How Much Is Too Much: Where To Draw The Line On Buying Early Access To An Upcoming Indie Game
Janine "Iris Ophelia" Hawkins' ongoing review of gaming and virtual world style
As a fan of the buy-in beta/early access trend going on in indie game development, I've occasionally wondered where exactly I would draw the line. The line for many consumers is buying into any unfinished project, but I personally enjoy experiencing the changes a game goes through before launch first-hand. That side of the arrangement has never bothered me, especially when it's a game I would have purchased on release anyway. But the question remains: How much would a game I really want to play have to ask for early access before I would choose to walk away, rather than buying it on the spot?
Yesterday, I found my answer.
A little background. 7 Days to Die is Minecraft meets the zombie apocalypse. It's an idea that has certainly been done before, however 7 Days to Die seems to have a much better handle on the mechanics that make this kind of experience engaging and satisfying, straying just far enough from its inspiration to be unique (and to avoid looking like a particularly thorough mod).
I hadn't heard of this game before watching Simon and Lewis, the central personalities of The Yogscast's team of YouTube personalities, playing it cooperatively.
What I saw through them had me immediately interested. One of my favorite things to do in Minecraft is survival; a deserted island map, minimal resources, and a race to get food, shelter, and supplies before the sun sets. 7 Days to Die doesn't take place on a deserted island but still scratches all those other itches, so naturally I was eager to try it myself (and maybe lure a few friends in as well).
Then I saw the price: $35 for access to an unfinished game.
So much for that.
Again, I like alpha access. I write about buy-in betas and early access titles often. I like helping independent developers work out the kinks in their product (since they often can't afford professional testers to do that), I like giving them feedback, I like checking in every month to see how the game is evolving and taking shape. I also like the idea of financially supporting the developer's work as they're doing it. Thanks to the adoption of the early access model I have no doubt that we're getting games that may never have seen the light of day otherwise. As far as I'm concerned this trend is even better than Kickstarter in the regard, because it accomplishes many of the same things while requiring a great deal of concrete work to be done in advance, not to mention giving the buyer immediate gratification instead of months (or years) of waiting to get their hands on the results of their donation.
But $35 for the privilege of playing an unfinished product?
I understand. Developers need a living wage, and independent game development rarely provides one. On top of that, a higher early access price tag means that only particularly dedicated fans will buy in, ideally offering higher quality participation and feedback. It will weed out people who will play for a few days and lose interest, which could potentially deflate their eventual release -- "Oh I played that, it was boring" and so on.
On the other hand, it's not uncommon for early adopters to be rewarded with a slightly lower price than the eventual release price, because they are paying for an unfinished product and hopefully helping it improve out of the goodness of their gamer hearts. Even if 7 Days to Die costs exactly $35 when it comes out, the developers will have an uphill battle ahead of them. There are some pretty strict pricing expectations when it comes to indie games, and consumers are especially unforgiving when it comes to anything that can be mentioned in the same breath as Minecraft (which was also an early example of this funding trend, offering beta access for $13 at the time). The M-word is a very big obstacle, but it's one that can be overcome by fostering a large, vocal fanbase early on, much as Cube World has. Not putting potential fans off with a higher-than-average price tag is a big part of making that work. As it stands now, for about five bucks more, those potential fans could just snag themselves the new Pokémon game instead. That's my plan, anyway.
As interesting as this game is, I suspect that the developers of 7 Days to Die might be setting themselves up for disappointment. I'm still not 100% sure where the line is for me, but I know know that it's well before $35.
What about you? Where do you draw the line on supporting an unfinished game?
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Iris Ophelia (@bleatingheart, Janine Hawkins IRL) has been featured in the New York Times and has spoken about SL-based design at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan and with pop culture/fashion maven Johanna Blakley.