Is it all bad on Early Access?

[Blog] I'm starting to feel a little low with the current happenings in Early Access...

Warning: This is a long read weighing in at over 1,850 words. It rivals the Bible and is not for the feint of heart.

Early Access, for those of you who aren’t PC enthusiasts, is way of purchasing games that are still in development on the digital store, Steam. Why would one want to buy an unfinished game you ask? Well, you get instant access to the game you’ve just purchased, yes, you get to play the unfinished game, in all its buggy glory! This also gives you a chance to shape development as you can voice your concerns and suggestions to the developer in the hopes that they will listen. It’s a wonderful idea and I’ve had some pleasant experiences with it but there’s one huge downfall: you’ve already paid and there’s no chance of a refund.

Yes, Valve have once again created an anti-consumer agreement which you agree to by purchasing the game. The developer never has to finish the game, you’re paying for the game in its current state and unfortunately this gives the developer free reign to create and drop projects as they see fit. This is something that is beginning to show its ugly face on Steam, after all, the dev doesn’t risk loosing anything when they cancel a project because it’s too “expensive”, no, the customer has already paid the bills.



So, what’s started to bug me is that I’m finding a fair few of these Early Access games are running out of money, some of which I own, my latest and biggest disappointment is Spacebase DF-9 from Double Fine Games. The developer has recently gone public to announce that Alpha Version 0.6 will now become Version 1.0 and be a full release. Say what?


Enemy stations attach to yours and the crew attempts to board. How ever, they pose no threat once your brain kicks in and you realise you can use your builders to demolish some of the enemy ships walls, leaving the bad guys gasping for breath…

This game is, in my opinion, borderline a scam. The thing that has really gotten my beef is the simple fact that barely any progress has been made on this title over the past year. It isn’t a particularly complex title, you build a space station and look after its inhabitants, get attacked and blown up, the end. It’s The Sims, but on a much smaller scale. The artwork is nice, but is simply 2d images of 3D objects, it’s not remotely complex and I believe a professional games artist could slap up most of the current artwork in a few weeks of full-time work. However, this game has been in development for over a year and the lack of varied art/objects is simply baffling.

Then we have the programming. The AI is very basic, they walk around, attend to their own needs, do their assigned job and occasionally have a bugged out mood swing and refuse to do anything. However, the current iteration of this AI is bugged beyond belief and is more basic than the AI in the original The Sims game. Now baring in mind that game’s base engine and AI was created by 2 men in their spare time, it’s pretty impressive that Double Fine have successfully managed to create something this pathetic when it’s somebodies full-time job to create it. How is that remotely possible or professional?

A nice graphical glitch. These happen all the time, they're the norm. Also note how massive the UI is. It can be hidden, but pops back up the moment a new message comes, which is once every 15 seconds... Ships arriving... Ships arriving... Asteroids... Ship...

A nice graphical glitch. These happen all the time, they’re the norm. Also note how massive the UI is. It can be hidden, but pops back up the moment a new message comes, which is once every 15 seconds… Ships arriving… Ships arriving… Asteroids… Ship…

Over the year that Space Base DF-9 has been in development, updates have been very few and very far between, communication has been beyond appalling and hype they’ve tried to create alongside mainstream “professional” journalists has been amazing, after all, I dropped my money into this game after reading a so called “professional” journalist sing its praises for an entire article in a magazine, but then, he didn’t put any money into it, did he? They’ve drummed up their money and dropped it God only knows where, because it hasn’t been in this project and Double Fine aren’t too willing to share their financials (and where the money has been spent) with their customers/investors. It’s a diabolic mess with absolutely no consequences for Double Fine, I receive a never-to-be-finished Alpha v0.6 and Double Fine get to keep their wealth. Seems fair.

But can I blame them? Where’s the incentive for them to produce a completed game? There is none. They’ve got their money, so why waste more resources on it? This is the exact reason that here in the UK we don’t pay for any services until we’ve received them, and boy, do I wish I’d listened to my British side. After all, you don’t pay a builder until he’s finished building, otherwise he might do a runner, right? The thing that really, really gets me up over all of this though, is the fact that they’re constantly flaunting a new project around yet they have no funds to finish a game that many people have already paid for. It’s almost as though the “create-a-project-cash-it-in-and-drop-the-project” system has become their main form of income.



