Kerbal Space Program has been one of the early access success stories, although not without its frustrations.
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Kerbal Space Program and early access: would you pay money for a video game that isn’t finished?

Buying a game before the development process is finished is always a gamble – too often, it either goes very right or very wrong.

Buy a video game before it’s finished. Buy it while it hasn’t been properly tested or checked for bugs. Buy it when there’s no guarantee it will ever reach a finished state. Buy it based on a list of features that aren’t even in development yet. Buy it and run the risk that if it is ever finished, if it does ever deliver on the promised features list and actually work, that you’ll be too burned out on it to actually play it anymore. Such is the premise of the early access game.

In principle, it sounds like a terrible idea and really the notion of paying full price for a game so you can effectively fulfil the role of its quality assurance test team should be offensive. And yet the practice remains common and popular, with good reason.

That reason is that sometimes, when early access works, there is something special about it. Like going to see a band that will go on to fill stadiums while they are still doing gigs in pubs, or picking out a world-beating footballer while to most they just look like another scrappy teenager. Finding an early access game that has a vital spark of genius about it and watching it develop, seeing the players contributing, seeing the game grow and thrive is one of the few pure joys we ever get to enjoy in the often cynical video game industry.

One such game is Kerbal Space Program. It’s nearly at the end of its three year period of alpha development, with its next update taking it into beta. Fans of the game have been able to watch it change from a relatively limited space rocket simulator into one of the most affable yet challenging games around.

The game places you in control of a space agency, a sort of NASA for the little green people of the planet Kerbin. You have access to space ship components, eager flight crews and a space centre to launch things from, and from there you can do whatever takes your fancy. The standard game plan is to try to land on the different planets and moons in the solar system, but there’s no law that says you can’t just monkey around with the rockets because rockets are fun and actually flying a rocket to the moon is harder than it looks.

Playing Kerbal Space Program back in the early versions was an experience that mirrored the pioneering spirit of the game. Lacking the career mode and tutorials that gradually ease players into the basic concepts of rocket science, players had to help each other out or learn by trial and error. As the game matured – aided by a modding community, some of whom have found jobs working on the game – the challenge of the game became more complex, the options more varied. The career mode brought structure to the game and a sense of purpose. NASA even chimed in, cooperating with the developers to add asteroids to the game and the means for players to land on them.

The journey for Kerbal Space Program from a player’s perspective has not always been a smooth one and it is worth remembering that even when a great game comes through early access in the way that KSP has it will bring its share of problems. For example, an irregular update schedule coupled to a game that plays best when modified can be very annoying, as it requires a player to wait for their mods to be updated too. You can’t complain about this sort of problem with an early access game, as it goes with the territory, but it is typical of the sort of frustration that you just have to suck up.

A second problem you get to deal with during early access is when a game just doesn’t work properly. This is still the case at the time of writing with the 64bit Windows version of Kerbal Space Program, which provides a friendly prompt to this effect should you try to run it. Different developers handle things differently; some will release an update that breaks something important and then immediately have to release a hotfix for it. Others will run more tests and trade frequent updates for safer ones. Left up to the fans the attitude would usually be update and be damned, but developers usually stick to their own schedules. One thing that it can be gratifying to observe among the community of a long term early access game is that you sometimes get to see even the cavalier players learning the value of optimisation and bug fixing. The process can be very educational.

Perhaps the most insidious flaw of early access however is the loss of enthusiasm that can happen for playing a game, even a great one, over time. I feel this quite strongly with Kerbal Space Program. The game has an incredibly strong set of core mechanics relating to building, launching and flying spacecraft and because that core hasn’t changed much the game isn’t as fresh or exciting for me now as it would be if it was new to me, even if the game is more advanced. To play Kerbal Space Program now to me feels like watching a movie whose script I have already read. I may enjoy it, I may be surprised and even amazed by some parts of it, but it remains familiar ground.

This flaw is perhaps the most painful, because as a player you’re denying yourself the chance to unleash your unbridled enthusiasm for something new upon a finished and feature complete game. You can’t unplay the game and you can’t get that new car smell back.

This isn’t all gloom though. While there is a risk that you might play a game to death before it is actually finished, playing a game that is undergoing continual development can keep the experience fresh in a way that you don’t get playing something that’s already finished. For example, over the years I have owned Kerbal Space Program I have shelved it a few times and every time I’ve come back there has been something new. There is a sense of life to an early access game that rarely exists in finished games unless they have very committed modding communities or a long term DLC plan.

Kerbal Space Program will be remembered alongside Minecraft and Mount and Blade as one of the greats of what we now call early access. The list of such outstanding games to come from some form of the early access business model is long and still growing. But it is worth remembering that for every game that gets it right, there will be plenty that get it wrong. For every Xenonauts there is a Spacebase DF9, for every DayZ there is an Infestation: Survivor Stories and for every Space Engineers there is a Stomping Land. Such games will always be a gamble.

