Kickstarter over early-access: buying into an idea

There are over 6,000 video games on Steam in early-access at the time of writing. The platform advertises that supporting titles in this category is a way of discovering, playing and getting involved with releases as they evolve through their creation process.

As stated on their official page: “We like to think of games and game development as services that grow and evolve with the involvement of customers and the community. There have been a number of prominent titles that have embraced this model of development recently and found a lot of value in the process. We like to support and encourage developers who want to ship early, involve customers and build lasting relationships that help everyone make better games.”

Early-access can come with plenty of benefits when it works. Players can get their hands on a game (albeit an unfinished one) at a potentially discounted price and are given the opportunity to be a part of a community which provides feedback and helps shape the product. The developer can then use this information to fix any problems with their project as well as change the development direction when necessary, enabling them to create an even better game, attract more players and keep the cycle going.

It’s not always a positive experience though. When most gamers see the term on Steam, they consider it a warning sign and know that bugs, crashes and a lack of content can lie ahead. It can also give the impression that a creator is unable to complete their projects without more money and may therefore never reach a full release. As advised: “You should be aware that some teams will be unable to ‘finish’ their game. So you should only buy an Early Access game if you are excited about playing it in its current state.”

Once such game is the uniquely-named 1… 2… 3… KICK IT! (Drop That Beat Like an Ugly Baby). This was part of the first group to be released into early-access in March 2013 and it’s still sitting there with no progress made seven years later. The latest news entry on the Steam page was added in July 2013 and, although the developer has been active in the discussion forums for other releases recently, the last update for this particular title was posted in August 2014.

We’ve been familiar with betas for several years now and see them as a way for a creator to refine their game before it’s published. They provide a way to allow people outside of their team in when they believe that the project is finally in a good enough state, and with their help they can find any bugs and make final improvements. But early-access lets anyone see right down to the bare bones immediately – and the problem with that is that first impressions are usually the ones that stick.

Let’s look at The Black Death as an example. My other-half and I first came across this survival title at EGX in 2016 and watched a session where the developer responded to the criticism it had received since being released into early-access in April 2015. Only 48% of players had rated it as positive back on its initial day with many of them highlighting bugs, empty servers and poor levels of quality in various areas; and not much has changed in the five years since. It currently has a 60% rating on Steam and still hasn’t been published in full.

The only early-access game I’ve ever purchased was Satisfactory for my other-half after he’d seen it streamed on Twitch and wanted to try it for himself. He ended up putting over 65 hours into it (more than enough entertainment from an unfinished game that I paid £27.99 for) but he now hasn’t touched his save file in the past two weeks. The absence of a full story and final objective, something the developer has said will only be revealed in version 1.0, isn’t giving him the incentive he needs to continue.

Friend-of-the-blog Phil was also a Satisfactory addict for a period but has now stopped playing too. He told me: “I reached the end of the current content (the top technology tier) but I didn’t do everything. There wasn’t really a goal to progress. I could spend 100 hours playing with nuclear power and continuing building at that level but its not what I enjoy, I need goals! I still watch the weekly development streams though, read the regular Q&A, visit their reddit now and again to see when new stuff if coming, so the game isn’t dead to me.”

It’s for some of the reasons above that I won’t buy an unfinished game for myself or play one. The early-access titles currently waiting in my Steam library are there as a result of keys received from backing Kickstarter campaigns, but I won’t install them until the full title is available. Like Pete and Phil, I know that not having something to aim for in terms of story or objective will mean I’ll get bored very quickly and then won’t go back to the title once version 1.0 is finally made available.

It might therefore seem hypocritical then that I’m open to making pledges to crowdfunding projects. What’s the difference between this and buying an early-access game? I’ve done a lot of thinking about this question while writing this post because it’s not one I’ve got an easy answer for. The best I can come up with is that backing a Kickstarter campaign feels like a way of buying into an idea and supporting a developer’s dream, whereas early-access seems like it’s more to do with business and profits.

Games like KICK IT! raise questions about the potential for early-access games to take advantage of customers. Should a developer be allowed to continue selling an unfinished game that hasn’t been updated in several years? By including a disclaimer on the page for every relevant release which says ‘This Early Access game is not complete and may or may not change further’, Valve places the onus firmly on the player. This isn’t unexpected though and seems in-keeping with the way they tend to manage their platform.

I guess the only thing we can do with early-access releases right now is judge each game on a case-by-case scenario – the same as for Kickstarter campaigns. Read all the information provided on the Steam page, particularly the section where the developer gives their reason for using the platform, because this could be a good indication of whether they’re going to succeed. There’s nothing wrong with giving your support to an unfinished title or a crowdfunding project – but it’s important to know what to expect.

Have you ever bought an early-access game? Has it now been fully released?

Satisfactory: what have you done to Pete?

