5 Sep 2016

Early Access Nightmare: The Survival Sim

A couple of days ago, Studio Wildcard released Scorched Earth, a paid expansion pack for their game Ark: Survival Evolved, a survival sim where you must survive being stranded on an island filled with roaming dinosaurs, natural hazards, and potentially hostile human players. The DLC promises a "completely new and different experience" from the base game, dumping your character into an inhospitable desert and having you perform the usual routine of finding food and water, while also building a shelter, to survive. Among that, there's also new locations, bosses and items to discover. Despite this new content, many players have been upset with the release. The game currently has 38% recent approval ratings on Steam, compared to the all-time ratings of 70%.


Early access, or the more accurate "paid-alpha", is a funding model for games that are still early in development that offer buyers access to it in an unfinished state while the developer uses the funds to complete the work. This model began years ago in the form of betas for popular multiplayer games such as Halo 3 and Call of Duty: World at War. In 2010, Markus Persson utilised the model for his game Minecraft, whereby people could spend a one-time fee of 10 euros to play the game while he continued working on it. As Minecraft became more popular, he was able to quit his regular job and hire several new employees to begin Mojang. Minecraft was successfully released about a year and a half later, in November 2011. Since then, it has had many re-releases on different platforms and still receives updates to this day.

So where did Ark go wrong to receive all these negative reviews? You could say that the addition of a paid DLC while the game is still in development was a bad move on their part. Development time spent on Scorched Earth could have gone towards finishing up the main game. It's kind of like baking a cake, and then in the middle of baking you do a whole new cake in the meantime, before resuming work on the previous cake. While I believe this to be the main issue (and I love cake analogies), there is something that goes a little deeper than that.

It took a while to release, but Kerbal Space Program is an example of paid-alpha done right.
Valve added the Early Access program to Steam in 2013; allowing developers to put their game up for purchase in an incomplete but playable state while continuing work on it. Essentially, it's the same model that Minecraft used, except in a more centralised place full of gamers. It's like a marketplace. So, it's imperative that your product stands out from the rest, which is exactly where Early Access falls apart. Games can often fall behind schedule, in which case money might be lost or your community may lose interest, which is why paid-alpha games should be using that money to work harder to get that game finished.

The "survival sim" is one of the more common genres seen across early access. Built on the premise that "you can do anything", these types of games are usually multiplayer, featuring crafting, building structures, managing food and ammunition, with PvP and PvE (usually zombies) - and there's no way for a game to do that reasonably. Including all these features seamlessly into a single game would take a lot of work, and it's usually the smaller game developers with too much ambition that attempt this. DayZ, Infestation: Survivor Stories, Project Zomboid, H1Z1The Forest, and Rust are all guilty of taking years to develop, while also leaving updates few and far between.

I love Project Zomboid, but it's been in paid-alpha for half a decade now.
The promise of "you can do anything" can be accurately translated to "well, you can do a few things, but everything else will come later" - an experience that can never be delivered realistically. Rust and DayZ have both been in Early Access since December 2013, Project Zomboid since November 2013, and while people have been having their fun with the games, it's a frustration that these games must wait in paid-alpha state for so long that the developer may run out of money, or even lose interest altogether. For example, The Dead Linger was a zombie survival sim that went through years of paid-alpha before being cancelled in November 2015. It went from being £30 on Steam, to £3.99 once the bad news broke. Today, it doesn't even have a Steam page anymore.

This is exactly the problem with Early Access; it's risky. Developers get a lot of money early on, and are expected to deliver on their promises. But that funding could be phased out if they take too long to deliver the final product. The survival sim genre seems to be the most notable for this, as most titles seem destined to be placed into development hell, taking years before a full release date can even be announced. Valve in particular need to revisit their policies on the Early Access program, and take stronger measures to ensure that developers are intent on finishing the games they publish on there. Otherwise, in a few years' time we're just going to have a store flooded with hundreds of unfinished games.

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