Early Access Impacts – How Cozy Games Keep Releasing Before They Are Ripe & Ready

Watching a game go from its early access fluff to a full-on, polished release is like being the cool aunt or uncle anticipating your sibling’s baby.

You’ve been there, rooting for it to grow, maybe even pitched in with some extra financial support, treating Kickstarter like the game dev version of a baby shower gift registry.

When the big day arrives, you’re psyched. Finally, you’ll get to see this creation in all its glory. And then, the big reveal happens. They hand it to you, beaming with pride, and you’re ready to witness the magic.

“It can walk,” they say.

So you hold it, eager for that first step, but instead of a confident stride, you get a couple of stumble-steps before it faceplants.

You glance up, hoping for a reassuring nod from the parent, but all you can manage is a confused look. Seriously? That’s it?

This year saw the birth of not one but three early-access cozy games into the world of full releases: My Time at Sandrock, Coral Island, and Disney Dreamlight Valley. During their early access period, they had been showered with lots of attention and graced with enough forgiveness for its bugs, incompleteness, and clunkiness because, hey, we can’t be mean to a game that’s still gestating, right? So, I sit back and let the creative team behind it cook. 

When these three early access games were yanked for the full release, I pulled the blanket, all excited to cuddle up with this cozy, promising bundle. But instead of a cute giggle, it just burped game crashes, bugs, missing dialogue lines, and cluttered UI my way.

My Time at Sandrock is a Great Game with a Terrible, Rushed Switch Port

Image by Gamepur

My Time at Sandrock is a delightful building sim that lingered in early access from early 2022 until the latter part of 2023. During this time, it basked in the glow of overly positive reviews. 

However, just by looking at My Time at Sandrock’s current Metacritic score on different platforms, you get an idea that something fishy is going on. 

In June 2023, the game seemed as polished as a gem. You could craft a killer workshop, pack heat with a pistol, and even flirt with the game’s big bad outlaw, Logan. What else could you possibly want? Anticipation peaked as Pathea Games announced the official release date for September 26, 2023, across various platforms, including the Nintendo Switch. And you know I love nothing more than a cozy gaming session on my favorite handheld console. 

But then, a two-month delay was announced, and Sandrock’s full release was pushed back to November 2. Pathea Games throwing a wrench into a pretty much already fully baked game’s release left everyone scratching their heads. 

However, a quiet epiphany would strike like lightning when players finally fired up the Nintendo Switch version. 

The grand unveiling, as we pointed out in our My Time at Sandrock review, turned out to be a sobering experience. A world of cluttered AI, missing item descriptions, frequent stutters, neverending loading screens, and poorly rendered backgrounds quickly got out.

Amidst the chaos, even I lost sight of what made Sandrock special. After all, not being able to see item names while shopping and watching backgrounds load at a snail’s pace, both in and out of cutscenes, can dim even the most brilliant of games.

As soon as I was done with the review, I crawled back to my now three-digit save file on my PC. I’ll trade the comfortability of a cozy game on the Switch for the functionality of a PC any time; thank you very much.

I was lucky — I had the game on two platforms. But for many, buying My Time at Sandrock on the Switch might mean leaving with the impression that this undercooked, badly ported version is all Pathea can deliver. 

Coral Island’s 1.0 Version Is Out, but I’m Still Waiting for the Full Release

Image by Gamepur

Coral Island is the prettiest farming sim I’ve ever played. If my early access playtime is any indication, I’m a sucker for appearances.

Coral Island’s development blog began in early 2020. Still, it wasn’t until 2022 that enough core features were ready for players to jump into Stairway Games’ early access. 

Anticipation for the full release announcement was palpable. Having invested quite some time in it myself, I couldn’t wait for the game’s full release to add more in-depth romance scenes and flesh out the cute in-game events.

Out of nowhere, in October 2023, Stairway Games dropped the bombshell: the full game would hit shelves in a month, November 2023.

I was pretty much a pogo stick of excitement. Three years of waiting, and suddenly, it’s right around the corner. Gosh, I’ve got so little time to figure out who I want to date.

Discovering that the full release of Coral Island would erase our Early Access progress was unexpected, but it didn’t disappoint me. If anything, it sparked the thought, “Wow, the game must have evolved so much that the devs want us to dive into it anew from scratch.”

Oh, my sweet summer child.

I savored every moment of Coral Island’s full-release Spring and Summer seasons, but when Fall rolled around, I started to see the cracks. The sudden game crashes wiping out a whole day’s progress, missing dialogue lines and unexpected romance scenes with unromanced candidates became a frustrating norm. In a Halloween festival, the NPCs forgot to switch into costumes. So, I had characters saying, “Do you like my costume? I put a lot of work into it,” while looking exactly like their usual selves.