My other-half is a fan of Tom Clancy’s The Division series. Anyone who visits us on Twitch when we’re live will realise this – not necessarily because we’re streaming the game, which happens infrequently now, but because it always seems to come up in his conversation.

Pete bought the first title for himself twice when it came out in March 2016: a copy on the Xbox One so he could play with friend-of-the-blog Ben every week, and another copy for his laptop for those evenings when he played alone. A couple of years later, the release of The Division 2 had been scheduled for March 2019 so I pre-ordered the game for him for Christmas in 2018 and he patiently waited for its arrival. When the day finally came, he went straight out and picked up another copy for the Xbox again so he could join in with Ben.

Let me give you a section from a post written by Ben last year in case it’s not yet obvious just how much he adores this series: “Pete loves The Division. I’ve never known him be so passionate about any other game. He loves the setting, the look and most importantly the grind. Long after I was bored (and frustrated) with the bullet-sponge baddies, Pete was playing it on multiple systems and ranking up his characters to super powerful levels. He’s an absolute Division nut and his enthusiasm is infectious.”

I guess The Division to him is the same as The Elder Scrolls Online (ESO) to me, in that they’re titles we have an ongoing addiction to. We might not touch them for several months although they remain installed on our PCs; then gradually we’ll start feeling that familiar pull and end up diving straight back in, several weeks or months of evenings filled with constant playing. The controllers will then be put down in favour of some other title but it won’t be long before we make yet another return to the grind.

But something has changed and a recent event is making me doubt whether my other-half is the main I thought I knew. When he tried to run The Division 2 to play with Ellen from Ace Asunder and friend-of-the-blog Phil this month and realised our old machine could no longer cope, his reaction was just so small – nothing at all like the one of a person who’s truly addicted to the series. In my shock, I left the room and wandered into the kitchen to make tea; but listening to Pete and Phil talk I realised there was another presence in our relationship.

I feel so stupid now because I should have noticed the signs. Take the Saturday morning when I found my husband in the kitchen for instance. He was scribbling away on a notepad and the scraps of paper around him revealed mysterious diagrams; and when I asked him what he was up to, he told me he was working out a plan for his factory in Satisfactory. Later that evening when we were supposed to be streaming Final Fantasy XIII, he kept leaving his seat to check his laptop and see how the production of metal plates was coming along.

Then there was the day afterwards when I found him on his laptop again and this time talking to the lizard doggo. All through his previous streams he’d been threatening to hurt the cute orange creature because it kept getting under his character’s feet, and now he was saying that it was a ‘good boy’ because it had brought him another Power Slug. Both the cat and I looked at him in astonishment, both of us aware that the doggo was getting more attention from Pete than we were.

Move over, Tom Clancy – the streets of Washington, DC have been left behind for the unknown planet of Massage-2(AB)b in Satisfactory. This game has been on in our house most evenings this month and when my other-half isn’t playing himself, he’s either reading articles about how he can make his factory better or watching Phil stream his playthrough so they can share the latest tips they’ve picked up. With over 150 hours between them at the time of writing, I think it’s safe to say these lads have found a new love.

Pete and I first became aware of Satisfactory when it made an appearance in my Steam discovery queue in July. Neither of us were interested at first because ‘an open-world factory building game’ didn’t seem all that exciting despite the amusing trailer; but he went on to watch several of his favourite streamers play it and decided he wanted to try it for himself. Although we don’t usually buy early access titles, this one is pretty polished and contains a lot of content even at this stage.

When you consider how much my other-half enjoys action games and how frequently he mentions The Division during our streams, it may seem strange that he’s been sucked into something like Coffee Stain Studios’ resource management project. I can see why he’s attracted to it though. He’s always loved the grind and putting the effort into seeing his stats and levels rise, and this is exactly what Satisfactory gives him in a continuous stream – minus the explosions and gunfire.

I’m not really into base-building titles and so it’s not one I’d pick up myself, but there’s something oddly relaxing about watching Pete play and making sure his conveyer belts are in parallel lines. I do prefer the exploration element though and like it when he goes off sightseeing with Phil in a co-op session. I want to see what’s lurking in that cave, hiding behind that mountain or concealed among all that green gas, and it’s even better knowing that lizard doggo might make an appearance at any moment.

I do wonder how the gameplay and story is going to progress though. I mean, the protagonist has arrived on a new planet with the aim of harvesting its natural resources and ‘putting them to good use’. The Steam page says you can ‘conquer nature by building massive factories across the land’ and ‘expand wherever and however you want’. That surely can’t be good news for the land or the alien creatures which inhabit it and I wonder if this is going to be touched on later on in the title.

For now though, Pete is happy with building more conveyer belts and figuring out how to get to the next milestone. Let’s see if The Division is able to pull him back, or if his heart has now been truly given to the lizard doggo.