Less than halfway through 2022, it’s clear that this year is going down in gaming history books – Elden RingoThe amazing success of solo put that into stone. Although giant hits have been the focus of conversation this year, most of this year’s most impressive projects are much smaller in scale. It was quietly a huge year for independent games coming out early access.
A concept that has become more popular over the past decade, the early access approach allows developers to release games long before they are in a finished 1.0 state. This gives fans a chance to test games early on and give feedback to creators, having a direct impact on development. The strategy famously paid off Hades in 2020, creating the first instant classic of the decade. Two years later, access is still paying off for developers who are willing to let communities into their creative process.
Just this past month, we’ve seen major success stories of early access in the form of Dorfromantik, Demolishand, most recently, Rogue Legacy 2. Everyone is talking about the potentially massive benefits of early access, although the process is not without its own stress, danger and vulnerability for creators willing to take risks – just ask the team back. Rogue Legacy 2.
Accepting early access
For a long time, most video games followed a similar launch path. Developers have been quietly working on a new title for years, publishing the occasional demo or holding game tests to gather feedback. A game would launch in state 1.0 and would either be made or receive post-launch adjustments based on feedback (see Elden Ringo with its constant chain frustrating of updates). Early access changes that timeline, widening the game’s backstage and folding it into the path to 1.0.
Developer Cellar Door Games has decided to take that approach with it Rogue Legacy 2, a sequel to its influential 2013 rogue predecessor. During that game launched in ready 1.0 state, Cellar Door decided to distribute the sequel one area at a time until the game was over. In an interview with Digital Trends, Cellar Door co-founder Kenny Lee explained that it was a surprisingly emotional move for the studio.
“It wasn’t really a very easy decision to make,” Lee tells Digital Trends. “We’ve seen previous games in the genre do well in early access, so we knew it would work. Did we want to do it for Rogue Legacy 2 For us, it was more than just a game. It’s something that has changed our lives and taken off with our company. So opening it up to everyone was a little scary. But we just wanted it to be the best game possible and we thought early access was the best way to do it. “
Part of the decision was logistical. Cellar Door wanted to raise the scope of the sequel, but that would have required a significant increase in the studio’s staff as well. Starting with early access would help alleviate that challenge. It would start testing early, which in turn would leave the studio dealing with complex issues such as game flow and difficulty balancing early. For example, Lee notes that the extremely difficult fifth area of the game, the platform-heavy Sun Tower, was almost finished when the game initially launched and will be one of its first biomes. However, the team quickly realized that it would be too hard and kicked it much further down the road.
I don’t know if we could even do that Rogue Legacy 2 if we didn’t get in early access.
Although it would be useful for the final product, early access would also come with some drawbacks – which were immediately apparent to the team initially launching the game in August 2020.
“What was more critical was when we finally showed it to people and we didn’t get the perception we were hoping for,” Lee says. “We underestimated how much it would hurt. That’s a challenge for a lot of people entering early access that they don’t really consider, and that’s what happens if your early access game doesn’t hit the ground running?
The underlying reaction of the game compared to expectations was due to how limited the initial release was. It only contained one of the six biomes that would appear in the final version of the game. Outgoing players burned through the build and beat its boss much faster than Cellar Door had anticipated, leaving some impatient fans feeling. left by the long-awaited project.
We just had to dig deep and generate the willpower to finish the game.
That’s the scarier side of the approach. By putting a game into early access, developers are basically signing a contract with their players. It’s a long-term commitment that says the studio will finish the project until completion, no matter how long it takes. Returning from that deal could have an adverse effect, breaking the most serious trust between studio and its most loyal fans, who used their free time to give suggestions.
“We just had to dig deep and generate the willpower to finish the game,” Lee says. “Ignorance is happiness in this regard where you think it’s going to do well and you realize it’s not working so well, but you have to keep going.”
The initial response to the first biome prompted some major changes to how the project was launched from there. Initially, Cellar Door planned to drop new biomes one by one into milestone fragments. The studio was “scared” that the game wouldn’t take off after initial criticism though, so it packed two biomes into its next update instead. This would help turn some gameplay sense around, but also leave the developers struggling to create a new roadmap for the rest of the game pipeline.
That’s not to mention that an early access update launch does quite a bit of extra work. Lee notes that every major update the team has dropped Rogue Legacy 2 carried the same stress as a full game launch. He estimates that the team had to go through nine launch cycles by the time the game made it to 1.0, each new as taxed as the last.
“Every time a new patch comes up, it’s a huge job,” Lee says. “Tons of bugs appear, you have to prepare marketing materials… It’s a mini-attack every time. And it doesn’t get any easier! ”
When asked what advice he has for developers who are thinking of early access, Lee emphasizes the importance of launching with enough content. While the idea of building a game from scratch with the community is fun, Rogue Legacy 2The difficult start shows that players need to be presented with enough basic content beforehand to stay in it for a long time.
Stay with it
While Rogue Legacy 2The path of 1.0 may sound like a horror story about a game, the end result speaks for itself. The game was launched to critical acclaim this month and is currently one of the best reviewed titles of the year. Horizon Forbidden West. Lee believes this would not have been possible without lowering his guard and leaving players in an emotionally vulnerable process.
“Early access is a lot tighter than publishing a game once, but it’s a sacrifice you have to make if you want to make a better game,” Lee says. “I don’t know if we could even make Rogue Legacy 2 if we didn’t get in early access.”
By listening to feedback and even just watching content creators play the game, Cellar Door was able to make significant adjustments that would be for the best. That included cutting at least five inherited traits, as a condition of “light sensitivity,” that were disgusting players (“I don’t know why we skipped that,” Lee says). The game’s troubleshooting system, where players lose maximum health when collecting relics, also experienced a major setback after the developers realized that players simply did not collect items to avoid health loss.
Hard decisions like this can create additional stress in early access. Turning on established systems on the flight may be pleasing to some, but it can also trigger some forks. Despite the fact that there is community collaboration, there is a healthy level of give-and-take that developers must maintain; the approach can be just as emotionally draining as it is rewarding. The best advice Lee gives to developers who want to do it with early access is to prepare for the impact.
“The only advice I can give is to grow thicker skin,” Lee says. “You have to have faith in your design process.”