“It’s the best-sell­ing game in Early Ac­cess – and that’s a prob­lem”

Ark: Sur­vival Evolved raises ques­tions of how we eval­u­ate Early Ac­cess games, ar­gues Phil Iwa­niuk

Games Master - - UPFRONT -

For any­one with the DayZ stand­alone sit­ting (unin­stalled, of course) in their Steam ac­count, it’s tempt­ing to deem any ti­tle that ever ac­tu­ally leaves Early Ac­cess a roar­ing suc­cess. DayZ has been there for about four years now. Judged by the in­cred­i­bly low bar set by Dean Hall and Bo­hemia In­ter­ac­tive, Ark: Sur­vival Evolved is the stuff of ticker tape pa­rades and Time mag­a­zine cov­ers. It drew out its time in Early Ac­cess longer than Van Wilder did in col­lege, yes, but its fi­nal re­lease has now ar­rived. Look­ing at the sales fig­ures alone, even be­fore that fi­nal re­lease, you’d have to say Ark is a mas­sive suc­cess. $10 mil­lion in rev­enue in its first week of Early Ac­cess. Nine mil­lion play­ers across all plat­forms this June, at the twi­light of its pre-re­lease pe­riod. It’s the best-sell­ing game ever to grace Steam’s Early Ac­cess pro­gram. And that’s a prob­lem.

It’s a prob­lem be­cause Ark has al­ready made its money and found its player base, which makes any usual dis­cus­sion about the fi­nal re­lease’s qual­ity feel a bit re­dun­dant. Who cares if the new player ex­pe­ri­ence is still clumsy and baf­fling? Or if there’s still ram­pant DDOSing across PvP servers? The time for eval­u­at­ing its de­sign, ex­e­cu­tion, bugs, and me­chan­ics has been and gone at this point. And the real catch-22 is that in the first few months of Early Ac­cess when these dis­cus­sions would most nat­u­rally arise, they have that enor­mous ‘This game is not fin­ished’ caveat hang­ing over them. You just as­sume every­thing’s go­ing to be fixed. Even­tu­ally.

Crit­i­cism evolved

Which means there’s no good time to eval­u­ate a game like Ark. Early Ac­cess games sim­ply defy tra­di­tional crit­i­cism. By the time we’re ready to as­sess a fin­ished game, play­ers have al­ready made up their minds so we need to find a new way to talk about the games dur­ing and af­ter their WIP phase, that holds their cre­ators ac­count­able.

Truth­fully if Play­erUnkown’s Bat­tle­grounds never grad­u­ated from Early Ac­cess I’d feel I al­ready got my money’s worth at this stage – but the knock-on ef­fects of that at­ti­tude are ev­i­dent when you con­sider the grave­yard of am­bi­tious projects that never made good on their prom­ises. For de­vel­op­ers, it must feel as though games that don’t gar­ner huge crowds and prof­its in the first month or two of Early Ac­cess are fail­ing, and why flog a dead horse? It runs con­trary to the in­tended goal of Early Ac­cess, in which con­tin­ued com­mu­nity feed­back shapes a game, but un­til we find a way to mea­sure the real qual­ity of these ti­tles along the way, cre­ators aren’t be­ing held to ac­count.

“The time for eval­u­at­ing its de­sign, ex­e­cu­tion, bugs and me­chan­ics has been and gone”

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