Please Note: I don’t want this to sound like a bash of David Braben – he’s still the guy who co-wrote arguably the most important videogame in history and spear-headed the Raspberry Pi and I don’t believe that this pricing is a cynical financially-motivated manoever, so he’s still in credit in my book 😉
I’ve also singled out Elite because it was in the news but it’s not the first game to set alpha/beta access at this sort of price *glares at Planetary Annihilation and Galactic Civilizations III*
Ever since Minecraft did it, the alpha-funded model has been a pretty popular way to get a game off the ground. You charge very little for very little, and the price raises over time to reflect the level of completion of the game. It’s a tremendously fair system – you reward those who believe in your project with a low price and those who are on the fence don’t need to make an immediate decision. They can wait a bit, see how the game develops, and join in later and still get the game for a lower price than release. The price reflects the state of the game as it is right this second. You’re never paying for content yet to be made – at least, in theory.
Then came Kickstarter. In theory, Kickstarter is a really great way to achieve similar results – albeit one designed for a short window of high exposure rather than a slow burning build of momentum. The “all-or-nothing” approach rather gamifies the process of getting your game off the ground, but I can’t deny it has yielded some terrific games which may never have seen the light of day otherwise.
The problem comes down to the tier rewards, which are marvellous within the context of a Kickstarter but the problems set in when a Kickstarter project slams into another system – say Steam Early Access, for example. Suddenly, those tier rewards start to make less sense. A high level tier granting access to alpha or beta builds which otherwise would remain closed works, but come the point that you release on Early Access you can’t suddenly offer that same access for a reasonable Early Access price without pissing all over your Kickstarter backers. So you’re stuck in a quandary – you either skip Early Access entirely, or you’re somewhat forced to reflect that KS tier price in your Early Access price.
So what do you do, when you find yourself in this situation?
This is where you need Captain Hindsight to remind you, “maybe you should have thought about this before you decided to make ‘alpha and beta access’ a high level reward tier, eh?”. Because using reward tiers in this way is like this:
“Hey there, poor person. Thanks for the £20 which might represent your ENTIRE game budget for this month or so, which you’ve chosen to spend on a currently non-existent game that you crave, but you’re £80 short of sufficient PASSION to be involved in the alpha process.”
“But the important thing for the alpha is, for it to be a genuine alpha, we didn’t want huge numbers. Maybe we shouldn’t have restricted it by price but it seemed like a logical thing to do. It seemed like a fair thing to do.”
Now, Mr. Braben. You’re a flupping intelligent chap. I know that because you co-wrote Elite. I cannot believe that you honestly consider this to be “fair” or “logical” – not in a general sense, at least.
But let’s take him at his word – he genuinely wants to restrict numbers. Are we saying, then, that the co-developer of one of the most ground-breaking technical achievements in gaming history is unable to think of a fairer way to restrict numbers than simply slapping an enormous price-tag on access?
“We could have thought more carefully about that. The intent was actually to keep the number of players down. But it looks like a terribly capitalist way of doing it. That’s the trouble. I mean it in the nicest possible way. It’s when you think about it you think, oh yes, that does look a bit bad. But it’s because what we’ve got is a group of people who really care about it. And that’s been so helpful.
We’ve gone into this not knowing exactly how the process would pan out as well. We were one of the first people to use Kickstarter in the UK. I didn’t know how it would pan out.”
It seems not, that by his own admission they didn’t really think too hard about it despite it being really rather important. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to predict that outside the context of Kickstarter, a £100 or £200 price tag for an unfinished game might raise a few eyebrows.
So the question is, then, does it work? Do you get the reduced numbers that you claim to want, and only those people passionate enough to commit to such a price? And is this fair?
Well here’s the thing, you’re not selling some unknown and unproven game, you’re selling Elite – a game which time and time again people have pleaded with you for. “When will we get Elite 4?”, asks everybody whenever they interview you. You’ve teased us about it for over a decade. I went to a GDC session in San Jose in… some time around 2001 when you were making A Dog’s Life and the subject came up during the Q&A. You had a glint in your eye, “we’re working on it”, you hinted. And here it is – finally, after all these years. People will pay any amount for it.
This price tag takes huge advantage of that. Does it restrict access to only people who care? No. Because flupping shit loads of people care – but comparatively few have a couple of hundred quid spare to throw at it. You’re restricting based on income, not on passion. You’re taking advantage of those who can’t afford it, but will pay, because it’s a new flupping Elite game. We criticise those free-to-play games which target the vulnerable too regardless of whether or not that was the intention.
If you really want to restrict access fairly then have a closed alpha/beta – application only. Treat it like a job application.
And don’t charge them a premium for the privilege of HELPING.
What other ways are there to advise only the passionate to play your game?
“DayZ Early Access is your chance to experience DayZ as it evolves throughout its development process. Be aware that our Early Access offer is a representation of our core pillars, and the framework we have created around them. It is a work in progress and therefore contains a variety of bugs. We strongly advise you not to buy and play the game at this stage unless you clearly understand what Early Access means and are interested in participating in the ongoing development cycle.”
Does this work? Probably not, probably only a few people read that on the Store page. But it’s fair and that should come first.