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What I’ve Learned about Early Access

By Brent Elmer

We spoke with Brent Elmer, co-founder and creative director of new Seattle based indie game studio, Pump Action Games, to learn about some of the pros and cons of using Early Access when launching your game. Early Access is a common tactic among indie gamers that gives players pre-release access to games in development to help fund and test new titles.

Make a “Coming Soon” page

There’s no reason not to post a “coming soon” page in the modern era. As soon as you feel your game has locked in its direction, put it up on a “coming soon” page. Your visibility is actually higher on Steam while ‘coming soon’ than it is in Early Access. We saw more than 10 times the number of impressions when we were in the ‘coming soon’ as we did the moment we went out of Steam Greenlight. It’s critical to build demand among an audience before a release and get everybody rallied for that launch date. If you’ve built up demand from a sizable audience counting down the days until launch, you'll have critical mass in the lobby on Day 1, which can be life or death to a game that relies on multiplayer. 

Steam is NOT a Place to Test Virality

In today's market, the only reliable way for a game to break through is to have strong viral appeal. The conventional marketing campaigns just don’t seem to be working. If it's not something people have to tell their friends about, your game is over before it began. Fortunately, you can prove your game's viral appeal before you've engineered the product because you're selling the fantasy more than the game play. Only after the game releases do you start to really show players the mechanics. You don’t even need to build the mechanics for the game if you haven’t validated the concept at earlier checkpoints.

Your Concept Needs to Be Understood at a Glance

Make sure your trailer has a hook that is compelling. It should feel both familiar and novel. You need to make sure the game has two things: a micro compulsion loop (what is the moment-to-moment action like?) and the meta compulsion loop (what keeps me going from one level to the next?). Even if your game has great moment-to-moment gameplay, you need to ask the question ‘why should I turn this game on again?’

Steam is NOT a ready-made Community for Your Game

When you think about what a community is, it’s a group of people that have shared an experience together. That doesn’t happen just because your game is on Steam. You have to provide opportunities for that community to build identity. One way to do this is by inviting people to play your game against the developers. We have seen good initial traction with this in the past. Friendly trash talk and the ability to post an experience to the community helps players feel like they're part of something.

The Importance of a Roadmap

Many developers have seen Early Access destroy their games. There are others, of course, who have experienced tremendous success there. When evaluating whether your game is ready for Early Access, you have to assess whether you have both a micro and a macro compulsion loop in place. If players enjoy the moment-to-moment gameplay and feel rewarded for engaging with the game over time, you'll likely keep them interested. We expected fans would help drive the game's roadmap once we got our game into Early Access, but we quickly learned that, as a developer, there’s a lot of nuances you have to be aware of that a consumer may or may not relate to. Fans want to feel like they’re creating the entertainment that they play, but YOU know how to build a game. You need to find a balance between letting people get involved in the process and making the changes your game needs.

Brent Elmer is the co-founder and creative director of new Seattle based indie game studio, Pump Action Games. Brent is a 6 year veteran of the games industry, with shipped titles on PC, Xbox 360, and Xbox One. His most recent title, Moonshot, is currently available on Steam Early Access.

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