Early access in gaming: Agile development gone wrong

As a comment to the following video states:

‘I accidentally bought an Early Access movie at a Walmart a few months ago. The second act repeats seven times and half the dialogue is is unspoken text, but the story is basically alright. Maybe it’ll get better with future updates but I have no idea how to update dvds, please help.’

This is an article in the ‘Research’ category where I dive into a subject on game production.

In my opinion, Early access is just a reminiscent of a gone-by area of the style of thinking, trying to get the pro’s of something new but not wanting to let the old go. And yes, the end product is even less desirable than doing it ‘the old ways’. As pointed out by the reviewer in the video above.

Into the deep

Let me break down what I see is happening. And why I think that it is actually a nice try.

From what I have seen in gaming, game development is most of the time executed as a line project. They describe a goal, get a few brilliant people to figure out how to get there so most things are accounted for (this is the important part of line thinking: smart work preparation, dumb work execution), create a few development teams to execute on the plan, and deliver all the goods at the set date.

This seemed to work well in the past times. Although there were always signs that it wasn’t the best development method. But they did stick to it because.. because.
Back then there was no real incentive to change. 30 years ago the entrance fee to the gaming industry was very high: you needed massive amounts of knowledge and expensive tooling to start, and you needed connections everywhere to get something build for the right platform and get it published. A few knew how this trick was done, where the lucky first, and could then reign on their thrones for ages.


Well, line-thinking is just one approach when creating things. It suffers from a lot of problems. The most obvious: if you’re half-way into the project, big chance you don’t have anything working yet. (Working as in: it could sell for some money) Some less essential parts can be finished, but you need all parts together for it to be ‘the thing’ as specified at the start.
(Read my article on Agile vs non-Agile game development for more about those problems)

It is exactly this issue that early access has: it is a product that only functions as a whole, but someone decided to declare a few parts ‘optional’ and release it anyway.

But… planning is everything?!

Don’t get me wrong, I get it on the business side. You want to plan in advance to know how the whole game plays out. And that planning then gives you the (although false) hopes that you have something worthy to invest in.

I like to see it from the consumer perspective. There is a world out here: people’s tastes changes over time. One year your game is the ultimate, next year no-one plays your genre anymore. And that’s a problem in an era where games take 3 to 5 years to develop.

From my combined thoughts of how things have worked out, I understand the early access move. If a game company had planned a big game IP, and suddenly sees diminished interests, they wanted to get a piece of the cake while they still can. So there is the early access release for said big game IP.

The early access move became relevant in the last years because there is an increasing pressure to deliver. Gaming has gained significantly increased exposure in the past 15 years. And I think most of the pressure on game studio’s is from the money-injecting side that want Return On Investment and low risks, and see a goldmine currently hitting the big veins they were after.

What do you oppose?

I am thinking about these things for a while now. They are really hard to solve, because there are so many things involved.

But wouldn’t it be great if a game was able to evolve? That you could make a small game first with a small user base and small scope, and iterate on that? (but without calling it sequel x?) I think everything is in place in the current times we live in to make this happen:

  • Very good and easy update infrastructure everywhere (and that people nowadays are trained to accept updates as something good)
  • Much better access to information (and training, and resources, etc)
  • Multiple ways of monetizing (that people are accustomed to)
  • Dev teams are up to this task (and almost expecting to develop that way)

We could start with developing different than before. The planning-and-then-executing isn’t working any more, so get rid of it. Start experimenting with practices that enable continues releases to customers.

I have had more thoughts on Agile related to gamedev. Check this blogpost.

Published by Erik_de_Roos

Erik de Roos is a Freelance software developer.

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