The Price Issue of Early Access

Pretty good article here on the controversy Ark is going through right now after raising the game price to $60. I don’t think it affects many of us in GRG as those who wanted Ark bought in at the Early Access price.

Game pricing is a thorny question that we’ve taken a crack at before, but this week we’re dealing with two considerably thornier questions: how much should an Early Access game cost, and should that cost increase when it officially launches?

Last week, Ark: Survival Evolved developer Studio Wildcard announced that its dinosaur survival game was getting a price increase on Steam from $30 to $60 (or £23 to £50) “to ensure retail parity” (match the price of the console versions) ahead of the game’s August launch. Many are less than pleased with the price hike.

Some Ark fans suggest that, given ongoing bugs and server issues, the game isn’t worth $60. Some who’ve held off on purchasing the game are unwilling to pay double the Early Access price. DayZ creator and Ark fan Dean Hall called the increase “greed—pure and simple” in a series of scathing tweets, and a troubling sign that Wildcard is disconnected from its community in a follow-up interview.

There’s a lot to unpack here, so we reached out to several prominent Early Access developers to hear their take on how Early Access games should be priced.

What price is right?

Many Early Access games see a small price increase when they officially launch. Red Hook Studios’ Darkest Dungeon, for example, was bumped from $20 to $25 upon exiting Early Access. So it’s no surprise that Tyler Sigman, co-founder and design director at Red Hook, supports the general idea.

“A price increase coming out of Early Access makes a lot of sense to me,” Sigman said via email. “As far as I’m concerned, as the developer you want to reward early adopters the best that you can. After all, early adopters who took an early risk got a discount and were able to take part in influencing the game. That’s real value for people to buy into Early Access.”

In this sense, a launch price increase serves as an incentive to buy early, and a reward for those who do. You could also argue it acts as a testament to a game’s completion, a concrete way for developers to tell would-be buyers that they’ve fixed all the problems from Early Access and the game is now worth more.

Mark Morris, managing director at Introversion Software, which released Prison Architect via Early Access, offered another perspective. “I think that when you first price a game, even in Early Access, you anchor it to a particular price point,” Morris said via email. “Significant increases are always going to be perceived as a problem … if I’m being honest, I think that a doubling of the price is a pretty bitter pill to swallow—I’m not sure it’s something I would be comfortable doing!”

So, why did Ark cause such a stink? The first factor is the amount of its price increase. Darkest Dungeon raised its price by $5 upon exiting Early Access. Kerbal Space Program went up $10. Invisible, Inc. went up $4. Viscera Cleanup Detail went up $3. Ark has jumped a full $30. That’s a huge difference, enough that it can seem like Ark isn’t just rewarding early adopters, but severely punishing people who, for one reason or another, chose to wait to buy an unfinished game.

Another factor is timing. Ark will remain in Early Access for several more weeks, so it’s strange for Wildcard to raise the price now. It’s also telling given the studio’s explanation.To ensure “retail parity,” Wildcard may have felt compelled to raise the price of Ark’s PC version to avoid undercutting the $60 console versions.

There’s also visibility to consider. One Wildcard community manager said the studio has been planning the increase “for a while,” but many players obviously feel blindsided, which suggests a failure to communicate.

Ark’s Steam page only says “the game will be lower priced through Early Access, relative to its final full-version retail price.” Wildcard wasn’t clear about how much it was going to increase the price, and gave no specific forewarning in the weeks before the new price took effect.

Hugh Jeremy of Subnautica developer Unknown Worlds raises another point: games like Ark usually don’t cost $60. “Many great games on Steam are setting very low prices for huge amounts of fun,” he writes via email. “For example, PUBG at $30, Rocket League and Rust at $20. You might ‘feel like’ your game is worth $60. You might like throwing silly terms like [triple-A] around in reference to your work. Whatever, your feelings don’t matter. Suck it up. What matters is how the market feels.

“If you are at $60 delivering the same amount of fun as the next guy, who is at $20, you are going to get owned. People are going to feel like they put more value in than you gave them back. So be humble, read the market. At every stage of development, position your price both in proportion to the enjoyment your game creates, and with respect to the enjoyment provided by other games.” Sigman echoed Jeremy’s stance in a follow-up reply, adding that “$60 is a big ask unless you are [triple-A].”

