Let's discuss Early Access for RPGs.

BadMinotaur

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As I'm sure most of you have noticed, "Early Access" games are all the rage right now. For those who don't know, Early Access is exactly what it sounds like -- players having access to a game during its development stages. The trend is dying down a little, but it's still an interesting idea for us game developers.

The idea is that players who pay for or are granted Early Access give feedback that is then considered and possibly put into the game. The big service that's promoting Early Access, Steam, has even reworded its Early Access guidelines to emphasize that developers are expected to at least work with players while developing the game instead of just taking their money and ignoring them.

I think in theory this is great, depending on the project. I want people to try out my game and help me improve it. Where I stumble though is this: what type of game can Early Access work for? When I think of a good candidate for Early Access, I think of games that aren't as story-driven as your typical Japanese-style RPG. A first-person shooter, even with an excellent story, can still be handed to players to test how fun it is. A platformer like Mario can be put through its paces just fine.

But RPG players, we're a weird lot. Most of us certainly enjoy battle mechanics and other fun parts of the game, but honestly most of us are there for the story. The story isn't just some backdrop in RPGs, for many it's the entire point. So in Early Access, will the developer be ceding part of their control to the audience for the story?

Okay, maybe that's not so bad. Getting feedback on how your story is going as it develops is a pretty good thing and you can always take suggestions, even if you don't end up following them. Then my question is, is it okay to spoil the story like this for people who may end up being your most dedicated fans? You'll be retooling it and reworking it and some plot points may come out earlier than you intended, and suddenly that's a surprise they won't have anymore. Is the overall benefit of the feedback worth the loss of surprise for some of your audience?

And lastly, the question that made me want to post this in the first place. At what point do you actually release your jRPG for Early Access? When the battle system is done and you're crafting the plot? When you have the first town/dungeon or equivalent done? When a chapter is finished? You catch my drift.

Thanks for reading, and I eagerly await your thoughts and opinions =)
 

Bloodmorphed

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All it does it boil down to opinions. I myself have bought an early access game. Dungeon Defenders II is on Early Access right now at 25 bucks, I plan on buying it.

My opinion is, if it feels worth it for you, go for it.

EDIT:

Forgot to add another opinion lol...

As for how/why you should go for Early Access, it should be a bigger project. Around 40-80+ hours of games (if it's a RPG in this RPG Maker style).

For example The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth and the first one is unlimited play time, you can really never "beat it" you can complete it, but thats not the same in my book. There are a few games on this website I would throw 20 bucks for an early access for, that are free. It just boils down to, is it worth it? How are you going to price, and why do you think it's worth anyones time buying it "early" especially if it will be fore free (Like Dungeon Defenders II, it's in Early Access for 25 bucks but will be free in a year or so.)
 
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kerbonklin

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Early Access is an evil, evil world. It's like Kickstarter but the product is pre-delivered. Many things are subject to change, maybe the game will never release in the end, maybe the game will but with absolutely no changes during that early time period. Maybe the game is extremely buggy. The only games I would generally appreciate a paid Early Access from are from companies that I can trust who can deliver.
 

Matseb2611

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Personally to me, the idea of paying for Early Access for a game that will be free in the end is absolutely ludicrous. Early Access is an incomplete game. If anything, the devs should make their Early Access cheaper than the final product, so to encourage more players to pick it up during this stage and to give useful feedback.

And as Kerbonklin mentioned, what if the game is never even released in the end? There is a great deal of risk for us players to buy an Early Access game, and the devs really need to take that into account when setting their prices.
 

Shaz

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That could be interesting for side quests, mini games/puzzles, giving your characters some more personality, menu layouts. It would be difficult if you had people who wanted to change fundamental things about your game. How do you decide how much attention to pay to their requests? How do you say no without them feeling ripped off?
 

Bloodmorphed

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Early Access is type of support for the developers, and some companies do it the correct way. Trendy Entertainment being one of them. Dungeon Defenders will be free eventually yes, but they need money to produce good results, so they provided early access. I will be buying this is I get the money for it, you can bet on that because I love the company. If you don't want to support them then don't buy the Early Access, especially if the developers abuse it, if they do I agree it's stupid. But the companies who do good with it deserve the support. Creating more content, listening to their players and change the game, tweak it. It is all up to the developers if Early Access is worth it, and you have to do your research to find out.
 

BadMinotaur

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While I find it totally odd that Dungeon Defenders II has that kind of Early Access model, I am pretty okay with it. If Trendy is upfront about the fact that Early Access will be paid while future access will be free, and people still choose to buy it, then there's nothing wrong going on here. All parties had all the information they needed and came to an agreement.

Early Access is an evil, evil world. It's like Kickstarter but the product is pre-delivered. Many things are subject to change, maybe the game will never release in the end, maybe the game will but with absolutely no changes during that early time period. Maybe the game is extremely buggy. The only games I would generally appreciate a paid Early Access from are from companies that I can trust who can deliver.
I'm a little hesitant to call Early Access "evil." It's abusable and has been abused, but it's a tool like any other. However, I am definitely interested to know if there were anything a first-release game company could do to earn your trust for an Early Access release.

