《巫妖国度：战法师》是Xaviant的首席执行官兼创始人，同时也是一家独立工作室的创意总监Michael McMain的首个项目。他正在为“Early Access”（游戏邦注：Valve在Steam平台上推出的一个项目，让用户可以在游戏正式发售前体验这些游戏）社区的4名成员，即特地飞到亚特兰大去帮忙创造受魔法驱动的抢劫射击游戏的普通玩家，提供相关建议。他们只是一些普通人，就像你我这样的玩家。但只通过一天时间，他们便转变成了游戏开发者，创造了他们能够游戏的行动。
我们必须了解《巫妖国度》转向“Early Access”的过程。这并不是 Xaviant最初的计划。这种可能性最早出现在2014年1月，即游戏制作开始后1年多，当Hit Detection邀请一群人去访问这家位于亚特兰大的工作室时。
制作人Josh Van Veld告诉Digital Trends：“他们着眼于我们的创造并说道，‘哇，这真的很特别。这很与众不同，也很有趣。但是你也将很难教授人们如何游戏。在几个月后这些内容仍会很真实。’这让我们能够自信地说，‘嘿，我们知道自己拥有一些非常强大的内容。’我们总是这么认为，但是我们却对此保持谦逊的态度，所以你很难会这么想。”
不久之后，也就是在2014年游戏开发者大会开始前几个月，McMain以及Xaviant的市场营销总监Greg Fountain访问了Valve。他们关于Steam的交流也将“Early Access”带向了《巫妖国度》。这发生在一个周五。而在紧接着的周一，McMain前往了Minneapolis参加游戏的媒体见面会。他讨论了在周末的时候尝试“Early Access”的可能性，并在周二创造了其官方版本。
McMain说道：“这真的很有趣。我说我想要尝试‘Early Access’，然后设计总监Tim Lindsey便说道，‘我喜欢这个理念，它听起来很酷、我想我们可以测试看看？’然后我说，‘不不不不，我想要在GDC上呈现Early Access版本’，我不想推太晚；我想要马上就做。我留给Tim换衣服的一些时间，让他能够好好想想，然后他回应道，‘我们可以这么做。我们这么做吧。’”
虽然充满压力，但是经过证明他们这一次的转变是具有价值的。Van Veld补充道：“关于Early Access最棒的一点便是你可以尽早改掉一上台就紧张的毛病。在整个过程中，我们中的所有人都会阅读每个论坛的帖子，并始终提心吊胆着，但现在我们可以说，‘一切都结束了，我们成功做到了。’”
Early Access仍是一种较新的理念，但却很容易吸引像Xaviant这样积极进取的开发商的注意。这是一家全新的工作室，没有等到认证的IP或可依赖的忠实用户。Xaviant雇佣了大概60名员工，还有一些项目领导能够为其引进大量来自Bethesda Software，CCP Games，High Voltage Software以及Disney Interactive等工作室的AAA级开发经验。这种人才的多样性清楚地呈现于《巫妖国度》中，但这款游戏主要依赖于围绕着射击游戏的一种全新方法所创造的复杂系统。虽然这是让人熟悉的内容，但其实却是完全不同的。如果不是人们熟知的IP或者不具有AAA级发行商所推动的市场营销，你便很难去销售游戏。
让我们回想2009年的《恶魔之魂》，也就是《黑暗之魂》的先驱。这款游戏太过于依赖复杂的系统和立基吸引。同时它也缺少足够的市场营销手段。尽管它在Spike VGAs上呈现出一个很不错的预告片，但却因为不存在一种有效的方式去传达这到底是怎样的一款游戏，所以在刚发行的时候这款游戏的销量便不尽人意。让我们想象如果开发商From Software创造的是一款伴随着来自小部分但却充满热情的用户的输入内容的话情况会怎样。这便是《巫妖国度》现在所处的状态。
“基于Early Access系统以及三位负责人每天早上的对话，你将不再拥有一个‘宝贝’。‘我保证如果你能再给我一个月的话它将会变得更加出色。’但是你并未多拥有一个月。根据我们的制作目标和社区目标，这些都是当前非常热门的元素。就各种方式，Early Access已经提供给我们探寻真正重要内容的魔杖了。”
听到所有这些关于创建一个社区并听取反馈，听取真实玩家的心情反馈真的很有趣。Xaviant带到工作室的4名社区成员（乔治亚州本地的Paul Bartlett，自称“来自比利时的波兰人”的Maciej Borek，来自YouTube的Jordan，以及温柔且机智的Texan Paul Hudspeth）都能看到《巫妖国度》所采用的Early Access方法具有的特别之处。
这4名玩家也同意Xaviant在《巫妖国度》中采取的做法是有效执行Early Access的一个典型例子。在游戏开发中使用社区咨询方法还很新颖，工作室将会尝试许多不同的方法。像《巫妖国度》这样的游戏是不完整的，而它的开发商也承认他们还有许多工作要做。而其它使用Early Access向早期尝试者用户传递一款接近完成的游戏的工作室其实是将其当成一种测试工具。在最好的情况下，这将创造出一种混乱状态；而最糟糕的情况下，消费者将会被误导。
Aldershot说道：“关于Steam上的Early Access，我发现很多开发者和工作室都在滥用这一词。这就像是开发者的一个借口似的。当你说，‘这看上去好像还没完成，’然后他们便会说，‘因为它是基于Early Access。’即使它并未使用Early Access也是如此。就像《我的世界》：Mojang误用了测试这一词，因为它很长一段时间都处于测试阶段（大概有2年）。当他们最终完成游戏时，它还是没有什么变化。实际上，虽然游戏发行了，他们也仍继续添加更多内容到游戏中。”
