A background of early access
There are some stellar titles that were in early access. Don’t Starve is a popular example. Developers strongly benefit from this process financially as well. If popular, the developers will have constant support from game sales. For the consumer, early access is a totally different ball game.
In early access, the goal (for the player) is to give constructive feedback to the developers. Using people who will be playing the game in the future is arguably more thorough than playtesting at times. There are a number of games or elements of games which feel like they weren’t tested at all. One example is Black Ops 4’s Zombies mode. Players and streamers of high round runs and Easter egg hunts experienced regular game crashes on PS4. Even if this was an issue on Sony's part, playtesting should have revealed this to the developers.
Minecraft is sometimes referenced as the starting model for early access. Minecraft is the most successful game to use this model of 'games as a service', rather than a one time purchase which stays pretty much the same.
Early access failures
The War Z, now known as Infestation, is one notable title. Upon launch, the DayZ clone received a huge amount of backlash due to primarily false advertising and was labelled as a bad game in general. Developers even went so far as to ban players who had negative things to say about the game.
On the other hand, some games spend a large amount of time in Early Access, with some titles spending 4 plus years. The Forest spent 4 years in early access and DayZ in its standalone format was in early access from 2013 until the end of 2018.
No Mans Sky was infamous not as an early access title, but as one which misled the consumer upon release. It would be interesting to flip this around and ask: Would No Mans Sky have benefited from early access? The game has changed drastically since release with large updates and started out somewhat buggy with less than optimal performance. The surge of criticism the game received may have powered Hello Games to put the work in and make the changes they did.
If the game was an early access title would these changes have been made in a more stable environment for the developers and the players? Or would the dampening of criticism that early access provides have slowed this down?
No Mans Sky isn’t the only non-early access game which has undergone significant changes since release. Star Wars Battlefront II is another strong example of a game which has evolved post-release.
What makes Astroneer different?
System Era is a very transparent developer. The developers post regular (typically monthly) YouTube updates on the progress of the game. These videos usually show new additions to the game and answer player questions.
These videos are like patch notes reimagined. Changes are often explained before the update rather than after, the player is told why changes are made and sometimes shown gameplay and design ideas. Perhaps most importantly, their videos convey a passion and dedication within the team surrounding their love for the game and their awareness of player expectations and hopes. This level of transparency and time spent getting to know the developers is somewhat unheard of. Even with bigger games such as Overwatch which show face to face videos with Jeff Kaplan and the like, there is a candid nature to the System Era videos. The videos consist mostly of Joe Tirado, a member of the System Era team sitting down with other members of the team at their desks or in a more formal setting for Q&As.
As for the game itself, its visual style is unique and satisfying. The world is colourful and variates from biome to biome and is different on each planet. The world can be reshaped and painted to the players choosing. The exploration really does leave the player feeling like there is much more out there still to be seen, even in a sometimes lonely procedurally generated world. The crafting system and items have probably seen the most development with lots of useful items available to build to make exploration all the more efficient and fun.
Astroneer is set to leave early access on February 6th 2019. Originally slated for a December 2018 release, the team added six weeks to its development.
According to the System Era channel, Astroneer is set to be increased to $29.99 (Previously $19.99). For what the game gets you, £19.99 felt like a steal even upon release and with all the new content to come, £29.99 is reasonable. Astroneer is currently on offer at $23.99 in the US and £19.03 in the UK until the 18th of February so this price hike shouldn’t be until after the full release.
Early Access Done Right is Still far from Perfect
In any type of release, bugs can and will happen. One of the biggest bugs which I experienced allowed the player to fly infinitely across the world on a chair – despite how ridiculously fun this was, it did lessen the experience for some players. This bug did however come in handy when other bugs left players stranded or stuck. Vehicles were previously subject to random jerky movements and hilarious yet annoying physics. These bugs were never ignored by the developers. Acknowledging these in videos and other forum responses and letting the players know what will be done was helpful and reassuring.
Using early access as a Shield
There are many ways developers can get an idea of how well a game will sell. A conversation about early access usually mentions the state of preordering games – another controversial trend. The subject of preordering is a similar yet more dangerous idea. With preorders, the player usually only get very small weapons/tools, cosmetic additions, or in-game currency. With these formats, the consumer is essentially betting on the developer – only in one situation, there is a bigger upfront cost and a bigger chance for reward. As for retracting these bets if things go south, platforms such as Steam allow refunds. However, this is only before a certain amount of playtime in most cases. This means if you play over two hours and request a refund after two weeks of purchase you will not be eligible for a refund. This means playing and waiting until full release to return the game isn’t an option either.
Should the game fall short in any way, criticism is of course used by developers to improve the game. Since this criticism is actively being taken on board in early access, (or should be) the blow of bad reviews are often dampened by the thought that the game will be better when it fully releases. The fact is, however, that the players still paid a good fraction of the final cost and that there is no real difference between a game that just launched into early access or a game that just launched.
Early access is in practice bad for the consumer. Paying for a product without seeing it finished before purchase is a set up for failure and regret. Whether early access should exist or not at all is a harder topic. In the case of Astroneer and other titles such as Don't Starve the journey and outcome were positive, but the damage that faces the consumer when this is not the case is large.
Giving feedback for a game and watching it grow from early access all the way to full launch is very rewarding. Not to mention that in scenarios similar to Astroneer, the player can save some money when the game becomes full price. This lower fee comes at a cost.
There is a deeper conversation to be had about the state of early access. In 2019, there is a lack of clarity when pinpointing what we consider a release. Although Astroneer seems to be a modern example of good early access, this does not mean the format is a healthy one in its current state. Astroneer is early access done right, but should early access exist at all?
With Astroneers full release this week, hopefully the final process will go smoothly and deliver players the content expected.
Watch the Astroneer 1.0 announcement on System Era's YouTube channel:
Astroneer is available on PC and Xbox One.