Alpha Funding / Early Access is not an “Alternative”

Please note: Throughout this piece, I am going to be referring to “Early Access” a lot.
In the context of this blog post, by “Early Access” I refer to those games which follow
the “alpha-funded” model whereby the first build available is pre (or very early) alpha.
“Early Access” games which launch with an open beta are more traditionally funded and
these games are exempt from what I’m talking about.


With the latest news about Spacebase DF-9, one thing has become very clear to me:

Alpha Funded / Early Access is not an “alternative” development approach. It has a very specific use for a very specific set of games.

At the very beginning of Project Zomboid, when we released the first rough screenshots, outlined our goals, and asked for money to help us get there we had a discussion about the “what if” scenarios. What if we don’t really raise that much money? What if we do well initially but interest (and funding) dries up mid-way through? All these sorts of things. One thing was fundamentally obvious: If we take money up-front from people for a shell of a game, we have a duty to deliver the game regardless of how much money we make.

That’s why for the first year or so, Chris and I shared the same cheap apartment in Hartlepool (there’s very few cheaper places to live in the UK and not get murdered on the streets). When we did eventually move somewhere less horrid it was with the understanding that if things took a turn for the worse, we’d have to move back to an equivalent situation. Just turning round at that point and saying instead, “sorry guys, we’ve run out of money, the game as it is now is just going to have to do” was never an option. And it never should be.

So what is very clear to me, is if you can’t guarantee this from the outset then Alpha-Funding / Early Access is not for you. It’s too risky and were it just your own reputation on the line, that’d be fine. But failures tarnish the reputation of the entire model, so a failure (particularly a high-profile failure) is potentially damaging to the very developers who need this model the most.

Frankly, I find it bewildering that anyone would develop a game which relies on sales to fund development who is based somewhere with staggeringly high living costs (London, San Fransisco, Copenhagen, etc). You’re literally (metaphorically) burning that money. I know it’s easy to say but a lot more complicated to do, but you really should be based somewhere cheaper if you’re going to use this model. You need to be efficient and maximise the development you get out of every single penny that comes in. If you’re not prepared to do this (or are unable to) then, again, alpha-funded / Early Access is not for you.

So, I’m afraid, I’m just not impressed by this:

We started Spacebase with an open ended-production plan, hoping that it would find similar success (and therefore funding) to the alpha-funded games that inspired it. Some of its early sales numbers indicated this might be the case, but slowly things changed, and it became clear that this was looking like a year and a half of production instead of five or so.


Because that year and a half production could easily have been five years if only the studio were based somewhere which didn’t have an average $10,000 (!!!) per person per month cost. You are basically requiring your game to be one of the most successful Early Access games ever in order to have enough money to finish it. This is, frankly, an insane and (dare I say it?) arrogant assumption.

edit: A follow-up post here.

12 Replies to “Alpha Funding / Early Access is not an “Alternative””

  1. I agree – the problem is 99% of people in the world don’t live in a place like this. So how are they expected to judge an Early Access title’s likelihood of success if the amount of money a game has to make to pay (what is presumably a small dev team – DF-9 is not Skyrim) can be so wildly higher than it is for another dev team working in a more financially reasonable location.

    We’re nowhere near the most successful early access game. Far from it, but the amount we make from the game is more than enough to fund like 8 developers. Not because we’re making a huge amount, just that none of us is requiring even close to $10,000 a month. That’s mind bogglingly expensive.

    Hard to suggest someone should move their offices etc, especially if they have family roots or other connections there, but at the same time maybe these companies should have to be upfront about their costs in advance or perhaps forgoe Early Access if their costs are so high as to make it this much of a risk.

    All in all disappointed again. There are many devs doing early access right and they don’t deserve to have their businesses harmed because of developers like DF destroying faith in Early Access. As time goes on I’m getting more and more frustrated. We’re fine, but what about all those devs in the same situation we were 3-4 years ago. Sadly they may never have the opportunity we had, and we’ve lost out on whatever awesome game they would have made.

  2. ALSO a big issue with DF-9 is the original cost. Kinda sick of the initial prices of Early Access games being more than the cost of ours after 4 years.