这是一个难以捉摸的领域。这里并不存在任何暗示，Aldershot或者其他人都认为Early Accesss开发者被一些不怀好意的想法给误导了。就像他们所看到的，这种方法的新颖只是把水搅得更加浑浊。有些人采取了Xaviant的方法，即在实时交谈环境下创造游戏，也有些人尝试着去衡量其潜在的用户并生成他们继续开发所需要的资金。这只是用于Early Access的广泛解释的产物。
Hudspeth说道：“并不存在真正的方法能够改变它。不管何时你使用像‘Early Access’这样的词语，你便是在说从一开始你就未将作品呈现出来，从技术上来看这只是一件未完成的作品。所以任何类型的测试都是Early Access，封闭测试也是Early Access，alpha也是Early Access，所以‘Early Access’只是一个不能带来多少改变的词语。它对于某些人来说很重要，但是对于其他人来说可能一点分量都没有。”
In the new age of game development, gamers hold the reins
By Adam Rosenberg
That’s Michael McMain, CEO and founder of Xaviant, and creative director on the indie studio’s first project, Lichdom: Battlemage (read our in-depth preview). He’s giving advice to four members of the Early Access community, ordinary gamers all of whom have been flown to Atlanta to help create the magic-driven looter shooter.
These are just regular folks, gamers like you and me. But for one day only, they’re transformed into game developers, shaping the action that they’re also playing.
Let’s back up.
Early Access is a relatively new idea. In the olden times before high-speed Internet, the game you purchased on day one was what you were still playing months later. Now we live in an era of day-one patches, hotfixes, balance updates, and more. Diablo III, for example, is unrecognizable today compared to the state it was in when it launched back in 2012. Nowadays, savvy gamers go in expecting their experience to change over time — to improve over time.
Minecraft and a handful of other games like it introduced an alternative. Release a game when it’s first playable but far from complete, and then shape it in response to feedback gleaned from an active dialogue with the player community. Early Access is both an acknowledgment of the dangers of early adoption (no one likes to be a guinea pig, after all) and an opportunity for enthusiastic consumers to have a say in how the product they’ve purchased will take shape.
It eliminates the notion that the first version of a thing you’re buying is “finished,” and instead embraces the idea that the most successful creations are those informed by community feedback. Buy a game now — cheaply, and in unfinished form — and you can inform how things change.
