The case in favor of nearly finished games
TLDR: there is going to be some reading to do in this blog post, as I do not believe intelligent debate happens in two lines or a twitter post.
We just released our first game in my tiny studio. A lot of work, debate, and discussion went into the launch, as always must when commercializing something you are building. I decided to launch a single player RPG experience, Blood Bond — Into the Shroud, as a phased limited time service game.
The developer point of view
Now as it happens, I do not come from a game dev background despite being a long time gamer. I am a technical product innovator, I have built apps and software for a variety of industries most of them very successful in their own verticals.
And in the world of software development, we have a long history of the evolution of early releases to customers and post-launch evolution of a product. Blood Bond is our first game release at W.R.K.S Games in my own evolution from a technology manager to game developer.
I look at the debate around early access and games as a service launches and see a lot of negativity in the gaming scene around these concepts and the flood of opinion around it is largely from the consumer-facing point of view.
So here is the developer point of view of a long time software innovator and self-funded and published game developer:
To launch a game today without early access or a post launch roadmap is largely suicide by arrogance.
A game is fundamentally a consumer product. It's designed for consumer use and engagement. I hear gamers saying that they prefer it if game developers completely finished products before launching — but that makes little to no sense as a product developer.
A game like any other product, cannot be finished without seeing how the users consume it, enjoy it, feedback to it.
We have seen high profile failures in the game industry lately, Telltale Games (source: The Verge), Starbreeze (source: Eurogamer) make the case well for what happens when you build games without gamer input or without early feedback. Even Valve, screwed up royally with Artifact (source: PC Gamer), for the same reason.
How and why we did it
Our first game, Blood Bond, is a single player RPG. We did both an early access period and phased chapter based launch. An unusual choice for an RPG but of great value that we did. Here is why:
I started the game with a very clear view of what I wanted the game to be. A framework and goal. When we launched early access, we launched only the tutorial section of the game.
During that period a flood of feedback came through that colored and affected game development. Key takeaways were:
- We received immediate feedback that people did not like the top down camera style. We used that feedback to transition to a third person camera view that hugely improved the game experience.
- We received far more requests for controller support than I would have thought, that moved that feature further up the priority list for us
- We received a lot of feedback on performance and resolutions and how the game performed, to force us to look at data surrounding norms around what the majority of gamers today have in the way of equipment — yielded some surprising results that colored what minimum specs we aimed at
In other words, if we launched without early access we would have launched a game lot of people would likely not have played at all.
One thing I did not see enough in early access, was YouTube videos and Twitch streams of people playing the game.
After early access, I made a controversial decision to launch the game, not as one single finished product, but as a phased product in 5 chapters. Essentially a single player game released as a live service over a limited amount of time.
There were two governing reasons for it:
- It allowed me to see how consumers and curators would play the game
- Launching only the early two chapters first, meaning that if we saw any surprises in the failure of our game design we had time to adapt and change before committing to the full story past chapter 3
This turned out to be a lifesaver, as days after the launch the first few hundred units had rolled out to gamers and they started streaming and YouTubing their experience. The first reviews started to roll in.
One thing became clear: I had misjudged pacing and level design on the game’s initial levels. Watching the initial batch of gamers consume our product made it clear that we had to iterate the game design a step further before we were really where we needed to be.
Over the week that followed I completely redesigned the games initial two chapters, also taking the time to fix launch bugs and issues we had missed as a small team — all thanks to the phased launch approach.
If I had waited for the full 5 chapters to be done internally before launching, we would once again have had a game that was not tuned to our users' needs or conveying the enjoyment we envisioned.
The case for early access and games as a service are the same: the balance of consumer value and commercial returns
The mindset of backing games as a service
All successful product design is iterative. Neither developer nor consumer has the luxury of denying this.
By doing phased launches game developers have an opportunity to balance commercial investment, always ensuring that each stage of their investment in games is balanced against user needs and creative vision.
It allows saving money and time working on the wrong things, which in turn lengthens the life of the game studio and their ability to continue to generate content their community desires.
And most importantly, it allows companies to be bold and experiment with new ideas and new concepts instead of just regurgitating tired concepts that are known to work commercially.
So as a gamer, before you take to criticizing any studio taking the phased approach or games as a service approach where they launch a framework of a game to iterate over time ( a Minimum Viable Product) — remember that this is a model that has successfully created consumer value for decades in the consumer software industry.
I do not mean that you should get taken into every marketing hype video that game companies do — the game industry has let gamers down a-plenty over the last few decades.
But I do mean, that as a gamer expecting to get a rewarding gaming experience, we are in a time when you need to participate in the development and launch experience to get that reward — as opposed to just waiting to have the perfect game handed to you.