    DF-9 should have been £5 on first Early Access release. If this is not possible then that is a problem in itself. I can get a big 3D game like DayZ being more expensive on first version, but for a basic shell of an iso strategy game charging like $25 out of the gate is not reasonable AT ALL.

    And that is where 99% of the anger is coming from. If those people only spent about 8 dollars on it they may be a little less incensed.

  3. I absolutely agree. When I found out Spacebase DF-9 was being funded by the money gained from Early Access, I wondered how in the hell they could be stupid enough to think that was a good idea, especially since (as you mention) they are located in an area with extremely high living costs. Double Fine is (usually) a good company in my opinion, so it’s really disappointing to have them fuck up this bad and tarnish their reputation so much.

  4. This is a rather level-headed response to the issue and I for one am pleased you have done so.

    *Every* project that screws up after their Kickstarter or Earlier Access phase (or both, I have seen projects using Earlier Access as a secondary Kickstarter after they run out of money, like Kinetic Void and Planetary Annihilation) indirectly hinder other indie developers of using those models to make new games exist. It is a big responsibility but also one where those that screw up sadly do not consider or care about.

  5. awesome post 😀

    thanks for writing it. I got banned from Double Fine’s forums for criticizing them, and other members even posted asking why that happened because it made no sense and it was a power tripping community moderator who was bent over eating out of Tim Schafer’s gaping butthole. I didn’t even use language as ridiculous as what I just said, not once, but it still didn’t stop Justin Bailey from Double Fine to call me a dick on the forums while he banned me. The post that made them ban me was me saying it is funny watching the events play out and the responses were making me lol. Offensive enough to ban and call me a dick in front of everyone by someone who works at Double Fine. Nice damage control.

    Thanks for a developer to call them out, because I’m not famous so they can do whatever they want to a random person.

    Use your voice! We will stand behind you because you make sense! It really is quite simple.

  6. Tim and another of his powertrips. Anyone still get surprised when things like that happens with Double Fine? We are talking about the company that burned all that KS money and then some more to make half a game.
    Really, they make great games, but its more than obvious that they know next to nothing on how to deal with money…

    ps. Love your Zomboid game, bought it in 2011 (man…its been a while) and still play it at steam nowadays.

    1. @JB: If the link to Steam’s official position on Early Access is directed at me then, as per the caveat at the top, when I refer to “Early Access” I’m only referring to that subset of EA games which use this as a funding model synonymous with “alpha-funding”.

    2. Hey Justin,

      Not sure which part of Valve’s page you’re referring to in particular, but if like I suspect its the fact that customers are purchasing the game as it stands, not preordering a future game, that’s all well and good if the price reflects the worth of the game as it stands. We don’t consider $25 a fair price for our game yet and its been in dev for 3-4 years, and has orders of magnitude more features.

      This is the core of our issue with the way Early Access games are going. DF are by no means even remotely at the top end offenders of this, but a similar game of similar scope, at a similar state of development from a small independent indie team would likely be, or at the very least should have been much cheaper when it hit Early Access.

      This is kind of key to the issue, as I commented on reddit and was quoted on Binky’s follow up. If people had paid $8 for the game DF would likely have received a much milder reaction from the 1.0 news.

      And if such a price was not feasible for DF, then that stands to strengthen the argument put forward in this blog that there are inherent issues about commercial sized studios in high cost of living cities making an alpha-funded game where outside massive success the funds are not necessarily there to support development.

    3. In short, by some very simple guesswork based on DF-9’s visible performance on Steam compared to our own game and other EA games we’re privvy to their figures, I’m practically certain if that game was in our hands in the exact same circumstances, we’d have been able to comfortably carry on with the same sized team and turn a profit.

      Not a criticism of the skill or dedication of the devs on the game of course, but just a product of the type of company and the location that company is based. But its definitely something that should be considered by devs and consumers alike.

    4. damn binky and lack of editing comment features on his blog. 😉 I can’t of course say for certain it could be the same sized team, but certainly a functionally sized team still capable of continuing development.

  7. I looked up the team’s .plan on for kicks and giggles, and I was rather surprised to see the following fine print in the lower-right corner of the page:
    Spacebase website v1.00
    Frontface Marketing System Processing
    Frontface Secretion Complete
    Website ready

    Is that code-speak for having the marketing team spit in your face?

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