Early Access is a peculiar idea. Gamers pay to test and work out the kinks in games prior to their official release. We’re paying to play unfinished games, which is weird given that many AAA developers have QA testers that get paid to do just that. And yet here we are with plenty of gamers spending money to test out betas and alphas of a game. The practice was frowned upon by many after some companies abused the idea to grab a quick buck, yet Early Access has done a lot to turn itself around, namely increasing the quality of these games and the overall mentality behind it. Some Early Access games even rise from the standard and turn out to be excellent.
But what exactly constitutes a great Early Access game from an alright one? To figure that out, I looked at some of the most popular and successful games within the program, Killing Floor 2 and Darkest Dungeon, and tried to find out why they gained so much traction. Both titles are still in Early Access with releases on the horizon, but that hasn’t stopped them from gaining so much praise. After researching into how the games came about, and their ideas about what Early Access meant, I believe I’ve figured out what makes them great.
Starting with the more familiar of the pair, Killing Floor 2 is the sequel to the indie hit, Killing Floor, made by Tripwire Interactive. The game was first announced in an article of PC Gamer on May 8th of 2014, letting fans of the previous title know good things were to come for those that craved more Zed killing. After nearly a year of work and teasing, some lucky players were given keys into a closed beta that would run from April 10th to 16th of 2015. The others wouldn’t have to wait much longer though, as the project was brought onto Steam’s Early Access on April 21st. Since then, the game has stayed in the program with updates and free content packs to keep its players interested. Most recently was the update adding two new perks, the Demolition and Firebug, to add more playstyles to the game. Killing Floor 2 has done splendidly, earning itself thousands of positive reviews from gamers and praise from many gaming websites.
Darkest Dungeon, on the other hand, had no predecessor. Red Hook Studios were making a new IP, one that obviously lacked a pre-existing fan base, and went about seeing their game through differently. Unlike Killing Floor 2, Darkest Dungeon needed support to get started. The studio decided to go through Kickstarter on February of 2014 to get the necessary funds to start and make the game. This was an incredible success, partly due to the team’s strategic decision to release a trailer well before in order to gain attention, and the project reached its asking goal of $75k within less than 24 hours. It would go on to raise a total of $313,337 over its campaign, leaving Red Hook with the money needed to make Darkest Dungeon a reality. Those who backed the Kickstarter would gain access to the Early Access game on January 30th, 2015, while the public would see it release through the program on February 3rd. Like Killing Floor 2, the game has been received very positively for its quality and challenging gameplay.
One major element that definitely contributes to Killing Floor 2’s success is its fan base and prior support. Thanks to the critical success of its predecessor, Tripwire had a great community pre-established to help support the sequel. Players of the first game would be able to come into the second with a love of the title and a desire to see the sequel really shine. This leads to many of these people contributing to the forums and stating their concerns or suggestions that help polish the game. Tripwire even acknowledges this relationship, stating, “One of the factors that has determined Tripwire’s success has been our relationship with the community. Engaging the community and incorporating their feedback into our products is standard operating procedure at Tripwire.” Darkest Dungeon, while lacking a prequel, had this form of support through those that backed their Kickstarter. Backers were no doubt passionate and interested in the game’s success, and would work with Red Hook to see their dream realized.
Not only is the community passionate, but also the sales of the first Killing Floor most likely had the funds to cover for the game without needing support from the sales of Early Access itself. Many developers that are starting off may use the program as a means to start funding their project, instead of opting to use things like Kickstarter like Darkest Dungeon did. This sets itself up for failure as the Early Access program is then used as a means to start making a game instead of polishing it for release, like many believe it should be. Something both Killing Floor 2 and Darkest Dungeon share is their production quality. Both games lack any game breaking bugs or glitches and could really function as a full game right now. The only difference is they are using Early Access to slowly integrate features they believe belong in the full game, and seeing if any bugs arise when this added content is put in. This is exemplified by a statement made by Tripwire on Killing Floor 2’s Steam page, In both cases, I’ve played hours of the game without anything making me think, “Oh yeah. This is totally a non-finished product.” Both could function as fully games as they stand today, just with a smaller set of content that is ever growing with constant updates.
At the end of the day, I’m still playing an incomplete game when I spend my time in Darkest Dungeon or Killing Floor 2. I still paid to play something that’s technically in beta. Yet it’s the care and support of Tripwire and Red Hook, through the constant updates and the production value of that beta, that makes me feel no remorse in doing so. Both these games don’t make Early Access a means of testing a buggy, half-done game and being a cash-grab in an attempt to fully fund it. They offer a fully functional game, able to provide hours of entertainment, that I can help shape and improve through my feedback. It’s in these games that the true strength of Early Access shines: the ability for developers to reach out to the gamers that love their products and have them help make their game be the best it can be.