There’s no doubt that no matter whether you play Pokémon Go or don’t, you’ve probably heard all the accolades and complaints about it. There’s plenty of good: it gets people out of the house, moving and meeting up with each other; the AR mode is fun to play with; and the three-team system fosters some healthy competition.
On the other hand, Pokémon Go has been plagued with all sorts of problems since its launch, from servers buckling under the weight of the demand placed on them, to bugs and glitches that make the game difficult to play. Critics have spoken out against creator Niantic’s choice to release what is clearly an unfinished game (Niantic itself said that certain aspects of the game that players consider core to the series—such as the ability to battle one-on-one and trade with friends—will be coming soon).
Niantic may or may not have jumped the gun with its Pokémon Go release—there’s no doubt that the game’s reputation has taken a dip among more discerning gamers—but that doesn’t mean that an earlier release, even when the game is unfinished, can have some beneficial effects for developers . . . and even for a fanbase.
Anticipation can build if players have something to get excited about, even more so if they have something tangible to give them a taste. Blizzard’s open beta of Overwatch drew in more than 9 million people in just the space of a few days, no doubt helping the full game’s massive success. Even an incomplete game can get a major boost from an early release.
Take, for instance, the game Don’t Starve. Spooky and whimsical, Don’t Starve (which began as a PC game distributed through Steam) has seen success on multiple platforms, including the Playstation 3, 4, and Vita, iOS, and the WiiU. Since then, it has seen several additional downloadable content packages and even a multiplayer expansion. Though the full game was initially released in April of 2013, a beta version was released in 2012. Klei Entertainment’s early-release strategy was implemented to see what the players were interested in and to get rid of any technical issues. Rather than just using early release as a way to bug test, though, the developer put some extra work into tracking player interest and then using that to make important choices further down the line. Along with the information setting guidelines for developers, Don’t Starve accumulated a large, interested fanbase even before its full release. Klei Entertainment’s spokespeople are in near-unanimous agreement that the game ended up leaps better because of the heavy emphasis on the open development process.
Daybreak Game Company’s H1Z1 is another game that was opened up during its development process, to slightly less profound success than Don’t Starve. The survival game was released as early-access in January of 2015, but unfortunately, it was plagued with severe technical issues. This included a glitch in the Battle Royale mode in which the player character, who descends to the field by parachute, would simply glide through the map without landing. This happened in nearly 50% of log ins, and, when combined with other bugs, rendered the game near-unplayable.
Daybreak Game Company apologized for the issues, and elected to split the H1Z1 project into two different games. The two new games—H1Z1: King of the Hill and H1Z1: Just Survive (a deathmatch survival and a multiplayer survival sandbox game respectively)—will each have their own development team.
Though it may seem like a step back for Daybreak, the ability to nip the issue in the bud and re-allocate resources earlier rather than later can help make a stronger game down the line. We’ve seen our share of full games released loaded with problems (Final Fantasy XIV’s first release comes to mind, which was almost universally negatively-panned until Square Enix was forced to scrap everything and restart from scratch). Early access not only draws interest and helps to weed out issues, but it can also guide the developers into building and catering to a player base early on, instead of guessing blindly in development.
It’s tempting to want to keep everything under the belt until the official release date, but as a developer, you should consider all the possibilities. If you’re at an impasse where your game is going, maybe getting some feedback from players, whether in a closed beta or an early release, can offer you some clarity and answers. A game you expect to be popular can be released early to see how it will do with a large load placed on it, though be prepared for any potential backlash. If you can pick yourself up and release a game that’s better than ever based on what you’ve learned from the release, however, it will have been worth it. Maybe you’ll have Klei Entertainment’s luck and your early release will gain you more insight than ever, or maybe you’ll use Blizzard’s just-barely-early-release approach to drum up interest right before launch date. There are many ways to use an early release to your advantage.
Is Pokémon Go’s early release a smart marketing tactic by Niantic to get people talking early on, or will the torch burn itself out before the developer can get a fire going? We don’t know, but developers should know that early access doesn’t always spell disaster.