|BRACE FOR IMPACT|
When I started out writing shareware in the last century, shareware had a pretty bad reputation. It was often buggy, weird, and badly put-together. But at least, as rough as a shareware game might have been, at least when it was released it was DONE. We were so old-fashioned then.
Yet you can't argue with success. Early Access is a popular new way of developing, is here to stay, and requires new techniques and guidelines. One recent cautionary tale may, I think, be very instructive.
Early Access, Failing In Public, and How to Fill Your Brain With Madness
So now developers can release their game early. This has good points. Gamers get the game earlier. The developer can get possibly much needed cash. Most interestingly (to me), users get a chance to watch an unfinished game take shape before their eyes.
On the other hand, the game will be buggy and incomplete, and you can't be sure it will ever be finished. Also, and this is the part that really interests me, the developers have to finish a game in view of the full public. It's hard enough to write a game under the best of circumstances. Early access devs have to write a game while the entire world is shouting at them.
I fear the views of the unfiltered public. I've written about this before. If you let too many loud voices into your head, it can drive you mad. Outside feedback is necessary, but you have to filter it. For me, ten sensible people are far more useful than 10000 internet randos. You'll write a much better game if you don’t just throw the doors of your brain open to the world.
Which brings us to the recent fascinating case study: Darkest Dungeon.
|This is how my game development process looks under the best of circumstances.|
When Darkest Dungeon came out in Early Access a few months ago, I talked it up a lot. It's a really ingenious roguelike. You keep a stable of 20 or so adventurers and pick bands of 4 of them to send into really nasty dungeons.
The dungeons are (or were) moderately tough. You'll probably get through, but a run of bad luck can permanently kill some (or all) of your characters. Much of the game is judging how you are doing and deciding after each fight whether you should flee or not.
(There's also the unusual mechanic of a sanity meter. Upsetting events can drive your characters insane. In my experience, this basically just acts as a second health bar, so I'll leave it undiscussed.)
You could usually beat a dungeon without much fuss, but there was always a chance of disaster. This led to an experience that was pleasingly tense and exciting without being soul-crushing.
However, I have to refer all of this in the past tense. When the game was new, I visited their forums to see the feedback they were getting. When I saw it and how the devs were reacting to it, I thought, "Oh boy. This could be a problem." And it was. Sadly, the game I loved is kind of gone.
If you want a much more detailed view of the kerfuffle, go here for a good write-up. Official word from the shell-shocked developers is here.
In short, what happened is that this highly talented crew of game makers allowed the Difficulty Fetishists into their heads, and now they are trying to repair the damage.
The Most Dangerous Form of Feedback
There are lots of different ways you can get damaging feedback, but the Difficulty Fetishists are the ones you must fear the most. They are marked by three qualities:
1. They ALWAYS want the game to be harder, no matter how hard it already is.
2. They will be the loudest, most persistent givers of feedback. They will swarm forums, making them seem more numerous than they are.
3. They are mean and contemptuous to anyone who suggests, no matter how meekly, that the game is too hard to be fun. ("n00b!" "LRN 2 PLAY!" "GIT GUD!")
Now let us be very clear. Gamers who love really hard games ARE a valid audience. I have several such gamers as permanent members of my testing pool, and they are invaluable when I design the harder difficulty levels. However, they MUST be kept away from influencing the default difficulty level at all costs.
Since Darkest Dungeon only has one difficulty level and is intended to be a hard game, you can see the problem. The Difficulty Fetishists dominated the feedback. Now Darkest Dungeon is a brutal and unforgiving game in which, among other things, you have to hack away the bodies of monsters you already killed to get at the archers murdering you from the back.
The result was that the silent majority of content players became very disgruntled and non-silent, and now the developers are trying to find their way back out of the weeds. I'm sure they will manage, though it's a great example of how treacherous trying to please one faction of gamers can be.
This is, of course, only one form of bad feedback. There are as many ways to give bad advice as there are people. This is why using Early Access to give all of humanity a chance to poke at your game when it is still amorphous and unformed is risky.
Fortunately, there are ways to mitigate this. First, though, I want to mention one other peril of Early Access.
|I suggest planning a realistic schedule before going into Early Access. Writing tweets like these are not fun.|
I know I repeat myself overmuch on this point, but the biggest thing going for indie gaming is that people like us and want us to succeed. When one of us is a jerk or con artist, it hurts all of us.
If you put your game on Early Access, you MUST do one of these two things: 1. Finish it roughly according to schedule, or 2. Humbly explain what is going on and apologize.
I know some online commentors put down gamers for being Entitled, but if I pay money for half a game and a promise of the second half, dammit, I AM entitled.
(Sadly, after my experience with the promising title Kentucky Route Zero, I've stopped buying Early Access games at all.)
I’m not sure exactly where to draw the line for how long is too long when finishing an Early Access game. It’s an interesting question that bears discussion. How about this for a potential rule of thumb to argue over: If you can’t say with confidence your potential Early Access game will be done within a year, maybe it needs more time in the oven.
For early adopters, if you take too long to finish your game, you might as well not have finished it at all. Remember, every year the number of elderly gamers increases. Sorry for this extra pressure, but if you take too long, when your game is done, some of the people who bought it won't be alive anymore.
My Humble Advice For Those Who Take This Road
I'm not going to give advice to the Darkest Dungeon people. As I said, they're really talented folks, working on a game with huge potential. I could offer advice to them, but I'm often wrong, and the last thing they need is another loud voice in their heads.
Instead, I will make a humble suggestion or three to those who have yet to go down this road.
Advice One: Form An Elite Feedback Strike Force
Gamer feedback has diminishing returns. Adding more people doesn't help much. Read your feedback, find a good, diverse pool of 10-15 solid advisors, and take most of your advice from them.
Advice Two: It's OK To Stop Listening Sometimes
Trust yourself. If you start to feel confused and bereft, you have my permission to turn off the feedback hose. Take a breath. Enjoy silence and peace. Play your game yourself and see if you like it. You're the designer. If you're digging what you made, it's OK. Trust yourself.
Advice Three: Ban the Evil
This is a big one. If you have a forum and some dude attacks or insults someone else giving feedback, you must ban him. DO IT. BAN HIM. BANHIMBANHIMBANHIM. If he gets mad, tell him how to get a Steam refund. If he can't get a refund, mail him a personal check. Just get rid of him.
This is not an overreaction. The worst thing a tester can do is try to shame and scare off other people giving honest feedback. Anyone who tries to drive away other testers is a direct threat to the health of your business. Terminate with extreme prejudice.
Also, banning jerks is fun and theraputic. It is an activity I recommend highly.
Early Access Is An Experiment
Then again, I feel everything in the game industry is an experiment now. This whole thing is new, and it's evolving faster than I can follow.
I won't try it out myself. I'm too old-fashioned, and I like doing most of my creating in a relatively calm, quiet environment. However, if you would prefer to do your delicate design work while on a flaming rocket, alarm klaxons blaring, flying at top speed into the heart of the sun, I think that Early Access might be just right for you.