Surviving Steam Early Access

Surviving Steam Early Access
Craig Chapple

By Craig Chapple

April 3rd 2014 at 5:00PM

Amplitude's Romain De Waubert guides us through releasing a game during alpha stage, and why it suited the studio's latest title Dungeon of the Endless

Endless Space developer Amplitude was one of the first game developers to trial the Steam Early Access scheme back before it was even given its name.

The 4x space strategy game was released in alpha stage on the digital distribution platform as players worked with the developer on what they wanted to see implemented into title, while also helping Amplitude tweak and balance the game to ensure it was playable before its main release.

Since then, the development process has become a huge success on Steam, spawning titles such as DayZ, Rust and Starbound, all finding welcoming communities and strong sales despite being unfinished.

And Amplitude has returned to Steam Early Access with its latest game, Rogue-Like dungeon defence title Dungeon of the Endless.

We spoke with creative director Romain De Waubert on why the French studio is so keen on Early Access, and what developers need to keep in mind when releasing their game to the public early on in development.

Why did you take Dungeon of the Endless to Steam Early Access?
Working with Early Access is part of our development philosophy. When we created the studio three years ago what we wanted to do was develop games as closely as we could with the community.

The whole company is based around crowd-sourcing and community development. So what we did with Endless Space is create the Games2Gether scheme to focus on that, to attract people to come to us and share their ideas.

Endless Space was our first 4x game and the only way to balance such a complex title was to have a lot of people with us and get their advice and opinions.

We’ve been told we were the first Early Access game on Steam. It did not exist at the time we were available in alpha, but Valve started Early Access proper shortly afterwards It is amazing to be able to develop in such conditions. It’s amazing to be able to share your game early on and see how people react to it and figure out what people want to see improved and added to the game.

There’s nothing worse than to work hard on your game, release it and then people tell you ‘it would have been so much better if you did all this’, but by then it’s too late. So it’s great to get that early on. Our whole process of development is based around that.

This tends to result in stronger game design, and we can already see what people like and don’t like. But to get a meaningful alpha release what we do not do is give out all the content. We just focus on the core game loop and we make it very stable.

Why only focus on that core loop and not the entire game?
That’s because the feedback we get from the players are about bugs, and not about gameplay. It’s simple, you can’t make it all. If you make an alpha with all the content, it’s going to be unplayable and all players will see are bugs after bugs after bugs. Honestly there’s nothing worse to do and to play.

Or you just polish, polish, polish and have the core gameplay, and then you see how people react to that. Then people can actually influence how that core game loop is going to evolve, what’s going to be added and which order that is going to be added.

You’ve already got this big roadmap planned out. So with Steam Early Access, how does that roadmap change depending on what players say? How greatly does it affect the game design?
So basically you have several types of feedback. Let’s go back to our roadmap. Yes, we have a vision of our game and we share that as soon as we can to the public long before the game is released. The vision represents the final game and the alpha is just one step towards the final game.

What we don’t know is along that vision, what are the weakest parts? What are the best parts? What we plan to do first sometimes is not what the players want us to do first.

So we basically have feedback towards prioritising the game in terms of what they want to see done first, the bugs they want fixed first, and the improvements or additions they want ahead of everything else.

Then you have new features they ask for, and for new features you need to have development time. So what we do in our development planning is that every three weeks we have more or less a week which is empty.

And it’s there we add stuff that is not planned, that comes from the community or other sources. So then we’re never stressed, thinking ‘Oh no we have all these features to develop, we don’t have time to add them’. Sometimes that’s why developers don’t want to share their game early on because they’re afraid they’re going to hear so many things that need to be fixed or added, when that they don’t have the time to do the fixes.

So basically you must plan a bigger time schedule. It works pretty well with games like ours where time is not an issue that much, because we don’t have 800 people to pay to make the game. We’re a small team so we can spend a few more months on development, especially when it's to ensure the quality of the game.

Do you lose momentum through Early Access by the time full release comes around?
That's not what we saw with Endless Space. We had a big momentum at alpha, but we had almost nothing happening at beta. It was kind of strange. Then the game released, and at that point we got all the reviews and ratings for our game. That's when you get a lot of traction for your game if it’s good – unless you didn’t fix what you promised to fix, then you get crushed for it.

When did you see more players coming in? At alpha or full release?
Full release. It’s because a lot of people don’t want to play a buggy or unfinished game. Some game styles are better for Early Access then others, especially games that are repayable like all the games we do here, I think they work very well.

If it were an adventure game or RPG and you want to play one experience, one time, a lot of people don’t want to spoil the adventure before it’s finished. They want to ensure that when they play their first adventure, it’s the right one.

In our case it is okay to play it during alpha. But not everybody likes to witness the game’s development, to see how we do it, the iterations, the stuff we removed from the game because it wasn't good enough, or the stuff we added because it's what they asked for.

It’s a game within a game. But that game is only for ten per cent of the players.

Will you be doing something similar with your other upcoming game, Endless Legend?
Yes, as long as we can work in that fashion and as long as we have people supporting us to work in that fashion, that’s definitely the only way from now on that we want to develop.

So all the games coming out from our studio will follow that strategy because, for us, it’s the best way to ensure final quality.