$157k might sound like a lot, but in reality FRONTIERS has a teensy tiny budget for what I’m attempting to accomplish with it, especially when you consider how much of it is lost to fees and to the tax man. When I crunch the numbers it still looks like we’ll cross the finish line before the tank’s empty, but we’ll definitely be running on fumes, and I don’t like close finishes. What if I get sick? What if translations take longer than expected? I want more money in the bank in case things don’t go as planned.
By now you all know I’m strongly against running another Kickstarter campaign to raise more money. The idea just seems gross to me – you’ve already supported the game, so running another campaign feels like using the sunk cost of your first pledge as ransom for more. (Isn’t there a name for that kind of scam?)
But now that we’ve been greenlit, there’s another option: early access. The problem is that early access is gross in its own way.
While I see nothing wrong with the idea in principle, I’m not convinced that the system isn’t hurting the games industry as a whole in practice. And while the idea of early access for FRONTIERS doesn’t give me the same gross feeling as running another Kickstarter, charging random Steam people for the game in its current state still feels shady. Assuming I did it, the next question is how? How would I offer FRONTIERS on early access and keep it fair, not only to newcomers but to KS backers? Is it even possible? That’s not an easy question to answer.
The first ethical hurdle is price. I’m selling the game for $15. So naturally I’d offer early access for $15 or less, right? Say $5, since it’s unfinished? Nope. That might please the average Steam customer, but it would also undercut the backers who pledged for beta support. They paid $25, so if I’m going to be remotely fair that’s what I’d have to charge for early access. Of course this is an unfortunate case where fairness has disadvantages. $25 will seem high to anyone unfamiliar with the reasoning behind the pricing AND the drop in price on final release may leave them feeling burned. Plenty will write it off as a money grab.
That leads to the second hurdle: motivation. Let’s not kid ourselves – it would be a money grab, more or less. In my case the only reason to go on early access is for money. I could feed everyone a line about opening it up for valuable playtesting and feedback, which is what early access was created for, but the backers who pledged for beta access will already provide that. That’s not to say I wouldn’t find Steam feedback valuable – hell, maybe would be transformative. But the bottom line is that if you had asked me six months ago whether I’d consider it, I would have said ‘no thanks.’ (It would be convenient to forget that, but I won’t.) That being the case, should I really be taking advantage of the system? I’m not sure.
Third hurdle: when does it end? Something I do not like about early access is the way a game can remain in that section forever. Developers can get away with charging near-full-price for an ongoing beta for years, and when they’re called out on the bugs and missing features they fall back on ‘hey we’re early access, what do you expect?’ I’m referring to a non-existent worst-case-scenario composite developer of course – the realities are a lot more complex. But the problem of developers hanging out on early access while never delivering a final product is a real one.
Okay, set the ethical stuff aside. What about the fact that I’d no longer be dealing almost exclusively with backers? Steam is huge. HUGE. I’ve always known this, but Greenlight showed me just how bloody huge it is. I’m not sure I’m ready to dilute the FRONTIERS support base yet. Everyone following the project is so positive and helpful, and I suspect that’s because they sought FRONTIERS out and not the other way around. What happens when FRONTIERS starts popping up on the Steam front page? That kind of attention is inevitable – and when the game is done, it will be most welcome! But now? I’m not so sure. (That could just be my inner critic screaming that they’ll hate it, though I’m less worried about first impressions than I used to be. The game has come a long way since the last alpha and while it still has its problems, it’s shaping up into something enjoyable.)
So yeah, not an easy question to answer.
Here’s what would need to happen at a minimum.
- Ask Steam to keep FRONTIERS off the main page regardless of popularity or interest. (I don’t think early access games should be on the main page anyway.) Save that exposure for the final release and spare casual players as much temptation as possible.
- Do research and get feedback. Find out how early access has burned players, then try to avoid those pitfalls.
- Create a document outlining what features exist now vs. what features are planned, then put it front-and-center on the early access page. Many early access games already go beyond the required ‘it’s not finished’ statement, but many still don’t go nearly far enough. People need to know exactly what they’re getting into.
- Impose a highly visible, well-publicized time limit on how long FRONTIERS will remain available on early access. Something like 3-6 months.
- Don’t let the money get to me. I only need a trickle to finish the game, not a flood.
I just read over this entry and despite all the hand-wringing it sounds like I’ve pretty much made a decision – but I’m going to hold off on making it official until I do my research and hear back from you guys. Maybe someone will talk me out of it.
Read more here: 4/17/2014 – Early Access (?)