Is Early Access Fueling the Indiepocalypse or Fighting It?

Indiepocalypse: the belief that the recent flood of indie games released on Steam and mobile makes it more difficult for indie game devs to succeed

Since its launch in 2013, Steam’s Early Access program, whereby studios sell unfinished games, ideally in order to raise money to complete development, has been controversial in the gaming community. While some people see Early Access as a way to support more diverse indie games to release, data shows that not many Early Access games actually make it through to release: only about a quarter, according to a study from 2014.

In an ideal Early Access transaction, the user purchases a game at a reduced price with the understanding that the game is in alpha, or at least beta stages of development. They save a little money, offer the studio feedback that helps them complete development in a community-approved way, and infuse the project with the cash it needs to be completed.

The best argument for Early Access is that it allows quality games from individuals or small studios to gain exposure and funding they otherwise might struggle to obtain. A good example of that is The Curious Expedition, a roguelike 19th-century expedition simulator, which is made by the two-person Maschinen-Mensch studio. After fifteen months in Early Access during which the game won a handful of prestigious indie awards in its native Germany, Curious Expedition left Early Access and entered full release on September 2, 2016.

Curious Expedition

But even when it works, there is still a potential for problems on both sides. Beta testers are essentially paying to perform labor. This isn’t a unique situation: AAA games will often sell beta access to consumers who are excited for a particular game. But just because it’s common in the industry doesn’t mean it doesn’t warrant a pause to consider the weird dynamic that creates.

Consider the situation in which Studio Wildcard currently finds itself with its open-world survival sandbox ARK: Survival Evolved, which has been available in Early Access since June 2015. Early Access users enjoyed playing the early game and finding funky glitches that provide for interesting gameplay footage. That feedback helped the developers to find problems while they continued refining the game in response to how people were playing and wanted to be able to play.

But Studio Wildcard encountered a firestorm of protest from players when they released a paid expansion pack called ARK: Scorched Earth a few weeks ago, while the base game is still in Early Access.

Backlash over this decision caused ARK’s player rating on Steam to plummet from Very/Mostly Positive to Mostly Negative and Mixed, as many players complained loudly about what they perceived to be a cash-grabbing move, despite the company’s track record of providing generally high ongoing dev support and content updates for their base game (and despite the fact that many of these players had already enjoyed hundreds of hours of gameplay from a $30 game).

ARK: Survival Evolved revews

A community manager from Studio Wildcard finally addressed these concerns this week in a message to players describing some of their plans for ARK going forward, explaining that “expansion ARCs” like Scorched Earth were always part of the plan, and that it made more sense to iterate on their infrastructure and technical systems during Early Access, rather than after retail launch, “given the significant risks involved if we didn’t ‘get it right’.”

But many players feel strongly that Early Access and paid DLC are fundamentally incompatible, in part because of the perception that paid DLC splits the company’s focus and draws resources away from finishing the base game.

Even when game devs aren’t angering players with controversial decisions, a game’s reviews are complicated by Early Access. Early users will review the game and can only speak to their experience in the alpha/beta, which is often buggy and frustrated with limited gameplay options. That means when the game finally hits launch, it may be dogged by negative reviews that don’t speak to the final product.

We Happy Few, released in Early Access at the end of July 2016, is a stylish dystopian survival game, but there’s been some argument that since the game’s deep potential lies in dramatic nuance and world-building, you’re better off waiting to have the completed experience of the game.

We Happy Few

Meanwhile, Early Access also creates a conundrum for gaming journalists, who may not consider it fair to review a game in alpha, but will also hesitate to review a game that’s been available to the public for a year or more. Without the kind of hard launch that AAA games and top-tier indies can pull off, games may get less attention from journalists.

As an example, Gloria Victis is a low-fantasy medieval MMORPG from Blackeye Games that first appeared as a Kickstarter in 2012 and failed to meet its funding goal. The devs were persistent, though, and the pre-alpha game became available through the website for “donations” in 2013.

Gloria Victis

Early users enjoyed the world’s conception, though they pressed for the addition of tools like female character creation, and Gloria Victis continued running alpha for these users until June, 2016 when the game became available on Steam Early Access (still with exclusively male character creation) after Greenlight.

By this time, though, the game had competition that didn’t exist at its conception: the open-world medieval survival game Life is Feudal, released in November 2015.

Life is Feudal

Meanwhile Gloria Victis developers are citing the end of 2017 as a tentative launch date, which means the game faces the very real threat of hitting peak subscribers during the four years of availability before it fully launches.

One of the concerns of the so-called “indiepocalypse” that the gaming industry cites as a challenge for indies, however, is the surfeit of choice that results from the sheer bewildering volume of games available now. People willing to play funky little indie games is already a subset, if not a niche, of the larger gaming community, and Early Access games that are still under heavy development create more noise for gamers to sort through when they’re looking for a new quirky favorite.

On the other hand, no aspect of the entertainment industry—books, music, gaming, or films—has yet ever managed to create an entirely efficient system that allows us to properly reward the beautifully-done niche products, and make consumer choice effortless. In the meantime, little individual dreams are popping into being, and it’s hard to argue that isn’t a lovely thing.

Sophie Weeks
Born in Phoenix, Arizona, Sophie Weeks received a Masters degree in English Literature from Mills College in 2006 and completed her PhD in Victorian Literature at Rice University in 2013. She is the author of Outside the Spotlight, Unsettled Spirits, and The Soured Earth.
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Sophie Weeks
Born in Phoenix, Arizona, Sophie Weeks received a Masters degree in English Literature from Mills College in 2006 and completed her PhD in Victorian Literature at Rice University in 2013. She is the author of Outside the Spotlight, Unsettled Spirits, and The Soured Earth.

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