Early Access games – the latest trend in PC gaming. They allow gamers to pay for access to an unfinished product that draws upon its user’s feedback and funding to steer the game to completion. Often labelled as a ‘paid-Beta’, Early Access titles are proving to be a divisive topic between players, developers and the games media. However, as the number of new Early Access releases on Steam and other platforms increases it would seem that the format is set to continue for the foreseeable future.
So why is Early Access currently so popular? The benefits of Early Access for developers and consumers have been discussed before, but I think there are more answers to be found amongst Richard P. Gabriel’s thoughts on software acceptance, summarised by his phrase “Worse is Better”.
In his essay from 1989, Lisp programmer Richard P. Gabriel wrote a section titled “The Rise of ‘Worse is Better” where he described the concept of accepting a ‘worse’ solution to a problem, rather than the supposedly ‘right-thing’ to do. In this example, a ‘worse’ solution is one that is simple and limited in functionality compared to the ‘right-thing’ which is more complex and functional.
The core of Gabriel’s argument is that quality is not necessarily improved as functionality is increased, as software that can be used simply for a limited purpose will often be more accepted by users due to its practicality and usability. Crucially, ‘worse’ programs can be crafted and adapted at a much quicker rate compared to the ‘right-thing’, which likely faces longer iteration and usability testing times to function at its desired complex level.
Increased delivery speed leads to an increased use rate as more users adopt the ‘worse’ solution in favour of the unavailable ‘right-thing’. Gabriel describes this adoption process as a ‘viral’ outbreak due to the nature in which the program is spread through word of mouth and existing use, eventually leading to widespread acceptance. Once accepted, there may be pressure from users to expand the functionality but they have already been conditioned to accept ‘worse’ rather than the ‘right-thing’.
In time, the ‘worse’ program will ultimately become the ‘right-thing’ as it is adapted to cater to the increased functionality demands and requirements of its now diverse user base. With this in mind, let’s now look at how this applies to Early Access games.
When considering the benefits of Early Access, many commentators are quick to point out the financial benefits for small developers that the scheme affords them to produce their vision. Users are also empowered by a sense of contribution to a project that they are presumably interested in, be it through feedback or funding, as well as ‘rewarded’ through the titular Early Access to the game.
The game that the users have access to in those early days is a limited and often simplistic program, lacking the intended functionality required to adhere to the developer’s vision of a complete product. According to Gabriel’s terms, such a game should be considered ‘worse’ due to its lack of functionality and an adherence to his principle that “Completeness can be sacrificed in favor of any other quality”.
Taking the comparison further, the simplicity of ‘worse’ programs allows for quicker production rates that can be more readily adapted upon. As project scopes for games become greater, so too does the time in which it takes to complete them, but Early Access titles often boast of a more immediate feedback loop with their customers and consequently a potentially quicker iteration speed.
As mentioned earlier, the quicker a product can be released, the faster the use rate of that product can be increased, particularly in the absence of the ‘right-thing’. In the case of Early Access, developers can quickly push out the simple version of their game with the intentions of generating a user base to expand upon with further updates.
With a user base established, the hope will be to foster a community with these users that in turn increases the product’s visibility and incoming revenue. The importance of YouTube ‘Let’s Play’ videos and community word of mouth is crucial to the success of many modern Indie titles in the industry now. In our time of viral marketing campaigns, Gabriel’s 1989 description of the adoption of his ‘worse’ programs as a virus outbreak is eerily prophetic.
So as a means of funding and promoting a project, Early Access has clear benefits for developers, but it is not without its risks and pressures. Releasing a ‘worse’ version of a game can have a detrimental effect on the all important first impressions of a product that is missing key functionality, potentially preventing the project to gain widespread user acceptance.
If a developer is successful at fostering a community, they are then under pressure to satisfy their expectations and avoid game fatigue for fear of losing their customer base. This may lead to compromises from developers on their original vision of the project and what they deliver in the long run, not to mention risk being at odds with the proposal which enticed their first adopters. Such compromises may prevent the final product ever being the ‘right-thing’ that its developers and users wanted it to be.
When viewed in comparison with Gabriel’s concepts of software acceptance it may be easier to understand why Early Access is considered so divisive within the industry and amongst consumers. The greatest benefit of Early Access, when regarded as ‘worse’, is that it allows for quicker introduction and adoption from users with the ambition of widespread acceptance. It is a process that can provide improved revenue and marketing for smaller development projects that may allow them to compete for sales alongside the bigger budget productions.