Ark is now tied for the most expensive game in Steam’s top 50 best-selling survival games, matched only by Dying Light: Enhanced Edition. Subnautica, by comparison, is $20. DayZ is $35. Rust, which is also still in Early Access, is $20. Ark is a clear outlier in the survival genre.

Ark also received a $20 DLC, the Scorched Earth expansion pack, while it was still in Early Access. That DLC is still $20, and as Dean Hall pointed out, proved highly divisive among the Ark community. It’s easy to imagine that this price hike was the final straw for players who opposed Scorched Earth.

Unknown Worlds’ Charlie Cleveland points out that it’s Wildcard’s right to raise the price, and that it’s not too surprising given the studio’s “unorthodox” history of releasing additional content before finishing their base game. More than a sign of greed, he sees it as a function of the largely undefined standards of Early Access.

“The ‘rules’ are always changing, as Studio Wildcard is showing,” he said via email. “I think they’re smart for questioning the norm and trying something new, even if it looks a bit greedy from the outside. We will likely raise our price on release, but not this much.”

I think most gamers are just a bunch of whiney bitches and looking for anything to cry about. Ark is clearly worth $60. Makes sense to raise the price before finally release so that they can make some money. Game has been early access for 2 years now.

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The only argument I agree with here is that they shouldn’t have raised it while still in Early Access. If you look at the “bad” reviews that are coming out, there’s a lot of people who are saying it’s not worth 60 bucks who have put in 500 to 1000 hours or more in the game. If you’ve put that many hours in a game, you lose the right to whine that it’s not worth 60 bucks. These aren’t even people the price hike is affecting. Hell, I’ve bought a copy for PC and XBox for myself, and copies for my kids on PC, and I feel like I’ve got my money’s worth for all those copies on my own!

They shouldn’t raise the price until the game is complete. Is it complete now?

Also, is Ark a $60 game still? It’s been early access for how long? You figure most people interested in it would of purchased it already. It’s not like they’ll get a massive influx of new players.

August 8th is the “release” date, so it’s still considered Early Access.

As far as whether it’s a 60 dollar game, with all the content they’ve added through the last two years I’d say it is. There are games not nearly as content rich that are that price.

They said up front that it will be going up in price for release. They messed up by going up in price early.

ARK is complete and is worth $60 if that type of game is what you are looking for.

I’m not saying the content isn’t worth 60 bucks. A few hours spent playing any game is worth 60 to me. It’s cheap entertainment.

I’m just asking if there is enough interest in Ark (or any early access title) to sell it at full price. You have to figure that the majority of gamers interested in the title have already purchased it. Most people don’t understand Early Access and will view this as a title that’s already a year and a half old. They probably already sold 95% of what they will at 35 bucks.

Yeah, that’s a good question. Kerbal still sold well after coming out of early access. It spent two years in EA before release, but also only rose 10 bucks at the most on release. There are still gamers who want to wait for release, but this high a jump (while in early access to boot) may have hurt Studio Wildcard.

It’s easily worth $60. The game has a ton of content, but, as stated, this game has been early access for so long now. I think theyre shooting themselves in the foot raising the price this late in the game. I’m expecting to see Ark sold at a discount within 6 months (my prediction) because they won’t have new players. So unless they start charging for additional content like a lot of other titles, where are they going to continue making money?

The jump to $60 was just too early. I believe they have released all the content that they are going too until after release. That included all 4 maps, The Island, Scorched Earth, The Center, Ragnarok, and all the dinos and caves. They may hold back on some story until final realease but it certainly has enough content to fill a $60 game.

That is the real question and I don’t know just how many more people a full release and physical copies will bring in.
We will see how long it stays at $60 until the first discount or sale.

ARK goes on sale every other month on PC. I don’t see that trend stopping just because they went up to $60.

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I don’t find this a bad move. There should be a cost benefit to investing in an early access game.

I think it boils down to a few things:

  • they haven’t left Early Access yet
  • they doubled the price of the game (rather than just a smaller increase)
  • they released DLC for further cost during the Early Access period
  • some people always find a reason to complain
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I am glad I bought it back when I did…same for games like Minecraft. Early access is a gamble…Developers and gamers alike are taking a chance. Developers are getting low initial income to continue their game development and gamers are getting the introductory low price offer to be at the fore-front of the game. No one ever guarantees everything is going to work out.

And that DayZ developer…HA…that dude has NO ROOM to talk. Right now he is bout as bad as Star Citizen.