Editor’s note: Sean Campbell is VP, tech and gaming, at Reach3 Insights. This is an edited version of a post that originally appeared under the title, “Turn early access into better access.” 

Back Shot of a Gamer Getting players to participate in development is great, but you need a plan to focus that participation to deliver actionable insight. So, what’s the alternative? 

In response to mounting pressures to stretch out the new release hype window, many developers now run early access periods prior to officially releasing a new game. Along with double-dipping into the “check out our new game” media window, early access is meant to help the developers refine their game and get player feedback in (near) real time. Many simply ask players to leave feedback on their forum or try to sift through the noise on social media. While this seems like a plausible solution, many gaming companies don't provide players with adequate guidelines, incentives or tools to capture and share their feedback into focused insights the developers can action on.

Getting player feedback is absolutely essential in today’s gaming world. Stopping to include players in the development process, either behind closed doors at the studio or through an early access program, can build a great relationship in the game’s community. And even better, it could avoid disasters such as:

  • Fallout 76: Players were discouraged by patches and updates that not only didn’t fix issues, but exasperated them. The anticipated first foray into an MMO-style of game from such a loved franchise quickly sputtered out and never truly recovered.
  • Day Z: This early access game sold over 400,000 copies in its first week. It showed great promise and earned several awards in its first year, but excitement dissipated when the same bugs were never fixed after five years.
  • Star Wars Battlefront II: Even though players voiced concerns with the planned approach to loot boxes, unlocking abilities and characters, that feedback wasn’t given the proper attention until the eve of the game’s release. Gathering this feedback earlier could have prevented a massive PR blunder that reportedly wiped out $3 billion in stock value.
  • Cyberpunk 2077: The most recent sensational failure of Cyberpunk 2077 shows us that companies still have much to learn. It was released in December of 2020 and after two weeks there were so many issues it got pulled from the PlayStation Store – an unprecedented move for a major gaming platform to take. A once beloved and hyped developer quickly became the laughingstock of the internet with untold damage to their reputation. CD Projekt Red knew of issues from feedback within its own teams, but a proper avenue for player feedback might have shed light on just how bad it was going to get.

Has early access lost its way? 

In 2013, Steam introduced a pilot project designed to financially support indie gamers. In this scenario, players could receive – you guessed it – early access to a game at a discounted price knowing that it’s incomplete (read: lots of bugs). In return, small gaming companies could receive both helpful feedback and revenue to help them complete the project.

Recently, gaming companies of all sizes have begun to capitalize on this idea under various names, from early access to beta and preview. However, a key element of this concept is being missed: the purpose of early release is to identify and fix small issues before they become large, publicly criticized problems that negatively impact the business. So, why are we still hearing about all these games that have failed to fix bugs or take player feedback of any kind into account? To some, it seems the emphasis is more on drumming up hype and racking up early sales than it is developers and players working together to improve the game.

Companies have created a space for early access content that’s missing the most important aspect: authentic customer feedback.

Currently, there isn’t an industry standard for early access players to give their feedback. Even though Steam popularized the idea with its early access program, it doesn’t have a recommended method or best practice for submitting bugs or constructive criticism to companies considering publishing a game in early access mode.

“The Community plays a crucial role in early access development. How will you communicate with your users? On a forum? Your website? How often? This is your chance to tell your users how they can shape your product's development.” – Steamworks documentation: Early access best practices

Even Steam’s own documentation leaves developers on their own with figuring out how they should best be having this conversation with their players and gathering their feedback. With no existing framework or guidance in place, gaming companies have inevitably put themselves between a rock and a hard place. They’re supposedly relying on customer insights to help develop the game without providing a reliable way to collect that information.

Three challenges with using early access for feedback

  • No in-game incentives. Once a player purchases or downloads the game there is typically no reminder or further encouragement to give their feedback. Developers are relying solely on gamers’ devotion and initiative to offer feedback. One method to gathering good feedback is incentives, which can encourage more insights and feedback in the future. This doesn’t have to be a traditional research-style incentive; games have a unique opportunity to reward with in-game gifts. Things such as in-game currency or exclusive in-game emblems or skins work great as a reward for providing feedback through better channels than forums, user reviews or social media noise.
  • Outdated communication methods. It’s rare – especially for early release games – to offer a communication tool alongside or within the game itself for a player to give feedback, creating another point of friction. Even if there is a feedback button, it frequently leads to a large, blank feedback box with little guidance. If a gamer decides that a piece of feedback is important enough, many feel their best option is social media or the game’s Steam forum. Both of those options are difficult for developers to parse in a meaningful way and can suffer from a small group of very loud players controlling the conversation at the expense of the other players. These methods also are utilized post-play, when the players are thinking back to the issues they had. What if there was a structured way that could be accessed within the game to gather easy, accessible, authentic and in-the-moment feedback?
  • Inconsistent branding experience. As soon as a player has to log out of the game to share their opinion, the branded experience that creative teams work so hard to deliver is broken. Providing feedback should be an extension of the brand experience: a 10-minute survey, a tweet or an e-mail to support@tech.com doesn't get the job done. A purposefully crafted feedback experience can extend the feel and tone of the game to the feedback process and strengthen that relationship. 

Connecting with players

What are some alternatives for initiating and encouraging all types of players to share their feedback?

  • A QR code on a loading screen/lobby page: Players can scan the QR code with their phone after a session or between matches to answer a quick chat, lasting one-to-two minutes. The chat could have questions about specific aspects of the gaming experience for more structured responses. A QR code in the corner of a skill tree menu could trigger a chat about that skill tree, while a different QR code on the accessibility settings page screen could trigger an entirely different feedback chat specifically about those options.

    Additionally, a chat-based solution gives players the opportunity to report bugs as they happen. Your crash screen could show yet another QR code that goes to a specific bug reporting chat sequence.
  • Text/SMS pings during live streams or tournament rounds: If planning a dev stream on Twitch, why not have a custom-built feedback chat ready to go during the event? Or for online tournaments or competitions, companies can schedule texts to go out after game matches to get player feedback and engage them during the event itself. Not only does this capitalize on the player’s schedule, it gives companies the opportunity to maintain a branded communication solution with a greater number of touch points between the developers and gamers.

Better access during early access

Capitalize on your audience and their willingness to support their favorite titles by making it as easy as possible for them to share their thoughts and experiences. Make collecting and analyzing that data as easy as possible for the company and developers. No one should have to face the firehose of unstructured social media data and expect to easily pull something meaningful from that!

Players should be rewarded for taking initiative to help the game flourish. Make the feedback process a part of the early access experience by allowing it to reflect your branding, while making it a key piece of your game and its community. The gamers are waiting at your doorstep – the only thing left is for you to decide how you’re going to welcome them in.