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Inside the long, emotional journey of an early access hit

Less than halfway into 2022, it’s already clear that this year is going down in gaming’s history books — Elden Ring’s jaw-dropping success alone set that in stone. Though giant blockbusters have been the focal point of conversation this year, most of this year’s most impressive projects are much smaller in scale. It has quietly been a tremendous year for indie games exiting early access.

A concept that has become more popular over the past decade, the early access approach allows developers to release games well before they’re in a finished 1.0 state. That gives fans a chance to playtest games early and provide feedback to creators, having a direct impact on development. The strategy famously paid off for Hades in 2020, creating the decade’s first instant classic. Two years later, the approach continues to pay off for developers who are willing to let communities into their creative process.

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This past month alone, we’ve seen major early access success stories in the form of Dorfromantik, Teardown, and, most recently, Rogue Legacy 2. Each one speaks to the potentially massive benefits of early access, though the process isn’t without its own stress, danger, and vulnerability for creators willing to take a risk — just ask the team behind Rogue Legacy 2.

Embracing early access

For a long time, most video games followed a similar launch path. Developers quietly worked on a new title for years, releasing the occasional demo or holding playtests to gather feedback. A game would launch in a 1.0 state and either be done or receive post-launch tweaks based on feedback (see Elden Ring with its constant string frustrating of updates). Early access reshuffles that timeline, widening the player feedback phase and folding it into the road to 1.0.

A hero fights an eyeball boss in Rogue Legacy 2.

Developer Cellar Door Games decided to take that approach with Rogue Legacy 2, a sequel to its influential 2013 roguelite predecessor. While that game launched in a finished 1.0 state, Cellar Door decided it would dole out the sequel one area at a time until the game was finished. In an interview with Digital Trends, Cellar Door co-founder Kenny Lee explained that it was a surprisingly emotional move for the studio.

“It was actually not a very easy decision to make,” Lee tells Digital Trends. “We’ve seen previous games in the genre do well in early access, so we knew it was something that would work. Whether we wanted to do it for Rogue Legacy 2 … for us, it was more than just a game. It’s something that changed our lives and got the steam rolling with our company. So to open it up to everyone was kind of scary. But we just wanted it to be the best game possible and we thought early access was the best way possible for that.”

Part of the decision was logistical. Cellar Door wanted to raise the scope of the sequel, but that would have required a significant scale-up in the studio’s staff too. Starting with early access would help mitigate that challenge. It would start testing early, which would in turn let the studio tackle complex problems like game flow and difficulty balance early. For instance, Lee notes that the game’s extremely challenging fifth area, the platforming-heavy Sun Tower, was just about finished when the game initially launched and was going to be one of its first biomes. However, the team quickly realized it would be too hard and kicked it much farther down the road.

I don’t know if we could have even made Rogue Legacy 2 if we didn’t go into early access. 

While it would be beneficial to the final product, early access would come with some drawbacks too — ones that became immediately apparent to the team upon initially launching the game in August 2020.

Feedback on the fly

“What ended up being more concerning was when we finally showed it to people and we didn’t receive the perception we were hoping for,” Lee says. “We underestimated how much it would hurt. That’s a challenge for a lot of people going into early access that they don’t really consider, and that is, what happens if your early access game doesn’t hit the ground running?”

The game’s underwhelming reaction compared to expectations was due to how limited the initial release was. It only contained one of the six biomes that would appear in the final version of the game. Excited players burned through the build and beat its boss much faster than Cellar Door anticipated, leaving some impatient fans feeling let down by the long-anticipated project.

We just had to dig deep and generate the willpower to finish the game.

That’s the scarier side of the approach. When placing a game in early access, developers are essentially signing a contract with their players. It’s a long-term commitment that says the studio will see the project through to completion, no matter how long it takes. Backing out of that deal could have an adverse effect, breaking the all-important trust between a studio and its most loyal fans who used their free time to provide feedback.

“We just had to dig deep and generate the willpower to finish the game,” Lee says. “Ignorance is bliss in this regard, where you think it’s going to do well and you realize it’s not doing so well, but you have to keep going.”

The initial response to the first biome prompted some major changes to how the project was rolled out from there. Initially, Cellar Door planned to drop new biomes one at a time in milestone patches. The studio was “scared” that the game wouldn’t take off after initial criticisms though, so it packaged two biomes into its next update instead. That would help turn some player sentiment around, but also leave the developers scrambling to create a new roadmap for the rest of the game’s pipeline.

A road map for Rogue Legacy 2's development cycle.

That’s not to mention that an early access update rollout makes for a fair amount of extra work. Lee notes that every single major update the team dropped for Rogue Legacy 2 carried the same stress as a full game launch. He estimates that the team had to go through nine launch cycles by the time the game made it to 1.0, each new one as taxing as the last.

“Every time a new patch comes out, it’s a massive amount of work,” Lee says. “Tons of bugs come out, you have to prepare marketing materials … It’s a mini heart attack every single time. And it doesn’t get easier!”

When asked what advice he has for developers thinking about early access, Lee stresses the importance of launching with enough content. While the idea of building a game from scratch alongside the community is fun, Rogue Legacy 2’s tough start shows that players need to be presented with enough foundational content upfront to stay in it for the long haul.

Sticking with it

While Rogue Legacy 2’s path to 1.0 may sound like a game development horror story, the end result speaks for itself. The game launched to critical acclaim this month and is currently one of the year’s best-reviewed titles alongside Horizon Forbidden West. Lee believes that wouldn’t have been possible without letting his guard down and letting players into an emotionally vulnerable process.

“Early access is far more stressful than releasing a game once, but it’s a sacrifice you have to make if you want to make a better game,” Lee says. “I don’t know if we could have even made Rogue Legacy 2 if we didn’t go into early access.”

A chef in a trap challenge room dungeon.

By listening to feedback and even just watching content creators play the game, Cellar Door was able to make significant tweaks that would be for the best. That included cutting at least five heir traits, like a “light sensitivity” condition, that were nauseating players (“I don’t know why we let that through,” Lee says). The game’s resolve system, where players lose max health as they pick up relics, also underwent a major tweak after the developers noticed players simply weren’t picking items up to avoid health loss.

Tough decisions like that can create additional tension in early access. Switching established systems up on the fly might please some, but it may bring out some pitchforks too. Despite being a community collaboration, there’s a healthy level of give-and-take that developers need to maintain; the approach can be as emotionally draining as it is rewarding. The best advice Lee gives for developers looking to make it through early access is to brace for the impact.

“The only advice I can give is to grow a thicker skin,” Lee says. “You have to have confidence in your design process.”

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