The Reality of Early Access vs Full Release

What To Expect From Launching into Early Access

What To Expect From Launching into Early Access

Nowadays, we’re always trawling the net for news about up-and-coming games, and if we’re lucky there will be an Early Access period for something that piques our interest.

What is Early Access?

Imagine if you will, a world where you as a consumer could create a dialogue with a developer and influence how your favorite titles were made. That’s the (very real) dream that Early Access fulfills. They are a paid preview of an upcoming game. Unlike demos or pre-orders, these are unfinished versions of an upcoming game. Developers release their games in Early Access not only to fund development but as a method of community engagement. What better way to cater to your audience than by teaming up with them? This allows you to get feedback live and direct from the people who matter most, the ones actually committed enough to buy your game. You can work with them to hone your project patch by patch and release something better than if it was in isolation.

Of course, one of the main reasons for releasing games into early access is to raise funds for further development, but there are a few pros and cons to consider. On one hand, that influx of cash can help with buying assets, recruiting manpower, licensing, and promotion, all these things aren’t cheap. On the other hand, if the game doesn’t sell the way you think it will and you don’t have the funds to get it completed, all you’ve managed to do is release half a game and lose a lot of people’s trust. Think of it like a promise between you and your potential fans. Do you want to be all talk and lip service by releasing an unfinished title? No!

It’s worth remembering that Early Access titles are as beneficial for a consumer as they are for a developer. You can get feedback from your community, gauge interest in your project, and they get something immediately playable rather than waiting for a full release and get to be part of development.

The Bare Minimum

Luckily for you, the bar here is low, the quality of an early access title can vary from being an unplayable buggy mess to a well-refined gameplay loop that keeps you hooked until launch, and maybe even after! The general idea is that you want to release something that people can actually play. Bugs can be overlooked if you’ve got a solid build of the game that is polished enough to show the promise that your game will not only be fun, but successful. You may be early in your development, but playability and polish are just as important as the length of the experience.

Here’s a quote straight from Steam’s Early Access Guidelines that generally applies to everyone:

“Don't launch in Early Access without a playable game. If you have a tech demo, but not much gameplay yet, then it’s probably too early to launch in Early Access. If you are trying to test out a concept and haven't yet figured out what players are going to do in your game that makes it fun, then it's probably too early. You might want to start by giving out keys to select fans and getting input from a smaller and focused group before you release in Early Access. At a bare minimum, you will need a video trailer that shows gameplay. Even if you are asking for feedback that will impact gameplay, customers need something to start with in order to give informed feedback and suggestions.”

Early access trials can be as long as a single level, a full chapter of a campaign, or sometimes even content complete and just needing some further polish. Effective titles demonstrate both the gameplay and the story/concept of the final product, so creating something replayable like a sizable tutorial level, sandbox, or full mission would be the ideal type of content to include. Remember, consumers purchasing an early access title still want to feel like the product contains a worthwhile experience
There are early access trials with full campaigns, but in some cases, it’ll be the first step in a larger series of content updates or a live service trial with more add-on content for developers to introduce in the future, like new levels, characters, and gameplay features.

What to Expect When You’re Expecting To Launch Into Early Access 

I learned a very important lesson recently about setting expectations. If you promise the moon, expect to freeze, space is cold, and without preparation and protection, you’re going to become the next meme in the review sections. 

What I mean is that the best thing you can do is temper expectations when going into Early Access. As I mentioned before, you need to let your audience know almost everything that you do, being transparent about your process isn’t always a bad thing so make people aware of the state of your game. 

Release developer notes, keep and share a developer diary, and create a roadmap of your plans for the future. The whole point of Early Access is to eventually launch the game. Players will want to know what the timeline for that will look like so that’s where communication will be important.

While there is no rule that says you can’t, it’s generally an unwritten law that you don’t put a full game’s price tag on your preview. I get it, you’re really excited and you think this is going to be the one, but you CANNOT (seriously you probably shouldn’t) charge full price for this. The main reason being that you want to make sure that the price is in line with other similar titles on Steam and makes sense for what you’re actually offering at that time. You’re competing for the attention of millions of gamers, so pricing yourself out is not the route you want to take here. Consider your audience, who do you want feedback from, and who do you want playing your game?

With all that being said, I hope I’ve given you a better understanding of what Early Access titles are, and if you’re looking for more information, check out the following links to platform-specific guidelines for early access development and submission!

Links to Resources

Xbox ID Program
Steam Early Access
Epic Games Early Access                

Published November, 01 2022
Last updated November, 01 2022
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