A quick turnaround
It’s important to get a sense of the journey that Lichdom took in getting to Early Access. That wasn’t part of the early plans at Xaviant. The possibility was first raised in January 2014, more than a year after the start of production, when the Hit Detection consulting group paid a visit to the Atlanta studio.
“They looked at what we had and said, ‘Wow, this is something really special. It’s very different, it’s a lot of fun. You’re going to have a hard time teaching people how to play it though. Those things still ring true months later,” producer Josh Van Veld told Digital Trends. “That gave us the confidence to say, ‘Hey, we know that we have something fundamentally really strong.’ We always thought so, but we were relatively humble about it, and it’s just hard to have perspective.”
It wasn’t long after that McMain and Xaviant marketing director Greg Fountain paid a visit to Valve, just a few weeks before the 2014 Game Developer’s Conference. Their contacts at Steam also recommended taking an Early Access route to Lichdom‘s release. That trip happened on a Friday. The following Monday, McMain was due in Minneapolis for a press preview of the game. He’d discussed the possibility of going Early Access over the weekend, but he made it official when he got home on Tuesday.
“This was what was funny,” McMain says, breaking into a wide grin. “I said I want to do Early Access and then [design director Tim Lindsey] said, ‘I like that idea, that sounds good. I’m thinking maybe around beta? Which is May?’ And I was like, ‘No no no no no, I want to go Early Access for GDC.’ I didn’t want to go too late; I wanted to get people in now. I gave Tim some time to change his underwear, but then he thought about it and he’s like, ‘You know what? We can do this. We can make this work.’”
Lindsey is quick to point out that this sort of quick shift in plans wouldn’t work for everyone. Xaviant had an advantage: Without intentionally planning it, the team’s efforts had already made Lichdom‘s shift to Early Access easy.
“Our schedule that we established two years ago put us in a position where we had good-enough looking artwork early that it didn’t impede gameplay,” Lindsey explains. “We also had spent a lot of time on building our own tools within CryEngine — it’s very flexible — that allowed us to iterate fast and build gameplay at a very early point. We could really talk about things like control scheme. We’re in the first three months of actual production and the control scheme is critical.”
“The combat had to be something that really felt fluid, so the control scheme was everything. Because of the decisions we made early on, it’s allowed us to get to a point where pre-alpha, [we] have something that is always playable. There’s missing animations, there’s things that aren’t there. But everything that is there supports the player’s immersion and supports their ability to function within the world.”
The transition might have been easier than it could have been, but it was still fraught with stress, as Van Veld is quick to point out. “It’s crazy to rewind to GDC timeframe. We’re all out there with the build going live on Steam. That was one of the most intense and stressful ten days of my life,” he says.
For all the stress, the turnaround proved a valuable experience. “One of the beautiful things about Early Access is you get your stage-fright jitters out of the way early on. We went through the whole thing where everybody’s reading every forum post and we’re all freaked out, and now it’s like, ‘All right. We’ve got this,’” Van Veld adds.
Early Access as a concept is still in its infancy, but it’s easy to see the appeal for up-and-coming developers like Xaviant. This is a new studio, with no proven IP or built-in audience to lean on. Xaviant employs roughly 60 people, with project leads bringing a wealth of AAA development experience from studios as diverse as Bethesda Softworks, CCP Games, High Voltage Software, and Disney Interactive. That diversity of talent is evident in Lichdom, but the game relies on complex systems built around a fresh approach for shooters. It’s familiar, yet different. Not an easy sell without the weight of known IP or AAA publisher-fueled marketing.
Think back to Demon’s Souls, the 2009 precursor to Dark Souls. That game too relied on complex systems and niche appeal. It also lacked marketing juice. Even though the game spawned a proper Spike VGAs trailer-worthy franchise, sales were slow in that first outing because there was no easy way to communicate what Demon’s Souls was. Critical acclaim only does so much. Imagine what might have happened if developer From Software built the game with input from a small-yet-enthusiastic audience. That’s essentially the state Lichdom is in now.