However, it is not hard to imagine the Early Access scheme being exploited to facilitate the hurried release of a lesser product to reach the market ahead of an anticipated title. The viral success of the original DayZ mod soon led to a lot of similar products available on Early Access, perhaps looking to capitalise on the game’s popularity. Sadly, a similar precedent for this has already occurred in the mobile games market which has seen its fair share of clones and copy-cats looking to cash in on other’s success.
As the latest process that opens up the financial possibilities for games development to a wider range of users, Early Access will only lead to a more diverse collection of products available on the market. As it continues to gain more acceptance as a process, so too will the products created under the Early Access scheme, until eventually they may even be considered the ‘right-thing’. However, to achieve this goal, concerns regarding the honour system that currently revolves around Early Access transactions and user commitments to unfinished products will have to be overcome.
These concerns actually highlight the important reliance developers and consumers share with one another, and how Early Access may be leading the way to a more harmonious relationship with products that are usually more informed and tuned to their user’s needs when finally released. Whatever the ‘right-thing’ of future games development is, it will have to maintain this often fractious relationship if the industry is to continue its success. In this case, Early Access may be ‘worse’, but that does not mean that it is wrong.
In a word, The Last of Us is astounding. This is not something that should come as a surprise to many when glancing at the perfect scores that were showered upon Naughty Dog’s latest title by a lot of satisfied reviewers. It is not premature to consider it a triumphant swansong of the current generation as we all prepare to usher in the Next-Gen of home consoles.
However, I don’t want to describe why I thoroughly enjoyed The Last of Us. Aside from it potentially taking too long to explain every fantastic minute detail, I want to focus on a fundamental issue I experienced throughout my time with the story of Joel and Ellie.
The keen-eyed amongst you will notice that, until now, I have made no reference to The Last of Us as a game. Therein lies the issue, and it is one that I just couldn’t overlook no matter how hard I tried during playing. The Last of Us is an intensely gripping story that happens to be presented in a brilliant game that puts the player in the leading role. Unfortunately, one of these aspects can end up being overshadowed or disrupted by the other despite the best intentions of the player or the writer.
Right from the outset I was hooked by the character personalities, the way they moved, the dialog and little nuances of emotion visible on their face whilst playing the game. I was performing the part of a real character in a believable and horrific world and I was completely immersed.
I am Joel, walking with my partner Tess through the dystopia of a world ravaged by an unknown infection. As Tess and I converse on our journey through side-alleys and derelicts I suddenly notice something out of the corner of my eye. As Tess moves the conversation to highly pertinent matters I have wandered away from her and out of ear shot to see what this shiny item laying in a dark corner is. In that moment I am transported from this bleak world back to my living room and I am suddenly incredibly aware that I am actually playing a game.
This immersion breaking incident is not an isolated occurrence as it is largely unavoidable when giving the player free control over the lead character’s actions. In each instance I was presented with a choice to explore every nook and cranny of an area or continue to follow the lead of my NPC guide, I was conflicted about which decision to make. On the one hand I wanted to stay true to the situation and the people involved in this scene, but on the other I have conditioned myself to search everywhere in a game environment for fear of missing that one key resource or collectable.
During these moments of mental conflict, I am no longer focusing on the atmosphere, the nuances of emotion on my partner’s face or the developing story between character conversations. I am focused on playing a game and I am reluctant to miss the potential opportunity to discover some revolver ammunition that I sorely need.
These instances are compounded in a linear game like The Last of Us, where the world is built and themed around the struggle for survival and the constant scavenging for resources. If I choose to ignore that dark room down a corridor in order to continue running with my partner away from an impending threat, I have maintained the reality of the situation but disregarded the scavenging themes of survival that resonate through this presented world.
It is a testament to the believability of the story, its characters and the design of the world that I am often presented with these dilemmas in a game, but it leads to the question of how much further the medium must go to reduce such moments of disconnect. When compared to other storytelling media forms such as TV, film and literature, games can offer an additional level of involvement for its audience, but the benefits can also be its undoing and must be leveraged appropriately.
It is not just Naughty Dog’s offering that can lose audience engagement in these ways, with most games determined to tell a story often hampered by a necessity to allow the player control over the situation. Indeed, temporarily removing the player control to act out a key scene via a pre-rendered cinematic is itself a form of breaking immersion as the player is more aware of their lack of control in the circumstances.
