In the new age of game development, gamers hold the reins

Read our full Lichdom: Battlemage review.

“The player in us wants one spell that does it all. But the designer in us says they all have to be valuable.”

That’s Michael McMain, CEO and founder of Xaviant, and creative director on the indie studio’s first project, Lichdom: Battlemage (read our in-depth preview). He’s giving advice to four members of the Early Access community, ordinary gamers all of whom have been flown to Atlanta to help create the magic-driven looter shooter.

These are just regular folks, gamers like you and me. But for one day only, they’re transformed into game developers, shaping the action that they’re also playing.

Let’s back up.

Xaviant’s process with Lichdom is an example of Early Access being done “right.”

Early Access is a relatively new idea. In the olden times before high-speed Internet, the game you purchased on day one was what you were still playing months later. Now we live in an era of day-one patches, hotfixes, balance updates, and more. Diablo III, for example, is unrecognizable today compared to the state it was in when it launched back in 2012. Nowadays, savvy gamers go in expecting their experience to change over time — to improve over time.

Minecraft and a handful of other games like it introduced an alternative. Release a game when it’s first playable but far from complete, and then shape it in response to feedback gleaned from an active dialogue with the player community. Early Access is both an acknowledgment of the dangers of early adoption (no one likes to be a guinea pig, after all) and an opportunity for enthusiastic consumers to have a say in how the product they’ve purchased will take shape.

It eliminates the notion that the first version of a thing you’re buying is “finished,” and instead embraces the idea that the most successful creations are those informed by community feedback. Buy a game now — cheaply, and in unfinished form — and you can inform how things change.

A quick turnaround

It’s important to get a sense of the journey that Lichdom took in getting to Early Access. That wasn’t part of the early plans at Xaviant. The possibility was first raised in January 2014, more than a year after the start of production, when the Hit Detection consulting group paid a visit to the Atlanta studio.

“They looked at what we had and said, ‘Wow, this is something really special. It’s very different, it’s a lot of fun. You’re going to have a hard time teaching people how to play it though. Those things still ring true months later,” producer Josh Van Veld told Digital Trends. “That gave us the confidence to say, ‘Hey, we know that we have something fundamentally really strong.’ We always thought so, but we were relatively humble about it, and it’s just hard to have perspective.”

It wasn’t long after that McMain and Xaviant marketing director Greg Fountain paid a visit to Valve, just a few weeks before the 2014 Game Developer’s Conference. Their contacts at Steam also recommended taking an Early Access route to Lichdom‘s release. That trip happened on a Friday. The following Monday, McMain was due in Minneapolis for a press preview of the game. He’d discussed the possibility of going Early Access over the weekend, but he made it official when he got home on Tuesday.

“This was what was funny,” McMain says, breaking into a wide grin. “I said I want to do Early Access and then [design director Tim Lindsey] said, ‘I like that idea, that sounds good. I’m thinking maybe around beta? Which is May?’ And I was like, ‘No no no no no, I want to go Early Access for GDC.’ I didn’t want to go too late; I wanted to get people in now. I gave Tim some time to change his underwear, but then he thought about it and he’s like, ‘You know what? We can do this. We can make this work.'”

Lindsey is quick to point out that this sort of quick shift in plans wouldn’t work for everyone. Xaviant had an advantage: Without intentionally planning it, the team’s efforts had already made Lichdom‘s shift to Early Access easy.

“We went through the whole thing where everybody’s reading every forum post and we’re all freaked out, and now it’s like, ‘All right. We’ve got this.’”

“Our schedule that we established two years ago put us in a position where we had good-enough looking artwork early that it didn’t impede gameplay,” Lindsey explains. “We also had spent a lot of time on building our own tools within CryEngine — it’s very flexible — that allowed us to iterate fast and build gameplay at a very early point. We could really talk about things like control scheme. We’re in the first three months of actual production and the control scheme is critical.”

“The combat had to be something that really felt fluid, so the control scheme was everything. Because of the decisions we made early on, it’s allowed us to get to a point where pre-alpha, [we] have something that is always playable. There’s missing animations, there’s things that aren’t there. But everything that is there supports the player’s immersion and supports their ability to function within the world.”

The transition might have been easier than it could have been, but it was still fraught with stress, as Van Veld is quick to point out. “It’s crazy to rewind to GDC timeframe. We’re all out there with the build going live on Steam. That was one of the most intense and stressful ten days of my life,” he says.

For all the stress, the turnaround proved a valuable experience. “One of the beautiful things about Early Access is you get your stage-fright jitters out of the way early on. We went through the whole thing where everybody’s reading every forum post and we’re all freaked out, and now it’s like, ‘All right. We’ve got this,'” Van Veld adds.