“There are just too many cogs in the machines to build games these days [the way they’ve been done before] … It’s a complete impossibility to make sure that everything is meshed, interdigitated, correctly when it gets out the door,” Lindsey tells us. “We’re not going to get overly distracted with something that might need polish. On a pet project, that’s what happens often; it’s somebody’s baby.”
“With the Early Access system and with the dialogue the three [leads] have every morning, you don’t really get to have a ‘baby’ anymore. ‘I promise, it’ll be awesome if you give me another month.’ No, you don’t get the month. These are the things that are hot right now with our production goals and with our community goals. In a lot of ways, [Early Access has] given us this divining rod for what really matters.”
Community is an important keyword here. Gathering feedback is the key to the Early Access process, and doing so requires a willing audience. Demon’s Souls really had to work at it, since the game was a slow burner, taking almost a year to hit 500,000 in sales in North America. A more crowd-sourced, iterative development process might have helped cut down on some of the barriers to entry that informed the slow adoption.
“The threat of not having an audience is reduced [with Early Access] because you’re fertilizing, creating, generating an audience with what you’re building. You’re making decisions to satisfy folks as early as possible. That right there is less of a risk because you’re already talking to people that you know are going to buy the game,” Lindsey says. “We’re [also] not going to waste as much time on something that the community doesn’t want, because they’re right there. We have things right now that we know they want.”
Even given all of that, accepting feedback isn’t as simple as opening up the floor to input from one and all. Anyone can share their thoughts, but knowing on the studio side how to disseminate what the players are saying is equally important. It’s the difference between listening to someone with 20 minutes spent playing Lichdom versus listening to someone with 20 hours spent playing.
“You have to be in a position where you’re not listening to everybody, but you’re listening to the right people,” McMain tells us. “You’re listening to the people that are actually engaging in what you’re trying to do and giving you feedback to get it there, as opposed to ‘Let me make this into a driving game or a shooting game or a gun game or whatever.’”
Lichdom‘s leads all acknowledge that engaging is just as important as listening. McMain and his team make a point of interacting directly with the community as much as possible. This relates to Lindsey’s point about fertilizing an audience. The players are happy to see a game taking shape around their feedback, but the biggest impact comes from more the direct creator-to-fan engagement. That was an unanticipated benefit, something the team at Xaviant learned as the reality of Early Access settled in.
“We identified these really active community members and said, ‘Hey, why don’t you come out and get a preview of the build,’” Van Veld tells us, referring to the foursome flown out for the day’s design meeting. “What we didn’t anticipate was that all of them would instantly become, like, deputy community managers in their minds. I don’t think any of them knew that the others were a part of the invite list. But suddenly … these guys became the most engaged community members you could imagine. … They feel like they’re part of the process.”
Feedback on the front lines
It’s fascinating to hear all of this talk about building a community and engaging with feedback, then hear those same sentiments echoed by actual players. The four community members that Xaviant brought to the studio — Georgia native Paul Bartlett, self-proclaimed “Polish guy from Belgium” Maciej Borek, YouTuber Jordan “Aldershot,” and soft-spoken, sharp-minded Texan Paul Hudspeth — all see something special in the Early Access approach taken with Lichdom.
Part of that is a product of the game’s appeal on its own. Aldershot, Borek, and Hudspeth all spotted the game on Steam and were drawn in by the eye-catching visuals and loot-hooked play. Bartlett came to Lichdom even earlier, having first discovered it in pre-Early Access form at a local games and entertainment conference. He’d actually visited Xaviant previously as a local tester, though no one at the studio realized that until after he’d been invited to participate in the design meeting. All four freely admit to being fans.
Yet they’ve also come to appreciate Xaviant’s commitment to the community. “They’re probably one of the more active game studios on their forums. You don’t just have a community manager. You get the creative director, the QA, the producer, and the community coordinator,” Bartlett says.
Borek chimes in. “We’ve talked a few times,” he says in reference to his past forum exchanges with McMain. “Let’s Google Xaviant. Okay, I’m talking to the CEO! That’s interesting. That’s a new thing for me.”