While The Last of Us is guilty of this on occasion, they achieve a lot of increased immersion through the design of the game in order to compliment the engagement in the story. The in-game display is fittingly minimal to suit the themes of scarcity, as well as be unobtrusive to the point of being unnoticed until required by the player. Players are left to determine their own path to follow in most situations, with clever Level Design subtly leading the player rather than an artificial objective marker floating above an exit. When attempting to sneak around the player avatar will instinctively move into cover rather than requiring the player to press a button to snap in or out, thus creating an intuitive and natural interaction.
For all its masterful techniques of maintaining immersion in its world, the issue in linear story based games such as this remains that the player will ultimately have the capability to disrupt their engagement in the scene. It may or may not be intentional, but it is this player choice that is integral to feeling they are part of the world at that moment. Without it, the player may as well be watching a non-interactive medium such as TV or film where the story plays out before them.
Of course, the issue is negated somewhat in more open gameplay that can rely on emergent story developments and interactions influenced by the player’s actions. The problem then becomes guaranteeing an interesting narrative for the player to be part of so that they feel compelled to continue further. However, in many ways the strain this can create on writers and developers could have a greater negative effect on the overall quality of a game that sets its scope too wide.
As the gaming industry looks to evolve it is encouraging to consider that the issues of storytelling are becoming more complex and challenging within the medium. More products are aiming to convey a message or have an engrossing narrative to compliment the interaction of playing a game. In some ways it appears that these products are progressing beyond the oft perceived immaturity of games and should possibly be considered as interactive entertainment instead.
Although a gulf between the storytelling and interaction aspect of such entertainment still exists, it should hopefully encourage more developers to follow in Naughty Dog’s footsteps to deliver an even greater synergy of content. With more mature approaches and themes to interactive storytelling becoming increasingly prominent it will hopefully lead to more widespread success, respect and enjoyment within the medium for developers and consumers alike.
Just last week I wrote a post in the wake of Microsoft’s arguably lack lustre performance at this year’s E3 event wondering if the company had broader plans for the future of their new console and controversial policies. Now, with the surprising news of a complete u-turn on these their used game and online connectivity plans following public outcry, it seems we have an answer.
Don Mattrick’s written statement released shortly after the news broke presents a picture of solidarity and an insistence that this change was a result of the company wishing to deliver to its loyal customer base. Whatever Microsoft’s reasoning, this decision is sure to have an impact on all parties concerned with the future of the Xbox One, and not all of it may be positive.
As the news of Microsoft’s u-turn broke the internet was awash with self-congratulatory tweets and enthusiastic posts from those who had campaigned against the policies. Such an outpouring of strong opinion on social media had seemingly achieved the impossible and convinced a massive company to bend to the will of its consumers, so it was no surprise that the reverse decision was met with equal expression.
With restrictions on used games removed from the system, consumers felt that they were once again in control of their entertainment in a manner with which they were accustomed. But perhaps they will be missing out? What Microsoft was proposing was a new method for handling trade-ins that would have still allowed players to exchange used games for newer titles, though admittedly with some limiting caveats. However, what this also suggested was the possibility of a digital marketplace for instant purchasing and delivery of new entertainment, effectively mirroring the success of Valve’s Steam platform on home consoles. This could have presented a whole host of new benefits for consumers such as discounted prices, holiday sales bundles and instant gift purchasing and sharing.
With the reduction of disc-based products and the subsequent used game trade-ins, game stores were looking at potentially lean times until Microsoft’s announcement. It’s quite telling that following the news GameStop’s shares rose by 6% as it became clear that the business could continue with its primary income practice of reselling used games with a large mark-up.
Of late, many stores here in the UK have been struggling financially, with the closure of Gamestation and the down-scaling of Game. This news will likely benefit these ailing stores and their employees, but the effects on consumers may be less positive. With these stores able to continue their used-game practices, consumers may find that they are receiving less value for a trade-in than that of what may have been offered on Microsoft’s proposed trade service.
With the anticipated structure of used games trading on the Xbox One, developers and publishers looked set to receive a more adequate slice of the pie from such transactions with external stores practically removed from the process. Now that the decision has been overruled they may have to revisit existing methods in an attempt to limit used game trade-ins such as the much maligned Online Pass system.
Another factor of this announcement is the effect it could potentially have on teams currently producing content for the next-gen hardware. Turn 10, the Microsoft studio responsible for the Forza series presented their latest title at E3 and outlined a number of features which suggested a necessity for regular online connectivity such as the ‘Drivatar’. This sudden policy reversal could have damaging repercussions on the studio’s efforts if they have been working under the assumption that players would always be connected whilst on Xbox One. Now they may have to consider what this means for their designed systems and how to provide a game for players both on and offline.