That could be interesting for side quests, mini games/puzzles, giving your characters some more personality, menu layouts. It would be difficult if you had people who wanted to change fundamental things about your game. How do you decide how much attention to pay to their requests? How do you say no without them feeling ripped off?
This is exactly the sort of thing I'm trying to figure out myself. I think you could probably safely ignore the pie-in-the-sky requests, the ones that are obviously far-fetched to most people. If they're really persistent, maybe you could address it once or twice with a simple answer -- I find in these cases the other fans will quickly get tired of the unreasonable request and will jump to answer the request for the developer.

I think it comes down to what they're saying. "Change your story to have more of a buddy cop feel!" is not going to get you anywhere; that's a major change not worth pursuing at all. However, "I think combat is really boring" -- uh oh. That may take a sweeping change after all, but maybe not. Maybe you just have to drill down and find out why they're dissatisfied with combat, and fix the pacing/balance/whatever it is troubling them.

I'd also keep a changelog somewhere in the public eye with community changes very clearly marked so that people could see that yes, you are taking their feedback into account. Without a list like that it might feel like no changes are being made with community feedback, when in reality a ton is being done as a result of it.
 

Matseb2611

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@ Bloodmorphed: Getting the support during development is fine, but it is as you said, all depends on how the devs go about it and whether they're a reliable company. However, as players we can't know who is reliable and who isn't. We are not aware of the developer's practices and so on. It is a lot like Kickstarter, as Kerbonklin said. I personally wouldn't mind to pledge $10-15 for a promising game if I get a copy of the game at the end, but say asking $60 for a copy of the game before the game is made is really terrible. And the $10-15 that I am giving in the pre-made stage I sure hope is discounted from the full price when the game is released. It's called time value of money. If the dev asks for money upfront before the game's release, the value has to balance out all the risks (game being bad upon release, game not being made, me spending this money for a game that isn't out as opposed to one that is, etc etc).
 
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Shinma

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I have mixed feelings here, because I have been all over the spectrum. To prevent a wall of text I will just highlight some of my experiences with early access.

Towns

  • Bought it as early access. The game, imo, was worth the price with the content that was already in the game at that point.
  • Developer promised so much more, eventually bailed on the project. Sold it to someone that wasn't making money off of new purchases and didn't have the time, so he bailed. Reviews are now mostly negative, which is a shame, because the game is truly worth the money, even in it's unfinished state.
  • People turned against the company because the game was abandoned. Never mind the fact that had the developer not promised more, the game would have done well because it's current content was worth the money. (I have 192 hours on record for a game that I spent $15 on).
Starbound

  • While more kickstarter than early access, they promised a playable version by the end of 2013. What they released was playable, but lacked a lot of material.
  • Updates to the game have been slow, unless you are opted in to the nightly branch. Many players feel they have been ripped off and are turning against the company.
  • MASSIVE update is about to release, pretty much overhauling the game, and adding tons of new content, however, many people may not play it then.
  • This early access model likely cost them many fans.
Gnomoria

  • Another early access game that I have MANY hours in (162 to be exact). Game is $8, once more, this game is well worth the price charged
  • This dev updates pretty much weekly and every so often, bi-weekly.
  • Takes a lot of feedback from players and incorporates it. 
  • This early access model is about where I feel it should be. Low cost for early access, quick yet small updates, lots of transparency and communication.
Stonehearth

  • Early access here is a beta version. Updates are slow, but the devs keep a road map up to date, have high communication with player base.
  • Although I don't quite feel it has the content it needs for what it takes to get into the beta, I feel that this team will finish the game and in the end, the value will be there.
  • Fan loyalty is high due to transparency of work being done.
There are many more I could go over, but I will stop there as I think it shows a good spread. I must admit, a good many of the early access games I played to the point of being burned out on them. While I may or may not have gotten what I feel to be a solid value for the title, I most likely won't go back to them and play the final product, and that is the biggest risk of early access in my opinion.

I think, if done right, early access can be a good thing, depending on the type of game and how the dev's handle it. Those that seem to survive and thrive are those that communicate with their player base and offer a good value for the price they are asking for. I think a tiered early access may be best, i.e. charge a small amount at first and ever so slowly increase the price for newcomers as you release newer versions, ending at your final price with your final product. This way you reward the early adopters.
 

BadMinotaur

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It's interesting that you propose that pricing model, because I've heard someone else suggest it in a completely different context. I can't locate the article now, but there is an indie dev out there who specifically said their game would never go on sale -- it would only increase in price over time. It was, just pulling figures here, $5 for pre-order, $10 for the first week and would settle at $15 as its final price, forever. This was in response to the sale-mania that goes on with Steam and similar services, but I think it also works great for the "increasing scale" that you're talking about.

You also reminded me that I didn't actually talk about my own experiences with Early Access. I've only tried two games, and one of them was not even a "real" Early Access title. I'm talking about Minecraft there, as Notch put the alpha of that game up for sale and boy, was it an alpha. Multiplayer barely even worked! But look at what it became, too. Then again, I'm not sure we should ever use Minecraft as an example of anything, since it's the exception to so many rules.

The other is Unturned. Unturned is actually completely free, but paying $5 gets you a couple of sweet bonuses in-game and supports the developer. As with Stonehearth, the developer is very, very transparent about what he is doing -- he blogs almost daily about proposed changes and what he's working on, last I checked.

I think the trend seems to be that to succeed with Early Access, you kind of have to treat it like an extended Kickstarter campaign. You have to talk to people constantly about what's going on, what you're doing and why you're doing it.
 

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