The survival genre and the concept of Early Access are connected like links in a chain. But they are also the strongest examples for the planned alpha going wrong or at least sideways. We researched on the six biggest gaffes in Early Access.
6. Growing with success: The Long Dark
Only three months of Early Access were planned for the sandbox mode of Hinterland’s snowy debut title. That should change, when shortly after its release in September 2014 players and media confirmed its potential. The map and gameplay mechanics were massively enhanced and 2016 a story mode was announced to tell the story from The Long Dark. Finally three months became close to three years, until The Long Dark could finally celebrate its full release. So far only the first two episodes of the story mode have been released.
5. The question of money: ARK: Survival Evolved
Sci-Fi-Survival ARK: Survival Evolved regularly hit waves of outrage from its sudden appearance through to its release at August 29th, 2017. Despite its popularity among the community the project reached its most critical point in 2015, when a lawsuit was filed against Lead Designer Jeremy Stieglitz. Most probably in result to this, Studio Wildcard has been acquired by Snail Games US, which reused its assets to produce Dark and Light and the upcoming VR-spinoff ARK Park.
2016 Studio Wildcard removed the battle royale mod ARK: Survival of the Fittest as a free game from steam. This action was followed by a shitstorm in September 2016, when with Scorched Earth the first paid DLC for an Early Access title was published. A month prior to its release in 2017, the price of ARK: Survival Evolved skyrocketed up to $60.
4. Trying to appease everyone: Rust
In 2016 the Rust community became extremely vocal on social media, demanding changes to the game. Over the course of the following months, the developers tried to satisfy the wishes of the community by creating dynamic loot spawns across the entire map and implementing an XP-system. But the community rant didn’t stop there and so those plans were chopped and changed in the end. Finally even developer Gary Newman himself made his anger public on the consequent discontent in the community. From that point on, the development became more straight and secure, but it had lost months in disorientation.
3. Insufficient technology: DayZ
Starting one week later than Rust into Early Access, Bohemia Interactive might have made the biggest mistake in Early Access development: Following a company decision they started the standalone version of the popular Arma 2 mod on the same engine they’ve been using for over a decade. A few months into Early Access and over a million copies sold the dev team realised that they would not be able to bring all the planned features on this engine to a sufficient state of stabilty. So they had the choice to stick with the engine and make the best game possible or to change the engine during Early Access and lose years for developing a better platform. They decided for the latter, which crushed their development plans for years and restricted the public branch to a fraction of the planned features. Lead producer Eugen Harton since exhorts developers at conferences not to start in Early Access with unsufficient technology.
This decision hit DayZ‘s reputation in the community hard, because the topic was that difficult to communicate. Years later the development team finally managed to finish up the engine: Now they just have to rebuild DayZ from the ground up.
2. Turn your game around: Just Survive
Launched into Early Access in 2015, many players expected H1Z1 to push DayZ off its already sinking ship. But Sony’s developing company was sold to Columbus Nova, and the development process began to slow down. For a year the survival title was able to hold its ground with in-game skin trade and dynamic base building.
But behind the scenes Daybreak sensed a new trend: They hired Brendan Greene aka PlayerUnknown as a consultant to help them start H1Z1: King of the Kill, which became the focus of the development. The survival branch of H1Z1 became lost, until in 2017 the dev team was renewed and finally in August, H1Z1 was relaunched as Just Survive – still in Early Access. A new map and reworked base building should secure the furture of the title. So far many of the comments from the community were angry, but we’ll see how the new concept works out over time.
1. Left for Good: The Stomping Land
Over the course of years, Steam Early Access became a grave for numerous titles in the survival genre. Especially worth mentioning is the closing down of game servers which destroys the ability to play an online game once and for all. In the case of minimal sales numbers and financial ruin this step is unavoidable – but what if the game sold thousands of copies?
That’s what happened in the case of The Stomping Land, a mental predecessor for ARK: Survival Evolved. Here you were able to live in the stone age with your friends while crafting items and taming dinosaurs. A small dream came true to thousands of players who backed the game for more than $100.000 US on Kickstarter and bought copies of the game. Only months after the hype, this dream faded when the developer disappeared.
What can we learn from this?
The last incident set a precedent for the Early-Access concept, which was to be called out again and again. “The game is dead!” – you often read when a game has not been updated for a few months, or readers just do not like an update. The conspiracy theorists are screaming loudly, and many are screaming with fear. The simplest factors are often forgotten:
Who makes the game?
Early access players often do not know who they actually give their money to. So the probability of a failure is certainly higher if the project is developed by an individual who has never made a real game before. In the case of the above titles, there are mostly developers behind each studio, who have accompanied various projects from beginning to end. Early access may be difficult, but experienced developers will find a solution for upcoming problems sooner or later. And for the wait, early access players have declared themselves ready. Additionally a well-known company can not afford the imagery of a cut-off project. In the case of War Z / Infestation / Shattered Skies you can see how a developer repeatedly hides behind different names to publish titles because his reputation is damaged.
Are there official communication channels?
A decent studio will regularly communicate with its users and explain what is happening in the development. So Rust runs a weekly devblog, the DayZ developers inform every second week. Keep in mind that not every developer has to answer questions. Caution applies to news pages, which inform you about appropriate updates. Again and again, cautious assessments of developers are interpreted as promises, and the developer has to forfeit their credibility for a misrepresentation on a website. When in doubt, always look for the original source and check.
Do not Panic!
Game development is complex. There are reasons why Early Access was virtually no issue for more than 20 years. Survival and Early Access are so closely linked, because developers are trying to explore a new genre and find out what ideas work and which do not. However, the everyday problems of programmers still occur, so that elements sometimes do not work, or concepts are overturned. Nowadays you are sounding the alarm quickly and showing off your damaged game experience – but the often degenerating edge in social media channels does not help the developers.
Early Access requires a thick coat of players and developers alike. Players must give developers time, peace and constructive feedback – the developers on the other hand must maintain their communication and, as best as they can, let the players know about the background of the development. A difficult task in an exciting time, because the results of Early Access titles are just now slowly starting to reveal themselves after years of chaos.