customer feedback and early access

Just before the holidays I completed my penultimate semester of college, in which one of my classes was on Software Business, in particular about starting one. One of the most important things we talked about in the class was customer validation before you begin making the product. Before you write the software you find out what it is that the customers wanted. In the course of the class we formed groups that acted as start-ups and we did surveys to find out if people would actually buy the software we were going to make. (Most of the groups were just in it for the grade, though a few were planning on taking their business ideas beyond the scope of the class, for which I applaud them. I was certainly not one of them.)

The point of the exercise was that before you put a lot of effort into making a piece of software you should figure out if people will buy it, and what they’ll be willing to buy it for. As Steve Blank said “No business plan survives first contact with the customer.” So, better to have that contact before you invest time and money into that business plan.

This also applies to the game industry. When you are making a game you want to make sure the game is fun to play, that the mechanics work and that your players understand your story. As you make the game, though, you get blinded by your own bias and you become unable to see the flaws, the things that might be unclear, or the things that might not be so fun. In order to make sure you have the best game possible you want to get outside input. Just like in the software industry many companies will do an alpha or a beta release.

In comes “early access”. In the past year we’ve seen more and more games starting to get released under the early access system, either on Steam or through their own sites. The idea behind these games being released in this way is that developers can get player feedback so that the game can be even better.

Cube World, being developed by Picroma, currently in alpha
Cube World, being developed by Picroma, currently in alpha

From the Steam website:

We like to think of games and game development as services that grow and evolve with the involvement of customers and the community. There have been a number of prominent titles that have embraced this model of development recently and found a lot of value in the process. We like to support and encourage developers who want to ship early, involve customers, and build lasting relationships that help everyone make better games.

This is the way games should be made.

There is merit to this, and there are success stories that show that early access to a game can help the game develop into something great. Minecraft, for example, exploded in popularity during it’s alpha and beta releases, giving the developer Mojang access to mountains of player feedback. It’s a game that continues to evolve even today, each new release adding more to the game.

Unlike a pre-purchase of the game you get access to it immediately, and from the get go you can play the game in it’s current form. However, both pre-purchase and early access come with one inherent problem:

You are buying a game that is not finished yet.

When you pre-purchase a game you are paying for something before it has come out. You have no idea, and no way of knowing, if it is any good. With early access you are paying for a game that is in progress, but you also have an opportunity to be a part of the game’s development, which is a unique opportunity. However, you have to keep in mind, the game isn’t done yet.

Hearthstone, Blizzard's digital CCG, currently in closed beta.
Hearthstone, Blizzard’s digital CCG, currently in closed beta.

There will be problems, there will be crashes, there will be changes, there will be bugs. As long as you understand the risks associated with purchasing an early access game then there isn’t a problem. Getting early access to a game is a great opportunity, however, early access in itself as a business model is doing damage to the gaming industry.

Not everyone understands that the game isn’t finished yet. When the game is released to the public in an unfinished state it effects the way that people view the game. When the crashes and the bugs happen those become what are focused on, and it does damage to the game and to it’s development cycle. People who were at first excited about the game coming out start to lose interest, and the game can die before it’s even finished.

If you want to be a part of the process, if you are interested in seeing the game in it’s early stages, if you are willing to put up with the problems and the crashes and the bugs than by all means, by that game in early access. I myself have played a number of these early access games. The important thing to keep in mind is this:

The game isn’t finished yet.

You can’t judge an alpha or beta game based on it’s current state. The game isn’t done yet, so don’t judge it based on what it is, but on what it can become.

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