On the exact polar opposite of this case though I have my little love stories with other games, a current favourite of mine (though not played much) is a little game from a British chap. It’s called Maia and can be found here for Steam and its official website is here. Now this game is being created by a couple of chaps and is so far shaping up great. Now, don’t run along and buy it, please, it’s Early Access and pretty damn volatile. It crashes a lot, the AI bugs out a lot and a lot of stuff is either place holder or just not implemented yet. This isn’t so much as Early Access as it is Access from the start. It has a long way to go, but I’m not here to talk about that, I want to talk about what it is they are doing right and how it contrasts massively to the example given above.

Firstly, communication, wow, these guys right blogs on a relatively regular basis and are so open and honest about the development that you actually feel like one of the team. The latest blog post concerns finances and it’s completely open about how much they make from the games sales currently, how long those funds could theoretically last, how long they plan to make them last, what their plans with those funds are and why they’re spending the money where they are. In fact, you could just read the damn past here. Having read the post, it does make me question just what exactly these other developers are doing to manage to go ‘bust’ so early. Especially when Maia’s highest player count ever sits at a tiny 96 people. Finally, they’re always active on the Steam forums. They answer questions like human beings without the marketing bullshit filter in place. Ask them an honest question, you’ll get an honest answer, it’s great.

Maia is already shaping up to be an interesting game, with such a small dev team and much smaller funds too.

Maia is already shaping up to be an interesting game, with such a small dev team and much smaller funds too.

Secondly, the game is already getting quite complex with new features being added and the AI coding being added too on a regular basis. Watching it grow excites me (I don’t even play the game often!), especially when coupled with the developers open communication telling us about their plans and why these new bits have appeared. It’s great!

And thirdendly, updates. Well, according to what they’ve posted on the Steam announcements, up until friday (03/10/14) this game hadn’t been updated since 27/08/14, but that isn’t true. The game receives little micro updates all the time, sometimes several in a single day! This is a first for all my Early Access games, I’ve seen weekly updates (Space Engineers) and Bi-weekly and monthly, but never “when we do it we’ll update it” like these guys are doing. It really makes the whole Early Access experience (that you’ve paid up early for) more exciting, rewarding and massively interesting, well, it is if you’re interested in that sort of stuff.

As I said, this completely contrasts with Double Fines pathetic update schedule and complete lack of communication. This is how Early Access should be done and there should be punishments for developers that fail to produce updates in a timely fashion. I know, a lot of devs out there stick to a “when it’s stable, we’ll release it” update system, but for me this is completely against what Early Access means. It’s advertised as a way to experience the development cycle, to participate in it. How can you do that when you’re only seeing completed parts of the game?



So, with all that said, I now have 3 dead Early Access Games, they’ll all receive reviews and they should all be avoided. So here’s my round up of successful and unsuccessful Early Access, along with those still in Early Access, the good and the bad, all of which I purchased with my own money. None were given for free for “reviewing” purposes, aka “gimme a free game and I’l tell everyone you’re good!”

Released and Good:

  • Wasteland 2 – here
  • Starpoint Gemini 2 – here
  • State of Decay – here

Released and Bad:

  • Starforge – here (released in alpha state)
  • Nether – here (released in alpha state)

 Early Access and Good:

  • Maia – here
  • Space Engineers – here
  • Project Zomboid – here

Early Access and Bad:

  • Spacebase DF-9 – here (soon to be release in alpha state)
  • Castle Story – here (abysmal update pace, last updated 18/07/14)
  • Starbound – here (again, abysmal update pace)
  • DayZ – here (again, abysmal update pace, plus a project lead who can’t seem to remove his head from his own rectum, this is my worst investment yet)

Is everything bad on Early Access? Well, as you can see from my small collection, I have 6 games that I consider good buys to 6 that I consider bad buys, including the “real” media’s favourite game, DayZ (it’s a skid mark in the underwear of gaming). So no, I’d say for every crappy game that gets ditched whilst the dev runs off on a cocaine rampage, there’s a good game too. Some of those devs are doing it right and they not only deserve praise for that, but they deserve the monetary funding as well.

It’s just astonishing that one came from veteran developers, Double Fine, developers that I would have thought could handle a project and produce something much faster than the indie guys. But as Double Fine has already said, it’s the potential customers fault the project had to end early, if only they’d been given more money. I also find it astonishing that the “real” gaming media haven’t questioned Double Fine more intensely about their finances and the money made/spent on Spacebase, as from what I can see, there should have been more than enough money if it was used correctly. But then, who’s going to pay the “real” medias wages if they bad mouth a dev who could potentially purchase some advertising space?



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