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.

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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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