With this announcement, Microsoft has seemingly placated a lot of their fans who were worried about the contentious policies they had announced. However, in some cases the damage may have already been done, with some consumers losing faith or trust in the company, wary of such policies being reinstated as suddenly as they were removed.
The company may have a new found respect from some consumers for admitting their mistake and trying to rectify the problem rather than dismissing the concerns of its market. Equally though, they may have lost respect for collapsing so readily under public pressure and not sticking to their convictions in an attempt to innovate their platform with new services.
What this has achieved is a brief respite for Microsoft which was required following the backlash from E3. The timing of the announcement also coincided with the recent firmware issues plaguing Sony’s PS3 which was an unlikely coincidence. There are still some factors about the new hardware that remain to be addressed such as the necessity for the Kinect and the higher product price when compared to the PS4. For now though, Microsoft has pulled itself up off the canvas and is looking to get back into the fight.
In the short term it could be said that consumers look to benefit from this decision more than the other parties concerned, although looking ahead to the future it is unclear if this will continue to be the case. Microsoft were attempting to introduce new practices and services that may have led to greater benefits to the company, developers and most importantly, the consumers.
Perhaps in the long run we have all lost out as the future innovation of home console entertainment has been stilted due to poor communication and a lack of public acceptance. If so, then we are all partly responsible for this turn of events, and we all must now live with the consequences moving forward, for better or worse. The true potential of Microsoft’s policies will unfortunately go undiscovered until the gaming public is more open to these or new concepts, or a company is willing to attempt to revolutionise the format once again.
This year’s E3 event in Los Angeles saw Microsoft and Sony competing for the attention of millions of video game fans with a shiny new line up of exclusive game announcements and platform information. Coming into E3 it was clear that Microsoft had a lot more at stake after a negative reaction to the Xbox One unveiling 3 weeks ago due to used game restrictions and a perceived lack of focus on games. Once at E3 it was apparent to most people watching the Sony press conference that Microsoft was still lagging behind in a contest to impress potential buyers in hopes of supporting their new hardware.
In the fallout of the conferences, social media was in strong voice supporting the PS4 due to its open platform practices, lower price, and indie support. Online polls added to the Sony fanfares as voters deemed them to be overwhelmingly more favourable than Microsoft who scored as low as 9% in some cases.
What seems to have added to Microsoft’s woes in the face of such public disapproval is the communication regarding key issues raised by the primary market and press alike. Don Mattrick’s response to concerns regarding Xbox One’s online connectivity requirements felt cold and insulting when he suggested consumers can use an Xbox 360 instead. Throughout recent interviews and growing developments Microsoft representatives have provided conflicting messages and appeared defiant in spite of the negative reactions from the core market it now seems to be alienating.
In addition, the new technical features unveiled have been poorly demonstrated, meaning the true gaming potential of these innovations is not very apparent. Perhaps this is due to a desire to avoid further separation of the core gamer market with additional TV focused examples, or simply because they do not fully understand the potential themselves.
What could be construed as steadfast arrogance on Microsoft’s behalf may just be a reluctance to admit that they have pitched their new product poorly. Alternatively, there may be an element of truth to this perception given the company’s success in the current generation possibly providing an inflated sense of security.
Taking to the stage at E3, Microsoft presented some impressive and desirable Xbox One exclusive titles such as Respawn Entertainment’s Titanfall. However, given the negative feelings towards the platform many may see this as a hostage like situation where Microsoft is attempting to withhold popular content from players in an attempt to present a necessity to buy their product.
The Xbox One unveiling event was intended for a new demographic of consumers that could potentially provide an increased revenue which will always be a top business priority, though not usually at the risk of losing existing customers. This perceived shift in focus will be the result of deep analysis into the market behaviours and usage statistics to create informed predictions of where the company’s future efforts are best invested. According to Microsoft, that future looks to be one that is no longer solely based around a games platform but rather an interactive entertainment hub for the home.
What Microsoft is proposing is causing a huge riptide of ill will towards the company, but they likely believe that they have accumulated enough good will in the past that they can weather this rough transition period whilst securing new potential customers in the process. Right now, Sony is capitalising on this critical period by riding the crest of the wave and telling everyone exactly what they want to hear in the current battle of hearts and minds.
Looking to the future as Microsoft inevitably are, it is not hard to consider that a lot of the contentious features of this new hardware will become more commonplace and possibly even accepted. If, or even when, that day comes, Microsoft will already have the systems and infrastructure in place to assure dominance of the market to the point of possible monopolisation.
