Five years later: what I think about early access

I’m getting super burnt out on early access games.

In 2009, I bought Minecraft. I spent the next year and a half breathlessly following its update schedule. This was the first time I’d ever purchased an unfinished game.

Following Minecraft’s development took a lot of energy during a time when I had a lot of energy to give. I spent 5-7 hours a day in my school’s library, and when I wasn’t doing my homework or attending a class in that building, I was hunched in a library carrel playing Minecraft. I followed Notch on twitter, checked his blog regularly, read the forums several times a week, and talked about the game all the time with my friends. For parts of 2010, following Minecraft was basically my biggest hobby.

I felt at the time that Minecraft was deserving of my energy and my constant fixed attention. And though it took a lot of energy to follow that game’s development process, it didn’t take too much. I didn’t have to join a special forum if I didn’t want to. I got frequent Minecraft updates on regular games news sites alongside other news. Notch’s twitter was fun to read. He really put himself out there, and I didn’t feel like I had to work hard to figure out what he was doing or what was coming next. He updated all the goddamn time, too.

Most of the early-access games I’ve purchased in the past year, however, do not measure up to Minecraft when it comes to early-access performance. Here are my biggest gripes:

  • A lot of Kickstarter projects send me weekly updates. I don’t care about what you’re doing this week. I want something tangible I can interact with, or a cool video I can watch, or a picture I can see. I don’t want 90+ wall-of-text updates sent directly to my email inbox. I have unsubscribed from most Kickstarter update mailing lists. (In case you’re wondering, the worst offender here is Project Eternity.)
  • I’ve bought a lot of Steam Early Access projects that are simply not fun enough to waste my time on. It’s hard to stay excited by something when the initial Early Access versions are so uncompelling. Minecraft had uniquely compelling early versions. If there’s nothing uniquely compelling about your game yet, I don’t really want to see it. I’ve had my enthusiasm for several games killed by the fact that their Early Access builds are so lame. 
  • The vast number of Early Access games out now makes it impossible to give any individual one the attention I gave Minecraft. I follow too many people on Twitter already to start adding developers from every Kickstarter I’ve bought. I don’t have the time or the energy to read twenty development blogs a week, particularly when so many are so poorly written.
  • And that’s another problem: a lot of developers are really bad at communicating about their unfinished game. Notch is really a very good communicator. The same can’t be said for the people behind a lot of the projects I’m currently interested in.
  • Many Kickstarters ask their backers to join special forums for secret information. Look: I’m profoundly uninterested in joining your forum. I backed your Kickstarter because I liked your pitch, not because I wanted to sign into your website once a week. If you are not producing Double-Fine-quality backer content, there is no reason to hide your development process from non-backers, and no reason for you to force me to join your forum to access any of that information.

So far, here are the two games I think have done the best with early aaccess/open development since Minecraft:

  • Don’t Starve did the best at early access. They had a days-to-next update counter on the front menu of the game and updated quite frequently. Their update announcements were well-written, featured a lot of unique art, and were honestly exciting to get in my inbox. All versions of the game were fun to play.
  • Double Fine Adventure (Broken Age) did the best at open development, of course. The documentary series is really well-done. If you’re going for “development as a participatory experience”, there is nothing better than actually letting people see– see– who you are, what you’re doing, and what your biggest struggles are like.

Now, I know a lot of developers are encouraging heavy participation because they need a pool of testers. A lot of people clearly like and appreciate this dynamic: for them, backing an early access project means joining a community, giving a part of yourself to something you’re excited about.

But this is simply not how I do early access anymore. I don’t have the time or the energy. I back projects and buy early versions because I like the pitch, not because I want to join a club. Unless you have some Don’t Starve-quality shit, or unless your development tell-all is as fascinating as Double Fine’s, I do not really want to see your game until it’s perfect. And that usually means that I don’t want to see it until it’s done.

Are developers wrong to want legions of loyal fans constantly engaged in their unfinished product? In principle, no. But Early Access developers and Kickstarter teams should do a better job remembering that their supporters’ time and attention is precious. I think the biggest problem is that a lot of the partially-developed games I’m playing are simply not very good, and therefore undeserving of my time and attention.

Anyway, the moral of the story is that I no longer think early access is the future, or that it’s even better than regular development. It’s just another way of doing things. It seems to be harder than regular development, and it only seems to work for certain kinds of projects. It requires you to be better than the average bear.

And depending on how you run your show, it may require your fans to give something of themselves that– like me– they may not want to give.

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