Jem Alexander investigates how Fractured Space developer Edge Case Games is taking advantage of open development and Early Access to improve the quality of the game
For an online game, community is pretty important. No passionate fanbase means no evangelists means stagnating player numbers.
One of the best ways to develop a community, especially for a new IP where franchise loyalty doesn’t exist, is to let people in on the development of the game. That’s exactly what Edge Case Games has done with Fractured Space, its science fiction MOBA.
By being transparent on the development of the game and inviting players to contribute to design decisions, the devs give the fans ownership of Fractured Space. This philosophy was born, as with so many things, from the liberal consumption of beer.
“If we go right back to the beginning of Fractured Space, open development started with weekly beer and pizza nights where we would invite friends of the studio in to play our prototype, give us feedback and help iterate on the core game idea,” explains Chris Mehers, COO of Edge Case Games. “Once we went live on Steam Early Access this evolved, but kept the same spirit."
This evolution involved less pizza, but many more actual players. The studio hosted regular 'play with the devs’ nights, which allowed them to capture player data and, in return, they promised to listen and interact.
“This involved Thursday night “play with the devs” sessions, where not only did the whole studio play the game with the community, but the creative director and others were available on Teamspeak to discuss directly with out player base, answering questions on design choices, sharing ideas on future content, or the way the game would evolve," says Mehers.
We now regularly stream QA tests, where anything can and often does go wrong
Chris Mehers, COO, Edge Case Games
But it went even further than that. Edge Case Games shared their roadmap for the game and even its sprint planning and backlog via the team productivity tool Trello.
“On this we added a “Not In our Vision” section which was for ideas, good, sometimes great ideas, from the community that simply didn’t fit with what we wanted to make,” Mehers explains. Players were able to submit ideas directly to the studio’s feature list. Of course, while fans might have a large amount of passion, very few would have understood the temporal and financial cost of many of their ideas.
“It was and still is a fine line to walk, sticking to our creative vision, being conscious of the studios need to cover its costs, while also interacting with and where possible heeding the communities voice. A voice that isn’t always unified around any particular issue.
“This is perhaps the hardest line to define with open development. Ultimately making the game was and is a creative exercise with hard edges, it was our game to make, according to what we believed was right/would work etc. Open development isn’t simply asking your community what they want and the delivering to order. We’re the games makers, making a game we believe in, we’re sharing what we do, how we do it, and why we’re doing it, but what we make has to be our decision.”
This gets harder as the game gets more popular. It’s impossible to give an ever-growing throng of players the same level of attention forever.
The studio has now doubled in size, our game has become increasing complex as has our production pipeline, so our approach to open development has had to evolve as well,” says Mehers. “You are still more likely to come across a dev playing the game on a Thursday night, but one to one discussions with the creative director are simply no longer possible. We have a three man community team that interacts directly with our player base, that allow us to keep to our open development ways while allowing the devs to focus on delivering the updates on time and on spec.”
But players remain an important part of improving the game, and for that they need to be kept up to speed with its development. Enter Twitch, stage left.
“We now regularly stream QA tests, where anything can and often does go wrong, but our core community, we hope, still appreciates that we do things differently,” Mehers says. “Open development isn’t a marketing stance slapped on as an afterthought, it is part of our DNA. Our presence on Twitch has allowed us to scale our open development promise with regular shows answering community questions, explaining choices and letting everyone know what’s going on.”
Many developers might balk at the idea of telling their players all of their plans up front. If not, their PR and marketing departments certainly will. So in a situation like this, where you can’t please everyone and your public plans could be scrapped and fall apart at any time, what’s the upside in taking such a risk?
“The upside with the community I think was felt strongest in the early days,” says Mehers. “That feeling of risk taking, doing things differently, literally engaging your player base in conversation, not via social media, or Twitch, but by actually talking to them. As we’ve scaled and the game nears completion, those moments feel fewer and further apart. We do however, have an incredible strong core community that have been with us on a long, and sometimes fraught journey.
“Some of the benefits have come from interesting places. When open development is part of what you do, it not only lowers the barriers between the studio and its community, it has also brought about a much flatter communication structure to the studio.
The openness extends internally not just externally, we’re by no means some sort of hippy commune, but generally any question can, and often is, asked of the senior management and will be answered.
Opinions are voiced from all areas of the business, intern or lead, as a rule no one feels their creativity or input is quashed. But as with the community, there are times when we simply have to say ‘no we’re doing it this way’, and move on.”
With such a public roadmap, open development has its fair share of problems, too. Edge Case Games is, in many ways, pioneering this idea and, as such, is still feeling things out.
“A key downside has also been in how to manage “stories” for the press. When you are sharing openly with your community you have to work out what “news” you can present to attract press attention. It’s something we’re still working on to be honest.
“How we evolve open development in the future is a tricky question, as with everything we’ve done, we’ll experiment and find what works, and get burned occasionally when things don’t. There is no road map for this stuff, you literally just have to learn by doing.”
So you’re a developer looking to make a great new online game. You’re looking to build a community and let them in on the development roadmap. What advice does Mehers have for you?
“Firstly I’d say ‘be sure you understand what this means to you’. What boundaries are you setting? You probably want to maintain creative control, but at the same time you have to accommodate some of what your community is telling you.
“I’d also say “Be Brave”. You can’t do open development without committing to it. As with us, part of your team will be terrified, especially if you’ve been doing work for hire or console games in the past.
“To be fair you will also find part of your team – usually the younger ones used to game jams, etc – will wonder why all games aren’t made this way. Suddenly letting your fans observe the process and play your builds way before they are ready, way before you’d normally share them with anyone, will be very scary, but the terror dies down and the fun ramps up once you’ve built that relationship with your community.”
A key part of open development is making your game available on Early Access. It’s the easiest way to give your players access to the game for feedback before a v1.00 launch, and gives you an opportunity to fund development at the same time.
“Early Access gave us a platform to share our first playable, almost stable build, and open development allowed us to have a framework to deliver on a pact with our audience,” Mehers says. “An exchange of ideas, an understanding of what worked and what didn’t. It was a risk for sure, but so is making a game for two years in a bunker, with no idea whether anyone will really like it. We found out very early that the core concept of Fractured Space had legs, which I don’t think would have been possible without Early Access.
“My advice for anyone else thinking of using Early Access: Ask yourself why? If top of the list is revenue, then think again. If it’s the need for players to test ideas, to test scaling up, to build community or hone gameplay, then you are probably on the right track. I’m not saying ignore the revenue aspects, developers need to eat too, but it shouldn’t be your primary reason for deciding to use Early Access.”