When entering the development stages for a game, one release option now available to developers is providing early access to their players. There are a number of different ways you can go about offering early access, from acting as a Kickstarter reward, to Steam’s official Early Access program.
Offering early access to your game, like a lot of things in life, can be both beneficial and detrimental. When considering early access, the first question you should ask yourself is why you think it will work for your game specifically.
Early access should not be looked at as a means to get your game out of the door as soon as possible; Or for a chance to start making money from an unfinished product. It should be thought of as a way for you to continue development, but with the support of an engaged community.
Your customers aren’t looking for a demo or a pre-order, they’re looking for an alpha or beta version that is still in progress, that they can make their mark on as it heads towards full launch.
But what defines a good early access game? And what role does marketing play in that?
One of the key factors in early access is replayability. Is your game a linear story with one ultimate ending or is it a crafting sim with almost unlimited options? It’s these kinds of factors that will determine player retention as you continue development and will be a crucial element to the decision of whether to enter early access or not.
If the game is a story-driven title, one option to counter the replayability issue is by releasing an ‘intro’ or prelude chapter for early access where players can interact with NPCs, the world and still engage with the product, without revealing too much of the final story.
For online multiplayer games that go into early access, it provides a way for you to test server load and troubleshoot any networking issues that may arise, as well as see how the community engages with each other, highlighting any potential problems when you launch.
Consider randomly generated aspects to your early-access game. For example, with randomly generated dungeons, you can maintain a fresh feeling to the game, with the lure of loot drops or different items encouraging players to come back.
Another aspect that should be considered is how far into development you are, and how often you plan to update your game. Providing a roadmap to development – with a clear guide to what is coming and when – allows players to see what lies ahead and get excited for future updates. Not only this, but it can help with building social media buzz around specific points in the development, which multiple developers have used to build a social media community around their games.
If you utilise early access, customers should be able to see where you plan to take the game, without overly specific promises that may not end up being kept. Customers are purchasing the game as it is now, along with all future versions, so knowing where you see the future of the game allows them to provide feedback as it is developing.
One of the truly useful selling points of early access is the potential for customers to impact the final game, rather than just being bug testers. If that is something you are looking for, sending out beta keys to supporters may be a better option than early access.
Valheim on Twitter
There is nothing more frustrating to a player than buying a game with bugs that never receives updates or gets fixed. When handled right, interesting or funny bugs can become a talking point on social media that adds personality and a human side to an otherwise faceless process. When a fun bug becomes a part of the game, those who first saw it develop an attachment, and can create fan art and memes relating to it.
What isn’t fun is a game-breaking bug, and your players will let you know if there is one. At the point of early access, typically you should be aiming for a playable version of your game – bugs are expected and those purchasing know that. So transparency around acknowledging bugs and providing an estimated timeline on fixes, especially with larger bugs, is vital to keeping your player base interested in the game.
It is important to offer transparency around your reasons for opting to allow players into your game at the early access point – is it purely for funding reasons, or is it to help further development by allowing players to find bugs and fix them? This transparency will be important to your success, as part of your commitment to the continuation of work towards your final product, receiving feedback from players (and acting on it where appropriate), and seeing your project through to completion.
Stardew Valley is notorious for Abigail’s comment popping up when you give her Quartz, with the community creating a huge amount of fanart about it.
An often less considered aspect of Early Access is how you plan to communicate with your audience. There are so many options for this, from Discord Servers to social media posts and Reddit forums.
By providing a clear method of communication, you allow your players to effectively collaborate with you on the development of the game, and further develop their sense of ownership.
A Discord server is one of the simplest ways to do this, with the ability to set up different categories for text and voice channels, as a way to foster your burgeoning community.
You can also use Discord to promote fan-art, offer AMAs and as many creative ways to engage with your community as you can think of. There are also bots and tools for just about everything you could need, such as growth trackers and bots that reward referrals.
Palia on Twitter
Twitter is also a huge asset for early access developers, acting as an easy way to share dev memes, concept art and game updates. On our blog, you can find some Social Media Content Ideas for Marketing your Indie Game that can be applied no matter where you are in the development process.
Early access can be a powerful development and marketing tool when used correctly, and the points above highlight the importance of deciding when it makes sense for your game.
Implementing early access in your development can kickstart an active community and foster an engaged audience that wants to help shape and support your progress. With regular updates and strong communication with your audience, a long marketing tail can be achieved, allowing you to further grow and potentially broaden your demographic as you listen to and implement player feedback.
There are, of course, reasons why early access might not be particularly suitable for your game. Games with a strong story component are not a great fit, because most of the content likely won’t be implemented from the start.
A rocky early access launch can also affect your final launch, particularly if you haven’t been able to address feedback during development. Early access as a practice has also suffered blows to reputation – with low-quality asset flips occasionally surfacing, so it can be tough to stand out from the crowd in a positive way.
From the very beginning of your development process, and ideally even before, establishing whether early access is right for your game will be key to your success. Knowing the benefits and pitfalls before you make your decision will be extremely important.