How Should Indie Developers Utilize Steam Early Access Wisely

Recent years, Early Access is widely accepted to be an excellent way for indie developers raising funding. Using Steam as an example, This data shows that the number of games on Steam in 2019 is 8,290 - and I searched all game with "Early Access" and "Indie" tags just now (April 9th, 2020), and the number is 3,951 - which is about the half of the total games released in the store. Apparently not all of them are successful - so I want to explore how should indie developers survive and finally become outstanding among thousands of competitors?

A quick search result

Before everthing: Attitude

Before any other things, developers should always make sure you ARE making a good game. "A good game" is sometimes subjective, and no one can guarantee the success of a game. However by the very least, your supporters should feel your devotion. This can be delivered by doing these fundamental things:

  • Regularly update contents - you should release some content once in a period of time. People hate to be waiting, especially something they paid for. Generally, supporters have less expectaion towards Early Access games because they know these games are not perfect yet, so they expect more frequent updates than the officially released game. However, "frequent" doesn't mean you should update some trival things to catch the time.

  • Quickly respond to bugs - I saw thousands of people give "not recommended" because the game has bugs (and some of them will just request refund). Unless this player loves support indie games, or love the specific game genre, typically, they will reference the game review before buying it. So please never let bugs to ruin your game review. Wolcen: Lord of Mayhems is a bad example: playing online mode can easily lose sync, and plyaing offline mode can easily lose savefile. These bugs persist even after they graduated from Early Access on Feburary 13th, and still not being fixed about 2 months later. Looking at the reviews, I can easily find that more than half of the "not recommended" are talking about bugs. This game had thousands of Twitch real time viewers on the first couple days of release (many Diablo 3 and Path of Exile streamers went to play it), but one weeks later, no more than 100 viewrs left.

Data on April 9th, 2AM EDT
  • Actively hearing community feedback - you are providing a playable game to your supporters, so take this advantage. You don't need to form your own playtest event, and don't need to wait until you have a substantially improved demo to playtest (like many developers did in Kickstarter and Patreon, they give subscribers update in a less flexible time). Players are generally willing to give suggestions, and if they found something they reported get improved, they will like to give more in the future.

Show Your Respect

Regardless your game quality, community generally favors a developer who always respect them. Doing this cannot directly make your game better, but can sometimes make your game sell more. Mostly, you just do a little bit more than the fundamental things:

  • Let supporters know what you are doing - it is almost inevitable that you will not able to update something on time, especially this is a huge update. If this happens, write some dev blogs to explain your progress, let them know you are working on it properly, and possibly talk about the reason of deley only if the reason is super reasonable.

  • Besides, NEVER promise without a thoughtful plan - There is a game called Stoneshard in my Steam library that I bought it when it just started early access - after two weeks on chaotic bug fixing, they stated that they would release their first major content update on March. After entering the March, they stated this update would happen at the end of March - at this time, most supporters can still accept since they didn't say a specific time before. However, on early April, I was about playing the new update, and I saw in the most recent dev blog, they said they need to postpone it again to April 14th. I started feeling a bit uncomfortable now - each delay ruins my expectation at some level. Many other supporters have also complained about this in comments and reviews. Doing this too many times is equal to say goodbye to your most faithful supporters.

Feb 17th Dev Blog
March 15th Dev Blog
March 22nd Dev Blog
  • I saw many developers have replied to almost each "not recommended" reviews about the bugs or contents the reviewers complained, with help of translation software (not like some silly developers saying they don't know your language please report this in English) - they definitely awared those reported things, but they still spend time to get in touch with these players individually if those things are fixed/improved. In my opinion, this is one of the best way to convey how you care about the players on Steam. And of course, you should either fix or improve them, or give a convicible reason why you are making this feature.

  • Support more languages - some people give "not recommended" and felt not treated equally if they cannot play your game in their language for a longer time. I know it is time consuming and sometimes hard to afford for a indie studio, but remember, most people won't learn a language for your game - they even won't do that for their favorite games. Try predict and analyze the nationality of your supporters before and after your game releasing, and make the language support into your plan. Sometimes, this can bring your game more than 10K sales, because people who like it will also recommend to their friends if they can play your game without an language issue.

A perfect example abour respection is No Man's Sky - they promised and overstated too many features, so they had a huge failure on release. However, they are still gradually fulfilling every promise they made before release, and many players were attracted by their attitude and went to buy this game later. Watch the recent reviews and overall reviews of this game:

See how dramatic of the change. The developer regreted to promise more than the actual, so they just keep working on it until now - even a big failure can be reversed. However, please never hope you will have the chance even if you failed - in most of time, your game will just disappear from people's sight.

The Nature of "Early Access"

Your game is in Early Access, it does not need to be as good as a formally released game. As I mentioned previously, supporters have less expectation on Early Access games AND ALSO indie games. Early Access is not only a funding method, but also your chance to demonstrate the progress of your game. So have a good plan of the update priority, and how to advertise it during the Early Access is crucial.

Your supporters are watching your game getting better - a simple version with your selling points is completely acceptable at the beginning, because you want to get more attention at this time. They are more looking for the potential of your game, so game length is less important during this time - most early access games have this problem. When Hades just started its Early Access on Dec. 10th, 2019 on Steam (it was in Epic Game Store earlier, so even rougher before this time), many reviews saying the contents are not enough - but it is worth noting that it is the most positively reviewed Early Access indie game right now on Steam, which is 97% recommended.

Do not waste time on early balancing. Even for most sophisticated long-term support games rebalance the game in every patch, how could you make sure your early balancing will not be ruined in your next big update? Here I mention Stoneshard again - I thought one of the reason they didn't catch their time was they were balancing the game half of the time - at least I concluded this in their dev blogs. Supporters are more care about if your game is stepping closer to finish, instead of tweaking those numerical values but has no substantial update.

When is a good time to leave early access? Think about this carefully. When you decide to make the v1.0 release, please also be aware start form this time, players (especially those who never buy early access games) will expect your game to be complete, bug-free, and worth the money they paid. Many games lost the players and had worse recent reviews after leaving the early access because they were not ready yet. And also be careful for raising the price on leaving early access: is my game improved enough to match this new price? People who buy your game immediately after the early access end probably have watched your game for a period of time, so they will be aware the price difference - if your game is good enough, great; if not, prepare for the incoming negative reviews.

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