change it," he says.
"I can't imagine a world where we don't consider early access again," Supergiant's Kasavin tells me. "Hades has succeeded well beyond our previous games, and the early access process had a lot to do with that positive outcome."
"If you're making something that's not 'cookie cutter', if you're trying to do some experimental stuff, or push game design in certain ways, it's tough, and early access makes the process better," Brennecke says. "As game developers, we're making games for people to enjoy, and the best way to get to the best game possible, in my opinion, is to get it in people's hands and iterate."
As for Red Hook? They previously said Darkest Dungeon 2 would come out in early access at some point this year, and Bourassa and Sigman confirmed to me that's still the goal. They've been pretty quiet about the sequel since it was announced, with the plan to "say nothing until they could say a lot". To that end, it's worth keeping an eye out for news tomorrow.