Changing models

Early Access as a concept is still in its infancy, but it’s easy to see the appeal for up-and-coming developers like Xaviant. This is a new studio, with no proven IP or built-in audience to lean on. Xaviant employs roughly 60 people, with project leads bringing a wealth of AAA development experience from studios as diverse as Bethesda Softworks, CCP Games, High Voltage Software, and Disney Interactive. That diversity of talent is evident in Lichdom, but the game relies on complex systems built around a fresh approach for shooters. It’s familiar, yet different. Not an easy sell without the weight of known IP or AAA publisher-fueled marketing.

Think back to Demon’s Souls, the 2009 precursor to Dark Souls. That game too relied on complex systems and niche appeal. It also lacked marketing juice. Even though the game spawned a proper Spike VGAs trailer-worthy franchise, sales were slow in that first outing because there was no easy way to communicate what Demon’s Souls was. Critical acclaim only does so much. Imagine what might have happened if developer From Software built the game with input from a small-yet-enthusiastic audience. That’s essentially the state Lichdom is in now.

Lichdom Battlemage

“There are just too many cogs in the machines to build games these days [the way they’ve been done before] … It’s a complete impossibility to make sure that everything is meshed, interdigitated, correctly when it gets out the door,” Lindsey tells us. “We’re not going to get overly distracted with something that might need polish. On a pet project, that’s what happens often; it’s somebody’s baby.”

“With the Early Access system and with the dialogue the three [leads] have every morning, you don’t really get to have a ‘baby’ anymore. ‘I promise, it’ll be awesome if you give me another month.’ No, you don’t get the month. These are the things that are hot right now with our production goals and with our community goals. In a lot of ways, [Early Access has] given us this divining rod for what really matters.”

“In a lot of ways, [Early Access has] given us this divining rod for what really matters.”

Community is an important keyword here. Gathering feedback is the key to the Early Access process, and doing so requires a willing audience. Demon’s Souls really had to work at it, since the game was a slow burner, taking almost a year to hit 500,000 in sales in North America. A more crowd-sourced, iterative development process might have helped cut down on some of the barriers to entry that informed the slow adoption.

“The threat of not having an audience is reduced [with Early Access] because you’re fertilizing, creating, generating an audience with what you’re building. You’re making decisions to satisfy folks as early as possible. That right there is less of a risk because you’re already talking to people that you know are going to buy the game,” Lindsey says. “We’re [also] not going to waste as much time on something that the community doesn’t want, because they’re right there. We have things right now that we know they want.”

Even given all of that, accepting feedback isn’t as simple as opening up the floor to input from one and all. Anyone can share their thoughts, but knowing on the studio side how to disseminate what the players are saying is equally important. It’s the difference between listening to someone with 20 minutes spent playing Lichdom versus listening to someone with 20 hours spent playing.

“You have to be in a position where you’re not listening to everybody, but you’re listening to the right people,” McMain tells us. “You’re listening to the people that are actually engaging in what you’re trying to do and giving you feedback to get it there, as opposed to ‘Let me make this into a driving game or a shooting game or a gun game or whatever.'”

Lichdom‘s leads all acknowledge that engaging is just as important as listening. McMain and his team make a point of interacting directly with the community as much as possible. This relates to Lindsey’s point about fertilizing an audience. The players are happy to see a game taking shape around their feedback, but the biggest impact comes from more the direct creator-to-fan engagement. That was an unanticipated benefit, something the team at Xaviant learned as the reality of Early Access settled in.

“We identified these really active community members and said, ‘Hey, why don’t you come out and get a preview of the build,'” Van Veld tells us, referring to the foursome flown out for the day’s design meeting. “What we didn’t anticipate was that all of them would instantly become, like, deputy community managers in their minds. I don’t think any of them knew that the others were a part of the invite list. But suddenly … these guys became the most engaged community members you could imagine. … They feel like they’re part of the process.”

Feedback on the front lines

It’s fascinating to hear all of this talk about building a community and engaging with feedback, then hear those same sentiments echoed by actual players. The four community members that Xaviant brought to the studio — Georgia native Paul Bartlett, self-proclaimed “Polish guy from Belgium” Maciej Borek, YouTuber Jordan “Aldershot,” and soft-spoken, sharp-minded Texan Paul Hudspeth — all see something special in the Early Access approach taken with Lichdom.

Part of that is a product of the game’s appeal on its own. Aldershot, Borek, and Hudspeth all spotted the game on Steam and were drawn in by the eye-catching visuals and loot-hooked play. Bartlett came to Lichdom even earlier, having first discovered it in pre-Early Access form at a local games and entertainment conference. He’d actually visited Xaviant previously as a local tester, though no one at the studio realized that until after he’d been invited to participate in the design meeting. All four freely admit to being fans.

Lichdom Battlemage

Yet they’ve also come to appreciate Xaviant’s commitment to the community. “They’re probably one of the more active game studios on their forums. You don’t just have a community manager. You get the creative director, the QA, the producer, and the community coordinator,” Bartlett says.

Borek chimes in. “We’ve talked a few times,” he says in reference to his past forum exchanges with McMain. “Let’s Google Xaviant. Okay, I’m talking to the CEO! That’s interesting. That’s a new thing for me.”

