Full Steam ahead: How UK developers are finding success on Early Access

Full Steam ahead: How UK developers are finding success on Early Access
Craig Chapple

By Craig Chapple

March 12th 2014 at 12:14PM

We speak to the developers behind Rust, Starbound and Maia about a new way to develop games

UK developers are leading the way and finding huge success through Steam’s Early Access scheme.

Facepunch Studios’ open-world survival game Rust is currently one of the hottest sellers, selling over one million copies on Valve’s digital distribution platform, and Chucklefish’s sandbox adventure title Starbound has also edged itself up to the top echelons of the sales charts shifting 1m copies of its own.

Ndemic Creations has also just released Plague Inc: Evolved to Steam, instantly hitting the top ten, and Mode 7 has just released Frozen Endzone, follow up to the Develop Award-winning Frozen Synapse on the platform. Simon Roth’s crowdfunded space colony sim Maia also continues to sell well three months after its release on Early Access.

A new way to indie

“In terms of sales we have done very well, we secured enough funding to complete the game just hours from launch,” Roth told Develop.

“Two months and a winter sale later, sales are still going strong, putting us in a position where we can start planning for extra content, and start thinking about future games.”

Chucklefish community manager Molly Carroll said: “It’s worked out really nicely for us overall. We’ve got a constant stream of feedback coming in from our community. If they love something, we’ll hear about it. If they hate something we’ll hear about it. If something’s broken, we’ll definitely hear about it. It’s been useful for development, and generally the community is really understanding of the fact that the game is in beta.”

Facepunch had previously been selling alpha access of Rust through its own website using PayPal, but indie developer Garry Newman said that payment method had been terrible for the team, having to manage all of the VAT, distribute files themselves and deal with lost passwords and account recovery.

“We now throw updates out as often as we can,” said Newman. “We have different branches. The dev branch is tied right into our build servers, so when we commit code it compiles and it’s live on the dev branch within a couple of minutes. We don’t have to handle payment, we don’t have to worry about VAT and sales tax. We don’t have to handle chargebacks and refunds. We spend the huge majority of our time making the game instead of dealing with all the other bullshit.”

Launch pad for success

Roth said Early Access can be a great launch pad for small indie developers to soft launch on Valve’s marketplace, given the troubles a full release can throw up, particularly on PC.

“Releasing a game never goes quite to plan, so being able to get that out of the way early on is a massive benefit to me in terms of project management,” he explained.

“It takes some of the stress out of development that can crush creativity and cause mistakes to start to slip in.
The focus now can be purely on delivering the game.

“Another reason we launched on Early Access was it’s strength in raising awareness of the alpha. With a game on Steam, visibility increases significantly. We actually had to take on external PR just to manage the deluge of preview requests coming in. And being in the store made it far easier to generate and distribute game keys to those YouTube personalities and streamers.”

Newman added that Early Access is fantastic for creators like Facepunch, unsurprising given the title has sold more than one million copies since it was released in December.

But the Facepunch developer and Roth said there could still be a couple of slight changes to make the scheme a better experience for developers and players.

“It could probably be made a million times more obvious what Early Access is, to educate users that they’re not buying a finished product,” said Newman. “But maybe that’s something developers need to do themselves because each game will be in a different state.”

Roth added: “I’d like to see some changes to the review system that take into account the fluidity of the development process.

“When a game launches they get a deluge of reviews and those get up-voted and linger on a products page despite months of development work rendering the comments obsolete, I’d like to see them fade out over time or when new releases go live."