When you are on the cusp of releasing your game, it can be tempting to release an early access version of your game. Early access is a promising way to earn some money to make sure you are able to see your game through, and you can get some much-needed feedback. However, early access is not right for everybody, and if you don’t plan it right, it can stop your game in its tracks.
Early access is definitely a great way to earn some extra money for your game to see its development through but at the cost of later profits. If you are thinking about putting your game in early access, you have to be prepared that you are taking profits from the full release. You only get one release, and if you rush it out, you can cost yourself a lot of profits. Once people see a game on the storefront, no matter if it is in early access or not, that game is released. At first glance, you have just put up an incomplete game for sale, and that impression sticks.
If you take your game out of early access, you have likely improved it a lot and have gotten the game to a state where you are happy to show it to the world. But in most storefronts, there is no “fresh out of early access” category, and your dedicated fanbase has likely already bought the game. I have spoken with several developers on this topic, and a lot of them are surprised at how unremarkable their “full-release” sales are.
You have to remember that once a game is out, people are going to be judging it by its merits alone and typically without context. If your game is looking great, but you are early into development and need some money to finish the game, people will only see what is missing. This then causes them to form a subconscious link between your game and something they don’t like. So even if your game does get to a state where they would like it, they likely wouldn’t even consider purchasing it.
Now another reason you might enter Early Access is to get feedback and discover bugs in your game. This is a bit easier to justify, but you run into the above problems. The best way to get bugs is to get some playtesters either for pay or just friends, and this can help you discover a lot of bugs in the game. If you think your game is in a state where it is bug-free, you should probably release the game. Indie games often have bugs, and people know this going in. Making it easy for people to report bugs can ensure your game lasts longer, and as long as there is nothing game-breaking, you likely would lose any goodwill over it.
If you absolutely need to get people to try your game, consider giving people a demo of it. Making it just a small vertical slice of your build is useful, and making it free can help you gain new fans. Demos can get you some of that much-needed feedback, and new fans. You can market all you want, but until people get your game into their hands, they don’t know if that is something that they want to spend their money on. I can personally attest to getting motivated to buy a game due to a demo and helping the devs find bugs through that same demo. I see demos as an early access without the risk, and instead of depleting future sales, can help you gain quite a big following.
I did a small poll on my twitter, and it was an almost even split on how long people think games can be in early access, but the majority leans towards shorter time spans. We have all heard the horror stories of games like DayZ and until recently, ARK. Games that Enter early access and stay there forever, because they have made the money they are going to make.
For most developers, you just want to be in early access for a few months at most. Any shorter than that, and you aren’t going to get the feedback or the sales you want. Any longer than that, and you run the risk of becoming a “dead game”, and nobody will maintain an interest in your game. The early access flag can go from a promising sign of improvement and consistent updates to a warning sign of an abandoned game.
Early access is a great idea on paper but is a graveyard for many games if it is done improperly. Since it is so niche, and often not as good of a fit for a game as one might think, consider other options first. If you need some extra money, try a small crowdfunding campaign, if you want to bug test, hire QA testers or just release a demo of a small portion of your game. Early access should be seen as a great way to help out certain games, and not as a way for lazy hacks to throw up 1/2 of a game.
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