Steam Early Access is full of sloppy, moral ambiguities. Purchasing a game in Early Access is always a gamble — it’s possible that it’ll never be finished, or, if it is, that it will fail to meet expectations. While a number of Early Access games are fraught with player frustration and miscommunication, Unknown Worlds’s Subnautica is seeing unbridled success. Communication and transparency seems to be the path towards happy fans, and, in the case of Subnautica, there are creative ways to do that which benefit developers and players alike.
In stark contrast, Studio Wildcard launched ARK: Survival Evolved’s Scorched Earth expansion at the end of the summer. The expansion was praised for its new badlands areas, beautiful in their austerity. New environments brought new dinosaurs, too, along with a bunch of other fresh content to play with. Yet fans were deeply angry. Many ARK fans took serious issue with the fact that Studio Wildcard was charging money for Scorched Earth while the base game was delayed, missing its proper launch in June.
The controversy blew up in the video game press. Following the initial wave of frustration, the studio spoke up, stating that Scorched Earth was necessary to test the infrastructure for future expansions in full release. Still, some who had supported the game over the past year felt betrayed.
And yet Unknown Worlds’s Subnautica is garnering a lot of attention for its unique approach to the early access model. An open-world survival adventure set mostly below the sea, Subnautica has been praised for its creative setting, gorgeous design, and — the biggest of surprises — excellent swimming mechanics. The game is expected to launch on January 19, a little over two years after Subnautica entered Early Access.
From day one, the Subnautica team has aimed for transparency. They’ve opened up their development process to the public, giving players access to the studio’s Trello board. The board tracks all of the work currently going into the game, including prototype photos, bug fixes, and PR plans leading into the month of the release.
What’s really impressive, though, is how Unknown Worlds has left the lines of communication wide open. Both the Subnautica subreddit and the Unknown Worlds forums are great platforms to engage with the developers and other fans. People congregate to show off their impressive underwater stations — expansive constructs powered by solar energy or thermal vents, housing entire aquariums, power generators, and whatever else might strike an ocean explorers fancy. Some regale the user base with tales of their adventures in the cerulean depths, risking their lives to explore deep sea caves while hoping to avoid the unnamed beasts that lurk there.
Subnautica’s polish and scale make it easy to forget that the game is still in development, but things do go wrong from time to time, and sometimes players take issue with a particular design choice. Unknown Worlds prepared for these occasions by giving players access to a feedback ticketing system. Players can file tickets directly to the dev team, either with issues they encounter in the game, or with improvements they’d like to see in future updates. Unknown Worlds maintains creative control of Subnautica, but players also play a role in the project’s success.
All of these efforts have culminated in one of the most exciting Early Access games on Steam to date. Due to the direct level of contact players have with the developers, and the deep-seated passion for the game, a community grounded in positivity and excitement has sprung up around Subnautica — something that’s pretty rare in the video game industry.
Unknown Worlds’s approach to Early Access might not suit every game. In fact, it probably won’t. Yet taking a lesson or two from Subnautica is certainly a good idea as the model quickly becomes a mainstay in game development and publishing. Early Access, at its best, provides an excellent look into the development process while giving developers a chance to seriously consider direct player feedback. It provides an unrivaled opportunity to create amazing things in video games — as Subnautica has shown — if used properly.