The four players also agree that Xaviant’s process with Lichdom is an example of Early Access being done “right.” With this community-informed approach to game development being so young, studios try many different approaches. A game like Lichdom is incomplete, and its developers openly acknowledge that there’s work still to be done. Other studios use Early Access to deliver a near-finished game to an early adopter-inclined audience as a way of testing the waters. At best, this results in confusion; at worst, consumers end up feeling misled.
”The thing about Early Access on Steam is I find a lot of developers or studios abuse that term,” Aldershot says. “It’s kind of an excuse from the developers. You say, ‘This doesn’t feel complete,’ and they say, ‘It’s in Early Access, that’s why.’ Now that it’s out of Early Access, it still feels the same. Like Minecraft: [Mojang] misused the term alpha and beta, because it was in beta for the longest time, like two years. When they finally released it, it was the exact same game. In fact, now that it’s released, they’re still adding more things [and it’s happening] even quicker than back in the day.”
“But [Lichdom] is actually incomplete, and they are actively seeking community feedback, and they are actually using this program to help create their game and make it better. And they are also using a price structure to reflect that as well. It’s cheaper right now, and it will get more expensive.”
It’s a tricky landscape. There’s no implication, from Aldershot or the others, that these guys believe Early Access developers are being misleading with malicious intent. As they see it, the newness of the approach simply muddies the waters. Some Early Access offerings take Xaviant’s approach, of building the game in the context of a living conversation, while others are trying to gauge their potential audience or generate the funding they need to continue development. It’s simply the product of the broad interpretations applied to Early Access.
“There’s no real way to change it,” Hudspeth says. “Whenever you use a blanket term like ‘Early Access,’ you’re basically saying that from the first time you ever let it out, that it’s not technically completed. So any kind of beta: Early Access. Closed beta: Early Access. Alpha: Early Access. So ‘Early Access’ as a term isn’t really going to change that much. It’s going to have weight to some people, it’s not going to have weight to other people.”
“I look at what physical phase the actual game is in. I look on the website. It says it’s a closed beta, and that means it’s got a limited player base that are trying to focus on core, key aspects of gameplay. That’s what closed beta is technically for. So if I want to be in on that, then I sign up and see if it happens. If not, then I go do something else with my time.”
All four agree that the decision to jump into an Early Access game is a measured one, based in large part on how enticing the game is and what state it’s in. ”I would have to see a strong core mechanic implemented that is not going to really change that much,” Bartlett says. Borek agrees. “[I’d see] if I actually wanted to play and then see if the stage it’s in right now is playable for me. And that’s that.”
It’s important to note that Xaviant’s four community visitors aren’t representative of the mainstream, in the same way that Early Access offerings aren’t generally angling for mass appeal. These guys are dedicated gamers with lives outside their shared hobby, but they’re also willing to invest time and energy into communicating with the creators in the hopes of making their ultimate experience better.
“As a player, I’ve always played D&D and I’ve always had a real good background in video games, ever since I was a little child, but I’ve always had this massive disappointment with games that say they’re giving you the freedom to do things. It’s always felt like there wasn’t enough there to engage me for more than a playthrough or two,” Hudspeth says. “I’ve tried to give out as much information as I can about games that have disappointed me in the past, to be able to make it into something that they wouldn’t make the same mistakes on.”
Smoothing out the rough edges
Now we’re back to the design meeting. Aldershot, Bartlett, Borek, and Hudspeth aren’t fazed in the slightest after two hours of enthusiastic discussion. McMain and Lindsey are in attendance, helping to both keep things on track and solidify feedback into actual, workable concepts. The results are quickly scrawled down by Lindsey on a rapidly growing design document (see a slightly edited version right here).
It’s a magical process to observe. The barriers between “gamer” and “developer” erode almost immediately. Borek described how he felt some surprise when he realized he was exchanging messages with Xaviant’s CEO, but none of that matters here. These are six men with a shared interest in geeking out over a neat game. Yes, two of those individuals — design leads, both — heavily informed the genesis of the experience, but there’s a valid argument that the four visitors are no less instrumental.(source:digitaltrends)