Bohemia Interactive Creative Director Jay Crowe described the dark and light sides of early access development during a panel at GDC Europe. The following offers a lineup of Crowe's observations about the way early access affected Arma 3's classic development and launch cycles. Feedback is where it's at: "Getting on to the real heart of what early access is about, and that's gathering feedback – where players and developers come together and try to make improvements to the game. It offers a real opportunity, of course, to improve basic performance, stability, alongside more subjective reactions in iterations of the game design and content features."
To respond to player feedback, Bohemia used a mix of formal bug tracking software, and it watched forums, Reddit and Twitter for more spontaneous reactions.
"Overall, there's no doubt that feedback can help us make better games. We try to encourage our designers to innovate and to take risks, and that of course can cause some blowback on quality. With early access, we have rapid iterations and immediate feedback, so we're in a much better position to create genuinely new gameplay experiences and mitigate the risks of this development."
Trust: "That sense of interaction also builds trust with the player base, putting the game, putting the company on a better foot in the future."
Protecting the soul of a game: "In general, early access takes advantage of building up a following under the protection of this 'alpha is alpha, work in progress' philosophy. Furthermore, extra time with the game can allow people to gain a truer appreciation of its soul, so a good review, a good recommendation is more likely to touch on the very heart of what your game has to offer .... Overall, we can say that despite its drawbacks, early access was incredibly useful for our development. It really did make our game better."
Infinite iterations and diminishing returns: "It's difficult to be strict when there's a small fix that can be made that benefits one specific person who gives very nice feedback. But when tens or hundreds of these issues start to pile up, that can have a real impact on development and be very invisible to the majority of players."
Bohemia encountered this issue with one of its weapons, a rocket launcher, that had a certain particle effect when fired.
"Apparently we got it completely wrong when we first put it in the game. So we got some very nice, very informative, very well-informed feedback and made the changes. And then the changes again, and changes again. We're talking about three days of one designer's work basically changing the particle effects of one weapon .... The effort is hugely disproportionate."
Burnout: "This idea of a hotly anticipated alpha as something that will be greeted with praise and people have been waiting months and months to play this thing. That initial exuberance can almost be lost entirely as time passes .... In a traditional launch, this wave of optimism, this news, this wow factor – this is pretty important for generating a splash and selling more copies of your game. But with early access, you've traded this in for other benefits, and it can be difficult, sometimes impossible, to rekindle this love at first sight."
Reviews: Crowe said many reviews for Arma 3 lost sight of the game as a whole and instead focused on smaller improvements from previous versions that early access reviewers had seen, which wasn't ideal. Plus, most media outlets are still figuring out how to review early access games (we can vouch for this one) and whatever score a site posts first is the one used for aggregation sites such as Metacritic. If the score changes later on as the game improves, Metacritic doesn't reflect that change.
"This is a new concept, and I think they're still trying to find ways of dealing with games as moving targets, as it were."