The Tragedy of Early Access Burnout


There are 781 million games piled into Steam’s depository, and that number is growing all the time. Anyone with an idea and some development knowledge can crowdfund a project. And Steam’s Early Access enables indie developers to share a dream as it takes shape. But numerous auspicious titles released through Early Access are like fireworks; after a burst of brilliance they fizzle and fade to smoke. The promising game is tucked away in the player’s library, labeled memorabilia and forgotten. Early Access is a remarkable tool, but developers who fail to utilize it properly run the risk of scarring players with Early Access Burnout (EAB).

On January 22, 2015 the spiritual successor to classic FPS titles like Quake and Tribes were released through Early Access; it’s called Toxikk. Scanning Steam reviews you find evidence that players received Toxikk well, viewing it as Very Positive. But six months after release, Toxikk has an average player base of 10. 10 players are actively fragging each other “LIKE IT’S 1999!” While Unreal Tournament 2004 was released over 10 years ago and averages 74 players a day. Early Access Burnout seared Toxikk.

EAB is a notorious killer. Countless developers slap a gradient blue Early Access sticker on their game and serve it like a New York sirloin cooked cold. And when you ask the waiter, “WTF?” he responds by saying, “We’re still working out the kinks with the grill.” At release Toxikk offered one map, Foundation, in which players could enter a free-for-all or team deathmatch with 15 other excited guinea pigs. In an early impression, PC Gamer correspondent Omri Petite wrote, “Toxikk seems threadbare, but I wager this was a deliberate decision by developer Reakktor Studios to entice vets and beginners alike with refined classic gameplay before unveiling further modes and additional battlegrounds in the future.” The deliberate decision lead players to find a new restaurant, and they refused to leave gratuity.

Warning: unchecked zeal to release a game as soon as possible can lead to severe burns. The core audience is the first-day buyer, the player who watched the trailer and her wallet opened automatically. First impressions are everything, even when a title says, “This is an Alpha release, please don’t judge us ^_^.” Release too soon, and even the enthusiastic worshipper will store a game in their Steam library like a time capsule, believing they’ll return but secretly knowing they won’t.

Solution: the closer a game is to launch, the higher the probability of success. But the best Atticus Finch lawyer retorts: “They knew what they were getting into. It says ‘Early Access.’” Well, that defense might work for Neverland’s The Lost Boys, but reality is far harsher. For better or worse people make sweeping judgments, founded or unfounded, in the first few minutes of contact. Game’s in the earliest stages of development have to “Wow!,” especially when they cost $20.

Don’t misunderstand, even a game with third degree burns can rebound as development continues, or once it’s completed. But rebounding isn’t easy. Developers “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” Even though Aldous Huxley was talking about propaganda, his quote applies equally well to games. Steam has become Indiana Jones’ Area 51, with innumerable crates scattered everywhere, screaming, “Look at me!” Player’s have too many choices, making it easier to dismiss any one game for trivial flaws. And that’s awful, because so many fantastic concepts are lost in the seemingly infinite warehouse.

I don’t dislike Early Access. Many of the games that I love are Early Access titles—Project Zomboid, The Long Dark, Rust (see a trend here?)— because I believe in the developers and their projects. But I worry that companies rushing to release their game do so without prudence, and hurt their chances of the widespread success they deserve. I understand the financial reality for some developers, and Early Access helps take a dream’s clay and mold it into something worthy of Michelangelo (who would have loved Turtles in Time). If you’re a company who can afford to wait until the next update then you're helping your game to be more successful. Most developer’s test with a subset of the community for a good reason; bad press hurts, just ask Google Glass. Early Access Burnout is a serious condition that has sent promising games to the graveyard. Don’t let your game suffer if it doesn't have to.

*Steam data obtained from Ars Technica report here.

*PC Gamer Toxikk First impression cited here.

*Player data obtained from Steam Charts here.

From Mega Man II to Ape Escape, I've been playing games for as long as I can remember. I've spent months killing porings in Ragnarok Online and more recently lived a second life in Eve Online. I usually play as gUMBY, gUMBLEoni, or gUMBLes in-game.