Perhaps the best thing about early access, however, is that those that don’t want to buy into it and don’t want to be affected by it don’t have to be. If you see a game on early access that you like the look of but are wary of getting because it isn’t finished yet, you can just not get it. Either it will still be there for you later on in a more complete state, or it’ll fail to get finished in which case it is a bullet dodged. Coming from an industry renowned for finding ways to nickel and dime its customers the appearance of early access has so far been a ray of sunshine, although like the actual sun it should be probably be enjoyed with a due sense of caution. Let’s not start calling it God or building temples to it or anything.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

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How science and statistics are taking over sport

An ongoing challenge for analysts is to disentangle genuine skill from chance events. Some measurements are more useful than others.

In the mid-1990s, statistics undergraduates at Lancaster University were asked to analyse goal-scoring in a hypothetical football match. When Mark Dixon, a researcher in the department, heard about the task, he grew curious. The analysis employed was a bit simplistic, but with a few tweaks it could become a powerful tool. Along with his fellow statistician Stuart Coles, he expanded the methods, and in doing so transformed how researchers – and gamblers – think about football.

The UK has always lagged behind the US when it comes to the mathematical analysis of sport. This is partly because of a lack of publicly available match data, and partly because of the structure of popular sports. A game such as baseball, with its one-on-one contests between pitcher and batter, can be separated into distinct events. Football is far messier, with a jumble of clashes affecting the outcome. It is also relatively low-scoring, in contrast to baseball or basketball – further reducing the number of notable events. Before Dixon and Coles came along, analysts such as Charles Reep had even concluded that “chance dominates the game”, making predictions all but impossible.

Successful prediction is about locating the right degree of abstraction. Strip away too much detail and the analysis becomes unrealistic. Include too many processes and it becomes hard to pin them down without vast amounts of data. The trick is to distil reality into key components: “As simple as possible, but no simpler,” as Einstein put it.

Dixon and Coles did this by focusing on three factors – attacking and defensive ability for each team, plus the fabled “home advantage”. With ever more datasets now available, betting syndicates and sports analytics firms are developing these ideas further, even including individual players in the analysis. This requires access to a great deal of computing power. Betting teams are hiring increasing numbers of science graduates, with statisticians putting together predictive models and computer scientists developing high-speed software.

But it’s not just betters who are turning to statistics. Many of the techniques are also making their way into sports management. Baseball led the way, with quantitative Moneyball tactics taking the Oakland Athletics to the play-offs in 2002 and 2003, but other sports are adopting scientific methods, too. Premier League football teams have gradually built up analytics departments in recent years, and all now employ statisticians. After winning the 2016 Masters, the golfer Danny Willett thanked the new analytics firm 15th Club, an offshoot of the football consultancy 21st Club.

Bringing statistics into sport has many advantages. First, we can test out common folklore. How big, say, is the “home advantage”? According to Ray Stefani, a sports researcher, it depends: rugby union teams, on average, are 25 per cent more likely to win than to lose at home. In NHL ice hockey, this advantage is only 10 per cent. Then there is the notion of “momentum”, often cited by pundits. Can a few good performances give a weaker team the boost it needs to keep winning? From baseball to football, numerous studies suggest it’s unlikely.

Statistical models can also help measure player quality. Teams typically examine past results before buying players, though it is future performances that count. What if a prospective signing had just enjoyed a few lucky games, or been propped up by talented team-mates? An ongoing challenge for analysts is to disentangle genuine skill from chance events. Some measurements are more useful than others. In many sports, scoring goals is subject to a greater degree of randomness than creating shots. When the ice hockey analyst Brian King used this information to identify the players in his local NHL squad who had profited most from sheer luck, he found that these were also the players being awarded new contracts.

Sometimes it’s not clear how a specific skill should be measured. Successful defenders – whether in British or American football – don’t always make a lot of tackles. Instead, they divert attacks by being in the right position. It is difficult to quantify this. When evaluating individual performances, it can be useful to estimate how well a team would have done without a particular player, which can produce surprising results.

The season before Gareth Bale moved from Tottenham Hotspur to Real Madrid for a record £85m in 2013, the sports consultancy Onside Analysis looked at which players were more important to the team: whose absence would cause most disruption? Although Bale was the clear star, it was actually the midfielder Moussa Dembélé who had the greatest impact on results.

As more data is made available, our ability to measure players and their overall performance will improve. Statistical models cannot capture everything. Not only would complete understanding of sport be dull – it would be impossible. Analytics groups know this and often employ experts to keep their models grounded in reality.

There will never be a magic formula that covers all aspects of human behaviour and psychology. However, for the analysts helping teams punch above their weight and the scientific betting syndicates taking on the bookmakers, this is not the aim. Rather, analytics is one more way to get an edge. In sport, as in betting, the best teams don’t get it right every time. But they know how to win more often than their opponents. 

Adam Kucharski is author of The Perfect Bet: How Science and Maths are Taking the Luck Out of Gambling (Profile Books)

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism