Producer Miguel Sabido discusses the right way to do early access, the ‘wild west of game development,’ and the fact that Kerbal Space Program wouldn’t exist without early access support.
The shifting direction of the games industry is rough on everyone. Developers have to adapt to new methods of releasing games, including blazing trails in new directions like crowdfunding and early access, as gamers struggle with releases that come later than expected or not at all. Traditional models don’t always work for indie developers, but Kickstarter and Steam Early Access have sometimes been contentious in the gaming community—many people see video game crowdfunding as exploitative of players. Early access is a new development, so it’s natural that gamers will be skeptical. But understanding how early access works—and knowing the pros and cons for developers and gamers—is an important part of understanding whether or not you want to support it.
Early access is a relatively new system, where players can purchase a game before it’s finished in accordance with the developer’s final vision. Early access games typically cost less than completed versions, though that’s not always true. Earning money incrementally through development helps indie devs keep projects on track, and can eliminate the need for sacrifices or shortcuts due to a lack of funding during development. Essentially, early access can help ensure IPs are completed on time and with their integrity intact. In some cases, it can give devs the support needed to make good games into great ones.
Kerbal Space Program Does Early Access Right
Squad’s Kerbal Space Program was one of the first early access games to hit the market. “Early access as a concept didn’t fully exist [when Kerbal Space Program released],” said producer Miguel A. Piña Sabido. “It was just starting to boil as an idea from things like Kickstarter and Indiegogo games and all that. So we decided, ‘let’s try and push this bit of whimsy as far as we possibly can.'”
Releasing Kerbal Space Program for early access allowed the developers to see how many people were interested in the game, and push their original concept further.
“Honestly, from the very beginning [early access] has allowed us to exist and grow,” Sabido said. “Without early access, there is no Kerbal Space Program … early access has shaped just about every update around the game.”
Part of Kerbal Space Program‘s success is due to Squad’s absolute transparency through the development process. Some games have drawn ire for a failure to release on a timely schedule—or at all—meaning players have invested in something that will never reach its full potential. Kerbal Space Program, on the other hand, set out with the knowledge that they may never reach their ultimate goal and didn’t keep that a secret. Their website features explicit early access terms of service, detailing exactly what players are entitled to through early access and outlining that they are under no obligation to offer updates and that any update may be the last.
“People want transparency, that’s the biggest part of it all,” Sabido said. “if you want to keep people who are following you in early access happy, you have to show them what you’re working on constantly—so they know that you’re working on it, and so they don’t think you’ve forgotten about them.”
Early Access Skeptics Cite Valid Concerns
The lack of a guarantee is a big concern for many early access skeptics, who find the practice to be unethical. Why pay for an unfinished game when there’s no guarantee that the game will ever come out in a final version? Some people like the experience of playing a game before its final release—combing for bugs and getting a first-hand look at how the game is changing over the course of development. Others want a finished product from the get-go, or feel that playing a potentially buggy game is too much like paying to be a beta-tester.
Kerbal Space Program developers have made it a point not to rely on early access players to do their work for them. They have internal testing and quality assurance teams to tackle most of the bugs, although some inevitably do make it into releases.
Sabido doesn’t approve of using players as the only source of bug testing. “If you use early access for public beta testing…instead of actually using it to fund your game and deliver content to your players at the quality that they expect, then you’re messing up the system,” Sabido said.
It’s unfortunate, but because early access is a new release system, not all developers are honest, and some do use early access to make money with no intention of delivering a full product. However, the sad fact is that even when devs are honest and are trying to do their best by players, it still might not work out.
“Right now, early access is very much the wild west of game development,” Sabido said. “I don’t think there’s a rulebook yet…right now, everyone’s pretty much exploring and seeing what works and what doesn’t.”
Some failures are inevitable, but that doesn’t negate the viability of early access as a release model. Early access alternatives aren’t flawless either—many launches are plagued with bugs, and some Kickstarters never reach their final version. Early access sits somewhere between the two, offering a product that’s ready to play, but that’s not finished just yet.
There are reasons to be skeptical of new release models—some highly anticipated games have failed, and not every game is piloted by developers that want the best for their fans. But it’s nice to know that in the “wild west of game development,” there are some early access developers who shoot straight from the hip.
Kerbal Space Program is available now via Steam or KerbalSpaceProgram.com.