The four players also agree that Xaviant’s process with Lichdom is an example of Early Access being done “right.” With this community-informed approach to game development being so young, studios try many different approaches. A game like Lichdom is incomplete, and its developers openly acknowledge that there’s work still to be done. Other studios use Early Access to deliver a near-finished game to an early adopter-inclined audience as a way of testing the waters. At best, this results in confusion; at worst, consumers end up feeling misled.

“The thing about Early Access on Steam is a lot of developers or studios abuse that term.”

 “The thing about Early Access on Steam is I find a lot of developers or studios abuse that term,” Aldershot says. “It’s kind of an excuse from the developers. You say, ‘This doesn’t feel complete,’ and they say, ‘It’s in Early Access, that’s why.’ Now that it’s out of Early Access, it still feels the same. Like Minecraft: [Mojang] misused the term alpha and beta, because it was in beta for the longest time, like two years. When they finally released it, it was the exact same game. In fact, now that it’s released, they’re still adding more things [and it’s happening] even quicker than back in the day.”

“But [Lichdom] is actually incomplete, and they are actively seeking community feedback, and they are actually using this program to help create their game and make it better. And they are also using a price structure to reflect that as well. It’s cheaper right now, and it will get more expensive.”

It’s a tricky landscape. There’s no implication, from Aldershot or the others, that these guys believe Early Access developers are being misleading with malicious intent. As they see it, the newness of the approach simply muddies the waters. Some Early Access offerings take Xaviant’s approach, of building the game in the context of a living conversation, while others are trying to gauge their potential audience or generate the funding they need to continue development. It’s simply the product of the broad interpretations applied to Early Access.

Lichdom Battlemage

“There’s no real way to change it,” Hudspeth says. “Whenever you use a blanket term like ‘Early Access,’ you’re basically saying that from the first time you ever let it out, that it’s not technically completed. So any kind of beta: Early Access. Closed beta: Early Access. Alpha: Early Access. So ‘Early Access’ as a term isn’t really going to change that much. It’s going to have weight to some people, it’s not going to have weight to other people.”

“I look at what physical phase the actual game is in. I look on the website. It says it’s a closed beta, and that means it’s got a limited player base that are trying to focus on core, key aspects of gameplay. That’s what closed beta is technically for. So if I want to be in on that, then I sign up and see if it happens. If not, then I go do something else with my time.”

All four agree that the decision to jump into an Early Access game is a measured one, based in large part on how enticing the game is and what state it’s in. “I would have to see a strong core mechanic implemented that is not going to really change that much,” Bartlett says. Borek agrees. “I if I actually wanted to play and then see if the stage it’s in right now is playable for me. And that’s that.”

It’s important to note that Xaviant’s four community visitors aren’t representative of the mainstream, in the same way that Early Access offerings aren’t generally angling for mass appeal. These guys are dedicated gamers with lives outside their shared hobby, but they’re also willing to invest time and energy into communicating with the creators in the hopes of making their ultimate experience better.

“As a player, I’ve always played D&D and I’ve always had a real good background in video games, ever since I was a little child, but I’ve always had this massive disappointment with games that say they’re giving you the freedom to do things. It’s always felt like there wasn’t enough there to engage me for more than a playthrough or two,” Hudspeth says. “I’ve tried to give out as much information as I can about games that have disappointed me in the past, to be able to make it into something that they wouldn’t make the same mistakes on.”

Smoothing out the rough edges

Now we’re back to the design meeting. Aldershot, Bartlett, Borek, and Hudspeth aren’t fazed in the slightest after two hours of enthusiastic discussion. McMain and Lindsey are in attendance, helping to both keep things on track and solidify feedback into actual, workable concepts. The results are quickly scrawled down by Lindsey on a rapidly growing design document (see a slightly edited version right here).

It’s a magical process to observe. The barriers between “gamer” and “developer” erode almost immediately. Borek described how he felt some surprise when he realized he was exchanging messages with Xaviant’s CEO, but none of that matters here. These are six men with a shared interest in geeking out over a neat game. Yes, two of those individuals — design leads,  both — heavily informed the genesis of the experience, but there’s a valid argument that the four visitors are no less instrumental.

And that’s the whole point. Xaviant brought these four community members out as a way of completely immersing them in the development process. It’s the ideal of Early Access realized: developer and player working side by side to produce a more enjoyable experience. Lessons were learned on both sides, but the Lichdom team is excited to continue running with this fresh, all-inclusive approach to their work.

As McMain said after the successful visit, “Developer day is about living up to our Early Access promise: We take player feedback seriously. Players who spend hours with the game know what they want, often better than the developers do. At Xaviant we plan to continue listening and will most certainly do this again.”

Former Digital Trends Contributor
Previously, Adam worked in the games press as a freelance writer and critic for a range of outlets, including Digital Trends, Joystiq, G4, Official Xbox Magazine, MTV News, and Rolling Stone.

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