‘The Forest’ developers, Endnight Games, sit down with Karl Quigley to discuss what developing a game is like in Early Access
Games, when in development, progress through three major milestones or ‘builds’. The Alpha, Beta and then Release builds. The Alpha build of a game is the earliest stage of the game that it is actually playable by a person outside of the studio. This build, some years ago, would often be released to a closed group for testing to allow for accurate fixes and changes to be made. This would continue into the Beta build, which would usually involve a larger group of testers. In recent years, the Beta build became more and more an open or public event. While this is often a popular move for developers, to allow players to experience a game they’re excited for, it often results in a core group sending in feedback for adjustments.
With the rise of the indie game and so many new innovative ideas comes “Early Access”. You pay a fraction of the full price game, for a fraction of a game. A game can be released in an early Alpha build or even in its very first Alpha build. Endnight Games have done just that with their Early Access game The Forest.
An open world, survival horror game, The Forest is set on an island inhabited by cannibals. The player’s plane crashes and his son is taken by the natives. Currently the game has no objectives but is solely based around crafting and survival. The game contains well executed features such as forcing the player to find water and to clean blood off your hands and body as it could cause an infection and damage the player if it gets into open wounds. The player must also hunt for food, to sleep and always be aware of environmental hazards such as freezing to death.
Endnight’s current project was released on Steam as an Early Access game in Alpha 0.01 (the earliest possible build that is playable) on the 30th of May this year. While some games use Early Access as a way to get extra attention for their game, Michael Mellor from Endnight Games said “Without early access there wouldn’t be a game. We would have made something a lot less ambitious and also less interesting”.
The difference of Early Access to Alpha or Beta testing is that an Alpha or Beta test is a time-specific event in which testing can occur. Early Access is a constant, until the game is released (or in some unfortunate cases, the game shuts down). Mellor responded to this constant, claiming that “Having the constant feedback and community response does make it easier to stay focused” and that the extra income from these Early Access sales aided the games production. “The sales have given us the resources to expand the team and hire some really great people which makes the process smoother and the end product better than it would be otherwise”.
In terms of traditional game design the public would have very little input or involvement, usually gaining snippets of information delivered by the developer. When Alpha and Beta builds became a private or even an open process games entered a new, far more involving process. It’s an interesting concept; game design is an intricate and complicated process. But the gamers who truly care about a particular game’s design have often been playing games for years and have a subconscious knowledge of game design. Perhaps not to the level of the professionals but the input of dozens of experienced gamers can help with bug-finding and correcting. “Having the public involved with the development is definitely unusual, but overall I think it was a good decision and is helping the game mature into what we envision the final game should be”.
It is a big decision – putting a game into Early Access means constant attention and possible criticism of both the game itself and the developers’ choices. Mellor explains “There’s a pressure to release updates and improve the game, but before release there was also the same level of pressure internally amongst the team”.
Updates for the game must be a consistent feature of Early Access or the game will stagnate and lose popularity. Mellor stated that Endnight made the decision “really early into the process”, and that the plan “was always to release as early access and then update it until final”. Mellor and Endnight Games knew that “a lot of players are interested in the process of game development and like seeing a game progress over time”.
With regards to The Forest this is quite true. After Endnight released their game in Alpha 0.01, their game rapidly became one of the most popular Early Access games on Steam. “The instant success was a big surprise to all of us. We originally thought of building a small audience over the course of the alpha and then hopefully having this many sales when the final release was out”. But despite the very early build of the game, players flocked to the game due to its interesting premise but also the quality of the game despite such an early build. Currently The Forest is in version 0.08, with an improved crafting, survival and stealth system.
Early Access is for the most part a good idea when executed well, but when asked about suggesting it to other developers Mellor opined that “Early access has been great for us, but wouldn’t necessarily suit all types of games”. When a studio is capable of using Early Access to develop their game and of aiming it in the right direction, it is an excellent choice. But as stated it might not suit all types of games. It is a unique direction to take for indie developers and it will be interesting to see what Early Access will do for the rest of the games industry.