Dying Early Access Games: Fragmented & Project Genom
I have been an Early Access winner, backing games that found the right combination of elements to become massive successes, even while still wearing their "pre-alpha" nametag. Doesn't happen often. Doesn't happen much at all. Most Early Access titles die with a whimper, and today, I'm watching two games I backed slip into obscurity and irrelevance, Project Genom and Fragmented. Each has their own development story to tell, but the conclusions are the same: playerbase graphs that lean closer to zero each day. Unlike an asymptote these games will likely come to a rest on the X-axis and remain as grey text in my Steam library for eternity.
Too much time has passed since both games released. The development team's have their reasons as to why—legal trouble, financial trouble, etc. trouble—but "whys" don't matter to the player. Unfortunately, excuses are periphery: distant voices saying "please, believe me" that fade into silence. No one can hear you in the crowd screaming, "look at me, look at me!" The library of games is enormous—analogous to Borges' The Library of Babel—and to hold any player's attention you have to be exceptional, a shining star, an anomaly that glistens like lapis lazuli amongst stone.
Every time you slap your money on the table labeled "Early Access" you're engaging in a kind of gambling—that is, if you're investing in a future dream and not the game as is. I want to emphasized that I've enjoyed plenty of Early Access games in their pre-alpha state, and continue to play them because there were always enough features to make it feel like a game, whether or not the developers felt their project was complete. Others I backed because they promised a vision, and I wanted to believe. I tasted the fruit and waited for the tree. But in the same way I thought I would get rich selling knives door-to-door, it didn't happen.
Project Genom was one of those games. I even wrote an editorial advocating cautious optimism, that player's looking for a sci-fi shooter RPG should add Project Genom to their watch-list, to wait and see what happens. I happily let myself buy into faith. Today, I have to rescind the recommendation, because nothing has happened—beyond some developer blogs promising that the project is still being worked on. And I give them the benefit of the doubt. I believe you developers. I believe you're working. The problem is, I've moved on.
I think of my high-school relationship when I went to college. We promised to stay together, to fight the statistical odds of making "Us" work, to overcome the stereotype. But we went to school in different states, and eventually—as cliché as it may be—drifted apart. The same happens with games. Except with a game, it's distance plus every potential significant other is winking at you through Steam.
When you release a game into Early Access you are taunting Time. Fragmented teased the clock and now the clock is laughing. Unless you've discovered some secret alchemist formula to retain players, your playerbase burns out like a firework, fizzling days and weeks after launch. That's the tragedy of Early Access, a disease that infects far more titles than anyone has the energy to recognize.
I worry that companies rushing to release their game do so without prudence, and hurt their chances of the widespread success they deserve.
Games that are not finished will be abandoned by the playerbase. And once a player dismisses a game it is near impossible to earn their attention again. Beyond the few cult-like believers, your bread and butter (new players) have moved on to the next dazzling project promising entertainment. Our appetite for new distractions rises every day, and we rarely look below to see what's been passed.
Look what's happened. The few remaining players in Project Genom and Fragmented are like people who show up on a Saturday for a party that happened last Friday. The lust is gone. And now both games—and many others—wait in senescence, knowing death is near but secretly believing they'll live forever. I salute those supporters who hold out hope, because they have far more optimism than I can muster—though I don't know where the line between optimism and foolish rests.
The lesson here isn't to avoid supporting any pre-alpha/beta titles. I've invested hundreds of hours into Early Access titles without any regret. The point is to remember that for every game that does make it, there are countless titles that evaporate into irrelevance, living on as a momentary nostalgia, remembered only when our subconscious reads a title as we scroll through a library bursting with choice and ask, "Whatever happened to that game?"