Unfinished video games become hits

Using lightning rings, garlic, and bibles, players survived waves of ghouls and beasts in Vampire Survivors long before the video game was officially released.

Vampire Survivors became a word-of-mouth hit during the Early Access period, an increasingly popular alternative to the traditional development cycle. In early access periods, studios sell an unfinished product—often at full price—to highly engaged gamers who can provide both valuable feedback and a crucial revenue stream.

Luca Galante, the creator of Vampire Survivors, originally planned to include 12 characters, five stages and about 40 weapons in the game. By the end of the 10-month early access period in October 2022, there were 40 characters, 10 stages, and 74 weapons for players to unlock.

“Vampire Survivors started as a hobby project and I had a much smaller scope in mind,” Galante said. “I’ve been super uplifted and driven by the positive reception.”

Movies have long been shown to small audiences in test screenings, allowing studios to remove jokes that don’t land or rewrite unsatisfactory endings. But in the video game industry, early access titles are available to anyone who cares.

“If you want to know that your game isn’t good, you’d rather know as early as possible so you can still do something about it, not when it’s too late,” said Swen Vincke, CEO of Larian Studios , which released Baldur’s Gate 3, the critically acclaimed role-playing game, in August after spending nearly three years in early access.

Only the first of the three narrative acts of Baldur’s Gate 3 was playable during Early Access. When the game was fully released, it featured new races and subclasses, as well as dozens of never-before-seen spells.

Early access periods can bring significant benefits, including additional financial resources for studios to complete or expand a game.

Hibernian Workshop used the $500,000 it earned from 19 months of early access sales to support the full release of fantasy roguelite Astral Ascent in November. Like the hit game Hades, which spent nearly two years in Early Access, players compile skills over time to fight their way through a random landscape.

“Without it, we would have needed to make a much smaller game,” Louis Denizet, Astral Ascent’s lead designer, said of early sales.

Denizet said Hibernian learned during early access that it was no longer in full control of the creative process, reworking several systems to meet player expectations. Based on community feedback, the studio improved the game’s interface and redesigned its 28 character portraits into animated pixel art.

The benefits of early access for smaller games like Astral Ascent can be even greater because quality assurance—the process by which technical bugs are identified and fixed—is a difficult and expensive part of game development.

“Having thousands of people give feedback on their experience while your early access is invaluable,” said Denizet.

Making changes can be a balancing act. A game that changes drastically in early access can disappoint players who thought they were buying a different product, but if they don’t take advantage of the feedback, it can defeat the point of deviating from the traditional development cycle.

It’s easier to set expectations with a smaller audience, said Snoot Treptow, a programmer and community manager at Coffee Stain Studios, which is working on Satisfactory, a factory simulation game that’s been in early access since 2019. Players were excited to sees the studio add pipes — a request that has become a community meme — in one of Satisfactory’s major updates.

An indie developer can convincingly promise players that they need to maintain an unfinished game in order to improve the final product. A studio with a huge budget might not have the same leeway.

Certain genres are also better suited to the Early Access model.

Games with a narrative with a clear beginning, middle, and end can be seen as unfinished and subject to negative reviews if released early. Open-ended, replayable games are usually a wiser bet, said Jonathan Smars, the lead engineer on Valheim, a popular sandbox survival game that spent two years in early access.

Big-budget titles, called AAA games, he said, usually have a very clear vision and target audience. “But maybe if some AAA studios adopt more of an indie mindset, they’ll actually make better games,” he said.

Multiplayer survival game Grounded, in which huddled players navigate a backyard full of predatory bugs, was always meant to be an early access title, said Adam Brenneke, game director at Obsidian Entertainment. The studio saw the success of other survival games like Subnautica and The Forest, he said, and based Grounded’s development on those early access models.

“Early access is a great way to develop games because you have more chances to get it right,” Brenneke said. “Game development is an iterative process of finding the fun, and the more iterations you have, the better the game will be.”

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