Unfinished Video Games Are Turning Into Hits

With the help of lightning rings, garlic and Bibles, players were outlasting waves of ghouls and beasts in Vampire Survivors long before the video game was released officially.

Vampire Survivors became a word-of-mouth hit during its 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, had originally planned to include 12 characters, five stages and about 40 weapons in the game. By the time its 10-month early access period ended in October 2022, there were 40 characters, 10 stages and 74 weapons for players to uncover.

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

Movies have long been shown to small audiences in test screenings, enabling studios to remove jokes that do not land or rewrite unsatisfying endings. But in the video game industry, early access titles are available to anyone who is interested.

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

Only the first of Baldur’s Gate 3’s three narrative acts was playable during early access. When the game was fully released, it included new races and subclasses, as well as dozens of previously unseen spells.

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

The studio behind Astral Ascent credits its early access sales for turning it into a bigger game than originally envisioned. Credit…Hibernian Workshop

Hibernian Workshop used the $500,000 it made from 19 months of early access sales to support the full release of the fantasy roguelite Astral Ascent in November. Like in the hit game Hades, which spent almost two years in early access, players compile skills over time to battle through a randomized landscape.

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

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

The benefits from early access for smaller games like Astral Ascent can be even greater because quality assurance — the process in 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 for as long as your early access is priceless,” Denizet said.

Making alterations can be a balancing act. A game that changes drastically in early access may frustrate players who thought they were buying a different product, but not taking advantage of feedback can defeat the point of deviating from the traditional development cycle.

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

A scene from Satisfactory, a factory simulation video game that has been in early access since 2019.Credit…Coffee Stain Studios

An independent developer can convincingly promise players that they need to support an unfinished game in order to improve the final product. A studio with an enormous budget may not have that same leeway.

Some genres are also better fits with the early access model.

Narratively driven games with a clear beginning, middle and end could be seen as incomplete, and be subject to negative reviews, if they are released early. Open-ended games with replayability are generally a wiser bet, said Jonathan Smars, the lead engineer of Valheim, a popular survival sandbox game that spent two years in early access.

Big-budget titles referred to as AAA games, he said, tend to have a very clear vision and target audience in mind. “But maybe if some AAA studios were to adopt more of an indie mind-set, they would actually end up making better games,” he said.

The multiplayer survival game Grounded, in which shrunken players navigate a backyard filled with predatory bugs, was always intended to be an early access title, said Adam Brennecke, a 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 of getting it right,” Brennecke said. “Game development is an iterative process to find the fun, and the more iterations you have, the better the game is going to be.”

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