Radical change can often be met with equally radical negativity of the unfamiliar. In 2003 a new service was launched to provide game updates and improved anti-cheat protection to online gaming. Shortly afterwards the highly anticipated game Half-Life 2 was released which required authentication through this service in order to play. The platform was fraught with issues on launch and the target of much public outcry regarding a necessary online connection and perceivably invasive anti-piracy systems. Nowadays the platform, commonly known as Steam, is seen as the darling of PC gaming from a company that can do no wrong. Perhaps Microsoft will be hoping to emulate the success of Valve as they too try and revolutionise their own entertainment platform for the future.
As the number of games incorporating microtransactions into their design fabric has increased, so has the outcry from some consumers concerned about additional charges and so called ‘pay-to-win’ schemes. The lines between premium and freemium titles are becoming blurred, leading many gamers and reviewers to express increasingly negative responses to some of the methods used by big publishers to offer added desirable content to their games.
In comparison, it seems the smaller development teams of the mobile market are experiencing a more accepted opinion of the freemium approach to monetise their products. Typically, users can download a free limited version of a game or app with an option to pay a small fee to unlock the full range of features if they wish. An obvious case for the differing opinions between the inclusion of microtransactions in premium and freemium content is likely to be linked to the price of entry and associated budgets for each project. Adding a £3 charge on top of a £40 new release just to purchase a different texture appearance for your avatar may leave some players feeling cheated.
So if premium titles plan to continue their efforts to include microtransactions in new releases, is there a more acceptable method that could be utilised to keep both consumers and publishers happy? Perhaps the answer lies with a feature mentioned at the Playstation 4 announcement presentation that took place in February this year. CEO David Perry suggested on stage that his Gaikai technology would allow users to start playing any game with the press of a button within the online store. Differing from the standard demo and lite versions already available to consumers, the game would be unrestricted and would not require any purchase before playing.
Gaikai CEO David Perry hinted of instant free access to new games during the PS4 announcement at the Sony conference.
Ignoring the technological, business and infrastructure demands imposed if such a feature were to be a widespread reality, there is a plausible alternative to the premium microtransaction issue within this concept. If players can suddenly have access to any available game on the market for free, publishers may have to incorporate even more microtransactions to make up for the potential loss of the high price of entry. However, it will either take a lot of small desirable content to compensate this, or worse, increased price transactions that suddenly aren’t so ‘micro’.
What if the alternative to such a reality was to adopt an episodic format for content distribution and monetisation? In such a scenario, episode 1 of a title would be the free download available on the online store, providing consumers with a demonstration of the game to hopefully whet their appetites for more. Each subsequent episode would become available for a fraction of the price of a full retail release. Suddenly, the price of entry on all titles has been reduced, providing consumers with more control over their spending, as well as removing the perceived risk of spending large amounts on a new unknown title. This could lead to more players experimenting with new games and genres, as well as potentially reducing the necessity to purchase pre-owned products to save money.
These positives would also benefit the development and publishing teams with an increased potential market for their content, though this also presents them with new challenges. If the high price of entry is removed on the product then encouraging players to purchase all episodes is necessary to compensate. This could lead to teams consolidating project budgets in order to front load their games with the ‘juicy’ content which is likely to receive more visibility. The onus then becomes on the developers to ensure that the high watermark of the beginning content is maintained throughout the product to increase player retention. To put a positive spin on it, this may lead to a new breed of incredible and compelling titles that somehow manage to improve upon each episode, guaranteeing players want to spend a little more to continue their adventure.
In addition, publishers could provide consumers with an option to purchase all episodes for one up-front price much in the same way that products are currently retailed. The recent success of Telltale Games Walking Dead series is perhaps a small indication of what can be achieved with strong episodic content that is sold individually or as a whole.
Telltale Games Walking Dead series demonstrated the potential of strong episodic content.
Attempting to view the direction that premium and freemium monetisation models are heading amidst the blurry lines they travel is an ever increasingly difficult task. What may appease one demographic is likely to result in negative connotations for the other. The introduction of new hardware and services may provide options and control to consumers, but will also require an adjustment of production techniques and creative endeavours on behalf of development teams. Whatever the resulting transition, the reliance on microtransactions and free-to-play models is likely to provide contention between both parties until that unknown middle ground is finally reached. Let’s just hope that the price both parties have to pay to reach that ground is mutually beneficial.