Jim Sterling, video game sarcastineer, recently took a look at locally-produced Atajrubah, available on Early Access for $15. Sterling was not happy; Atajrubah is a janky mess, souless. It is the skeleton of a game; as bleached as the version 0.02 bones to be lain in its desert setting eventually… maybe.
Now, to be fair, this game is in alpha. I think local game development should be supported, and I see the developer has responded reasonably to the video, so props to them. But this is not about Atajrubah. It’s about Early Access, a system of purchase which increasingly seems to be supporting developer entitlement rather than gamer engagement. Atajrubah is simply, for me, the last shriveled date that broke the camel’s back because you couldn’t equip a spine brace (last dig, I promise).
This is part and parcel of games straddling that iffy line of being interactive, artistic and commercial. We’re all familiar with “gamer entitlement” issues, a condemnation that’s sometimes warranted (such as in the case of criticisms leveled at Monument Valley, when the developers dared — dared, in their hubris — to release a new set of levels for a gross $1.99 instead of just making it for free because that’s how the real world works), but is now seemingly meaningless in its widespread application to any customer complaints.
Early Access as a model is invaluable in demystifying the chaotic activity of game development; it is a key to a universe in a box of defined and hidden magics. Its ability to normalise game development encourages new voices to take part with their own creations; to dig into the finer points of game design (like what goes into ‘balancing’ a game.); in removing the wonder behind supposed came-out-of-nowhere success stories like Super Meat Boy and Minecraft.
Early Access is a channel that appeals to the core of your future fan base: the gamers so invested in your idea that they’re willing to pay in advance based merely on the idea you propose so that they might play some small part in its creation. Many Early Access developers have done poorly by this group, whether it’s in the cost of entry, adequately communicating progress and — in some cases — simply dropping the game altogether or releasing “v1.0” as a mocking effigy to potential squandered.
With the explosion of new talent trying to make its way onto the scene, publishers and digital storefronts have scrambled to make their platforms accessible and have reduced the bar of entry. At the crux of all this is what game developers think they deserve, and what the industry is willing to do to get them in the hopes of another sleeper hit like Minecraft.
I know I’m going to cop some flak for this but the answer is that developers don’t deserve anything. Positive coverage, accolades, funds, multi-platform visibility, respect, slack. All of those things are earned in the crucible of commerce, in doing the right thing by your customers and supporters again and again.
Game development didn’t get the coverage it warranted back in the day, but we’ve seemingly over-corrected where it’s now imbued with an aura of nobility and purpose, where the mere action of game development is more worthy than the end result.
I’m making this sound primarily like an indie problem; let me stress that it’s not. This criticism applies as much to larger devs, publishers who have suppurated the pre-order cancer, and Kickstarter fund babies who, according to some research, are more likely to fail. (In a post by Evil As A Hobby at the start of the year, the author did some fine digging around and determined that only a third of Kickstarters at the time of writing had actually fully delivered on their promise.)
Pre-orders and Kickstarter are unique, however, in their framing. Kickstarter specifically positions itself as a funding platform, and funding anything will always have some level of risk attached. I’m less critical of Kickstarter failures because that’s the nature of investment.
Pre-orders can be cancelled usually right up until the day of launch, so there’s always recourse if reviews and information indicate the game isn’t stellar leading up to its release. (Oh, but what’s that? Ubisoft refused to send out review copies of The Crew and set the embargo for Assasin’s Creed Unity reviews until AFTER launch when the customer wouldn’t be able to request a refund or cancel their order? Destiny had no reviews prior to launch? Surely it’s a coincidence. Surely.)
But Early Access is deceptive. It gives a veneer of legitimacy to games which often amount to nothing more than tech demos and prototypes. In an article by Patrick Walker of Gameindustry.biz, the number of Early Access titles released as full games sits at 25% of the total number of Early Access titles made available since March 2013. What’s also interesting to note is that Early Access games are generally more expensive when buying at the ground floor than waiting for the full release. Brian Hicks of DayZ fame — perhaps rightly — commented that for the Bohemia team, it was the opportunity to develop in public with massive caveats up front, and that those using it as a paid beta are doing the platform a disservice.
Hmmmm. So on the one hand, devs argue that it’s a funding channel. Steam, on the other hand, have recently changed their rules around for Early Access to state that, unless you can continue to make the game without Early Access, you shouldn’t be using it.
On average, though, from actual experience, it’s a system that punishes early adopters financially, prolongs development and deincentivises developers. Because Early Access turns game development into a service; it becomes a community management chore, a public relations campaign to maintain interest, a constant fight against scope creep when you already have the reward that would be yours at the end of all that hard work. The only reason to continue is some nebulous sense of honour to complete what you set out to do; failure easily rationalised in a post-mortem on all the variables as to why a game failed to materialise where everyone nods sagely with suitably penitent expressions.
To quote the deeply philosophical work Kangaroo Jack, “He stole the money… and he’s not giving it back.” I appreciate that game development is hard, but last time I checked it’s not the customer’s duty to pay your fees at Hard Knocks High. “I know you’re looking for progress,” languishing project’s announcement pages read, “But let me tell you: my life? Tough. Like, Megaman tough. Also, game development is rough, cut us some slack.” But I’ve already seen that film, straw dev. It’s called Indie Game: The Movie and Ed McMillen you ain’t.
I know I’m being obtuse. I know we have some great local talents that’ve done reasonably well on Early Access and without it. Who knows? Atajrubah might turn out to be one of them. But Early Access right now is a problem, a shadow of its potential; it’s the friend who only ever calls you when they want a lift, or wants you to spot them a cig or a fiver — you know they’re good for it, they’ll pay you back. The mate you like but don’t trust.
And short of Steam applying some actual curation to the process, it’s best to just block that caller ID.