Ghimel’s Development review PART 1: Early Access

I’ve been playing Exiles since it was released in early access, and have developed some random musings around the game, the EA release, what they’re doing different, and what I believe are some good opportunities for them. I wanted to write the whole thing in one post, but my first point became too long, so I will divide it up. WARNING, HUGE WALL OF TEXT TO FOLLOW. Entertain me, if you will, on the following:

Early Access development of Conan: Exiles

The first thing I want to talk about is the real basis of what EA (Early Access – not the company) is meant to do: provide a way to financially support a project via fans that get to play and test during the various stages of the development cycle. By publishing the game in EA, they are suddenly granted massive amounts of returned development costs (funding), an idea of how profitable the game can be (projections), and a large base of gamers who will test and advertise (via word of mouth, posts, streams, etc.) the game.

This can, and has, backfired on developers who don’t have fixed project calendars with capable project or production managers. So far this is looking good for Exiles, but there can be a few potential pitfalls depending on the future of the EA. The main one is lacking any sort of focus on the proper development of the game in terms of planning and execution of core programming and game mechanics, as opposed to flashy or unneeded content.

Typically, what happens with products (regardless of field) is the engineers, programmers, etc. will develop something that they like – or a version of what they are tasked with, and upper management doesn’t see or audit their work until late in the production cycle. At this point, deadlines and ship dates are coming in fast and higher level managers who are seeing the design for the first time suddenly want changes. Because they didn’t manage the design early on (when changes are easier to make without big delays), the entire project deadline is missed or pushed back, which delays the next project the team should have been working on. Even worse, sometimes assets or resources from other teams get moved to help the late project, thus delaying others. The easiest way to avoid these delays is by iterating early, making changes and tweaking proof of concepts as soon as models are being considered.

This type of development has soured many consumers because the nature of EA is crowdfunding and not via traditional investors. What’s the important difference? Investors can demand transparency in the development of what they are investing in, as well as a say in how the product develops. Crowdfunding provides the company with an investment (usually hundreds of small investors) that don’t bind the company to a contract. We’ve seen this numerous times with EA products where the developers disappear, push paid for DLC before even leaving EA, or change the nature of the product all-together without considering their backers before doing so.

But let’s go back to content for a bit. I mentioned above that many EA titles start getting content updates that are unneeded. But isn’t all content good? Not necessarily during early development. It must be the right kind to keep the game from becoming a cash grab or a money pit that ends up losing steam. Look at one of the biggest gripes about ARK: constant content updates that don’t further push the basic interactivity of the game. What does it mean to push or develop the interactivity? Notice the steady additions of creatures to tame that only turn already in-game mechanics into more powerful or easier versions of themselves. Want to fight? Tame creature A to hit harder. Want to carry more items? Tame creature B to be a mule. Want more mobility? Tame creature C for more speed or vertical movement. Few of them add any new mechanics and ways to interact differently with the world.

Notice the same problem with No Man’s Sky. Countless worlds with different ships, weapons, creatures, suit upgrades, minerals, etc. But none of it changes the way you play the game. Mine with your tool, upgrade your suit and ship for more slots, move to a different planet with a different picture, but continue to use the same mechanics.

Exiles has the potential to go down this route, or it can further the way you interact with the world around you, allowing EA backers to test these new potential dynamics. What Exiles doesn’t need to focus on is content that is escalating (or diminishing) an identical interaction. It should instead focus on creating new ways to interact (sorcery, siege weapons, etc.). I believe this will differentiate it from other titles, and give the Survival genre a new level of immersion, competitiveness, and life that it needs.

Well, that’s it for now. I’ll be doing a similar musing later this week (or tomorrow, who knows) on my thoughts on NPC’s and the World Environment.

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