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Making a game is hard work. It’s even harder if you’re a small, independent team. Sure, it’s easier now than ever with access to the internet and powerful, free-to-use game engines, but it’s still a monumental effort. Luckily, for smaller teams, the last decade has seen the popularization and surge of the “early access” game release.
“Early access, what in the Dickens is that,” you may ask. Have a seat upon my knee and I’ll tell you. No? Ok, I’ll tell you anyway. Early access is a way for developers to release their game in an unfinished state, often at a discount, to help fund further production and receive feedback from the community. Quite a number of well-received games have started in early access — titles like Hades, Subnautica, and Slay the Spire, to name a few.
Of course, with the success stories come all the rest. There are a lot of early access games that sputter out after a few updates. A few famous examples being Spacebase DF-9, Towns, and The War Z. Most of these games fit into one of two categories: scam or naivety. Either the developer took the money and ran or they wildly underestimated the amount of work necessary to make a game. Whichever it was, those kinds of games gave a bad name to “early access” — but those are stories for another day.
Today, we are looking at the third category of early access: the eternal development.
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Development is a way of life
There are a few games, not many, but a few, that have transcended standard early access and made it into a science. These games remind me of the French poet Paul Valéry and his thoughts on releasing work to the public. “In the eyes of those who anxiously seek perfection, a work is never truly completed — a word that for them has no sense — but abandoned; and this abandonment, of the book to the fire or to the public, whether due to weariness or to a need to deliver it for publication, is a sort of accident, comparable to the letting-go of an idea that has become so tiring or annoying that one has lost all interest in it.”
The games I’m referring to did the unthinkable — they didn’t release or abandon their games. No, they kept their heads down and have steadily worked on their games for the entirety of early access and are still nowhere near release. Nowhere near release and still functioning, enjoyable games. There are a handful like this that I can think of, and probably a good number more I can’t.
One early access game in-particular stands out.
Set in the summer of 1993, Project Zomboid is an isometric zombie survival game. You make a character, pick skills, choose a general spawn area, and head out into the world to die horribly. Much like life, everyone dies in Zomboid. It’s just a matter of when and how.
Initially released via Desura in April of 2011 and making its way to Steam early access in 2013, Project Zomboid is still in active development and shows no signs of slowing down. With the release of build 41 to the public, the team at Indie Stone has made meaningful, useful changes and contribution to the game for over a decade. With this latest release, they admit they have a lot more to come including hunting, NPCs, and new scenarios to start.
Some people don’t like playing early access games, preferring to wait for the full release. I understand this mindset, but I could never resist. I love watching and participating in the game creation process, especially when a game has a strong base from which to grow. Get tired of the current release? Take some time off and see what they add next! For this reason, I would like to present the “art is never (really) never finished” award to The Indie Stone and Project Zomboid.
Keep on plugging, folks, I’ll keep playing. I can’t wait to see what 2031 has to offer.