It’s no secret that launching a game in Early Access is a tricky balancing act. While the whole idea is to get your game in front of eager players in an early state, you don’t want to rush and end up delivering a buggy, broken mess that ends up putting off more players than it attracts.
Obviously the funding that comes as part of an Early Access launch is very tempting, but that temptation can lure developers into killing the golden goose — sacrificing long term profits from the proper launch for a few bucks up front, dollars that come at the cost of turning off an audience that otherwise might well have bought your final product.
It’s a high-wire balancing act, and one that #Funcom has managed to pull of with panache in Conan Exiles. While any early release, be it Early Access, an alpha or beta, or any prelaunch demo, is expected to come laden with a handful of bugs and to not reach the levels of polish you’d expect from a finished product, in the case of Early Access you’re still asking for your fans’ hard-earned dollars.
Any time players shell out real money, there’s an expectation of a certain level of quality and playability. Bugs are going to happen, there’s no way to properly test a behemoth as complex as a modern video game to simulate hundreds, thousands or hundreds of thousands of players hammering on it, especially early on, but the key is to iron out as many of the truly frustrating, game-breaking ones as quickly as is reasonably possible.
Good glitch, bad glitch, green glitch, rad glitch
It’s one thing for your game to glitch out graphically, or for your physics engine to respond in unexpected ways when players do things you never anticipated to/with it.
Sometimes, in fact, these minor glitches can be a boon, either forgivable because they’re harmless and totally hilarious, or because they open up new possibilities you never planned on. And Exiles certainly has its share of these — corpses skyrocketing into the air after you cleave off their heads or crocodiles tearing the fabric of reality and teleporting across hundreds of yards to nip at your feet.
But it is luckily devoid for the most part of the truly frustrating bugs, the ones that bring all progress to a screeching halt or, worse yet, destroy hours and hours of progress you’ve already invested. For the most part, Conan Exiles is a fully playable and very enjoyable experience; rough around the edges, but with a core that’s already satisfying and promises to continue to expand in exciting and novel ways.
The only major issue I’ve encountered in over ten hours of playtime with the Early Access build is one introduced by the newest patch, which makes it impossible on my single player server to see the outlines of building blocks and walls before I place them. It’s definitely an annoyance and interferes with the construction system, one of the best dimensions of Exiles' crafting. But it doesn’t prevent me from enjoying the game and, more importantly, it’s something the creators have already acknowledged and are working on remedying.
Talking the talk
And that brings me to the second crucial axis of a good Early Access launch: communication. Players are conditioned to expect a game with some flaws, even some serious ones, when they commit to an Early access project. That kind of language is all over the Steam pages of these games and, in the case of Conan Exiles, built into the game itself in the form of a message from the developers that displays every time you launch the game. But for players that have hit on serious, disruptive bugs over and over again, those warnings to little to ameliorate their frustration.
What does help a great deal is a steady stream of updates from the creative team, and a presence in the forums and on the Steam community page, re-assuring your players that you’re aware of their issues and are working hard to resolve them. Just giving players the sense that they’re not screaming into the void and being ignored goes a long way towards avoiding the feeling that they’ve wasted their money (and the dreaded Steam refund requests that often accompany that feeling). There’s nothing more deadly for an Early Access game than a Steam community that feels like a ghost town.
Of course, that kind of communication doesn’t do much in the long term if it’s not backed up by a solid commitment to action. This is another area Funcom has excelled in, steadily releasing updates to Exiles to address some of the most pressing issues, introduce balance fixes and add new content. And they do a fantastic job of clearly framing their patches by explaining their motivation for the changes they’ve introduced and laying out in exacting detail what each patch does. If you’re a fan of specific patch notes, Conan Exiles has you covered.
Exiles has gotten a ton of buzz since its release, and it’s nice to see how hard the creators are working to justify that buzz. Sometimes the hype overwhelms the production schedule in Early Access games, but Funcom has managed to stay ahead of the curve, ensuring new players don’t leave their game baffled what all the fuss was about. It’s a blueprint other developers exploring an Early Access launch could learn from, and hopefully a guiding light for some of those projects in the future.