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.

The first and last thing I’ll ever have to say about Minecraft

sheepdance

I’ve never written about Minecraft. This is odd, as I’ve owned it since the second or third month it was available for sale. Some of my most involved Minecraft-playing took place during the time I was abortively trying to be a “games journalist”, and I still didn’t write a single word about it. It’s difficult for me to describe my relationship with Minecraft. Even when I play it with other people, it feels like an intensely introverted activity. Playing Minecraft feels like hiding inside my own mind. And, to some extent, this is exactly what it is.

More than almost any other open-world game, Minecraft offers you a real reflection of yourself. In GTA you can ask a man to upgrade your car, and in Assassin’s Creed games you can assemble little armies of followers and choose what clothes they’re going to wear, but these games have never made me feel like I am the true organizing force behind their realities. Minecraft, Terraria, and even Skyrim to some extent explicitly make you feel as if you are remaking a world in your own image. That is the promise they peddle: not just an open world, but a responsive world. A more interesting mirror.

When I first started playing Minecraft in 2009, I was an undergrad at Dartmouth and I was pretty much totally stressed out every minute of the day. I’d just joined a co-ed undergrad fraternity. I was writing around 600 words a week for the small website my friend Kent and I had just launched about videogames. In order to keep up-to-date on games news I was also reading three hundred news headlines a day in Google Reader. When I wasn’t doing all that, I was editing a humor magazine and working as an informal librarian for Dartmouth’s collection of antique scientific instruments. And in between all of these responsibilities and obligations, I managed to flog pretty damn high grades out of all my classes. When I found Minecraft, I began playing it as a mindless way to de-stress.

Minecraft takes a complex world and reduces it to a hundred thousand tiny easily-solved problems. If you want to build a castle, you must first collect a pile of stone blocks. You mine each block one at a time. You feel efficient and mechanical. Each press of the mousebutton is a single small but meaningful step toward your ultimate goal.

There was a period of several months where I was the only person I knew who played Minecraft. I was a minor officer in the fraternity, and at fraternity meetings I’d sit in a corner with my laptop out, busily clearing out entire caverns, and deliver my officer reports without taking my eyes off the screen. The metaphor is now painfully obvious: In a world where I felt profoundly out of control of the flow of my life, the world of Minecraft was something I could control very precisely.

I began spending almost all my free time in Minecraft. For over six months, it was the only game I regularly played. When Survival Multiplayer launched, many of my close friends joined me. I remember that we sat in the fraternity’s living room until three or four in the morning, digging out enormous underground farms, rigging up spider pits, erecting long winding walls, and demarcating our shared world into regions of power and authority. There were seven or eight of us sharing a server, and we all lived in the same house, too. We spent as much time interacting in our handmade world as we did in real life.

I still remember many of the things I built. Their little architectural flourishes were more for my own amusement than for showing off to others. I was very preoccupied with defense against monsters, and almost every house I built had a moat. I would dress the inside of my houses up as if I actually lived there- bedroom, kitchen, workroom, sitting room– and wander around inside, watching monsters mass outside my windows before the currents of the moats carried them away.

I also liked to go into our shared mines and “smooth them out.” I had a fascination with the half-height blocks. When my friends dug little warrens of narrow tunnels, I would transform them into irregular vaulted caverns with squared corners and floors that flowed down in smooth steps. I was obsessed with the idea of making our tunnels easily navigable, of increasing lines of sight, labelling passageways with signs and arrows. If a series of tunnels was too complex to smooth out, I’d just mine it all out into a single enormous cavern. I wanted the chaos of worldgen to submit to my overlord organizer-brain in exactly the way that real-world chaos would not. And the great thing about Minecraft is that if you try hard enough, everything will submit.

In Minecraft, you can organize anything. The chaos you see at worldgen is an invitation to organize as much as you possibly can. And just as a child’s imagination with Lego can tell you a lot about how they think about the world, whatever kind of house you build in Minecraft becomes the most permanent reflection of your attitude and organizational strategy, your values. We’d tell each other: I’m building a mansion floating in a lake– because I value safety and beauty, because the biggest chaos I fear in this world is the chaos of grunting zombies. I’m building a mineshaft that goes to the bottom of the world because I love building perfectly square mineshafts with perfectly spiralled staircases. I’m building a farm that farms itself because I love the needless efficiency of mechanization. One of my friends only built utilitarian cubes– a door, no windows, a torch on each wall, all his crafting stations heaped on top of one another in the corner next to a bed. He told us: this is all I need. And when we called him a philistine, he cracked up.

I mostly quit playing Minecraft when I got a job in California. I felt like I had taken life by the throat and for a long time I only played games relevant to the projects i was working on in the office. But these days, I am admittedly not super happy with the direction that my life is taking and, lo and behold, I’ve started playing Minecraft again.

This time, the first thing I built was a cute little cabin with a farm and an animal pen. My goal is to collect enough sheep to have exactly two of every possible dye color, because I’m a server operator this time, and the one thing I can’t magically give myself with the operator commands I know is a rainbow of thirty-two furiously baa-ing sheep. I’m also going to collect a horse of every color, and a pack of dogs, and probably a billion cats. I’m going to build barns for each of them and probably label all of them. I’ve already built two extremely long roads linking NPC towns– long, convenient, and therapeutically boring to construct. I haven’t started smoothing out all the caverns in my mine, but I probably will. I can feel the impulse coming.

Multiplayer Minecraft feels to me like introversion because even though I play with other people, I’m directly addressing a compulsion-slash-fear so close to the core of my brain that it can’t otherwise be scratched. There are some fears and sadnesses that I can write out of my system– the fear of being alone, for example, or of not understanding other people. But the fear that I’m an impotent disorganized overwhelmed loser can only be easily countered by a world where I’m an all-powerful highly-organized world-dominating sheep-farmer.

Thanks, Minecraft. I accept this gift of sheep-farmery with embarassed gratitude. And, if I keep playing for the next six-and-a-half years, you’ll probably all get another six-and-a-half years of silence on the matter.