And let’s not forget the whole marriage and children debacle. This mid-to-late game content is as buggy as it gets. Spouses forget they’re hitched to you, the wrong NPC celebrates your marriage, and some even congratulate you on impending children that have already arrived.

The romance feature in Coral Island, hyped to the skies, is ironically the most poorly programmed. It’s a bummer, considering it’s been touted as the game’s strength.

But Coral Island isn’t a lost cause. It’s got the potential to be the farming sim of legends. As we pointed out in our review, Coral Island executes every feature with so much care and detail that it can stand out in a sea of rehashed farming sim games. However, it’s perhaps because of this level of detail that the quality starts to wear out a bit as time goes on in the game.

I’ll keep playing Coral Island to bits, and there are plenty like me who can’t resist its allure. Yet, there’s a wave of newcomers eyeing the rocky shores, waiting for smoother waters before diving in.

Disney Dreamlight Valley’s Transition Is Money Hungry

Image by Gamepur

Like the games listed above, DDV has a poor Switch port with occasional crashes and game-breaking bugs that Gameloft likes fixing by throwing a couple of in-game coins in your virtual mailbox.

Yet, beyond technical glitches, the biggest buzzkill was the game’s money-grabbing tactics. Disney Dreamlight Valley lured in a massive player base with promises of befriending and housing beloved Disney characters for a farm-sim twist. Don’t ah-hyuck at me, Goofy, just fish.

But the shine dulled when confronted with the aggressive in-game transactions, real-money currencies, and steep prices for cosmetic items.

The shift from free-to-play talks to a paid game with persistent and seemingly exorbitant microtransactions didn’t sit well. The sudden price increase, exclusive paid DLC for core Disney characters, and the lingering presence of hefty microtransactions felt, to many, a questionable move.

When a game hikes its price introduces exclusive paid DLC with essential Disney characters, and after a year of promising free-to-play, declares it’ll remain a paid game with hefty microtransactions — well, that raises more than a few eyebrows.

Disney Dreamlight Valley is an amazing experience, but it’s tailored for a specific player: those ready to grind with adorable Disney characters, outfits, and decor to progress, or those unable to resist that limited-time Elsa skin, saying, “Here’s my card.”

The amount you’d need to spend to get the full experience feels exorbitant unless you grind to the death or you’ve been playing for such a long time that your time and effort have already been rewarded with copious amounts of Dreamlight, Moonstones, and Mist, enough to get to the endgame until you wait for the next update.

I’m not saying the game should be free to play. After all, we all know how that played out for Disney Speedstorm. But I do believe the announcement and transition from early access to full release could have been done better.

How You Play a Role in These Stormy Early Access to Full Release Transitions

Image by Stairway Games

Word of incomplete gameplay gets to potential new players. It takes away from people’s enjoyment of the game, makes them build a negative opinion of it, and detracts new players from purchasing the game in the first place.

And for returning players who have invested their time, money, and effort in building a closer relationship with this game – hoping it will lead to something great – an unfinished release leaves a sour taste in our mouths.

Transitioning from early access to full releases in gaming can be a rollercoaster ride. We’re the eager audiences, the cozy gamers wanting our favorite titles on the go, and the enthusiasts anticipating the next big hit. But let’s face it, sometimes our enthusiasm can become a double-edged sword.

Sure, incomplete releases can leave us feeling like we’re sipping a lukewarm latte when we expected a steaming cup of our favorite brew. And hey, that disappointment isn’t a one-way street. Our impatience, demands for immediate ports to beloved platforms, and constant drumming for release dates — they all contribute to the chaos.

However, we as an audience need to take a step back and realize that we play a part in their downfall, too.

Cozy gamers ask devs to port their games to the Switch with the same hyped force Brazilians ask musicians to come to Brazil. I get it; the Switch is our cozy go-to. However, as we’ve learned from countless poorly ported games, getting a game to run on the Switch isn’t just some bibbidi bobbidi boo magic and boom, there you go.

We’ve seen the fallout from shoddy ports — UIs in disarray, graphics taking a nosedive, and games tanking in reception.

We can also be impatient. Spot a game in the making for three years, and the questions start flooding in. A whole year in early access? Naturally, the burning question arises: When’s the full game dropping?

The only pressure small game studios should feel is from their internal teams. Do we really want to pad the list of rushed flops in 2023? I don’t think so. Mind you, a little indie game called Baldur’s Gate 3 spent 3 years in early access, and players only had access to the first portion of the game during this stage of development.

We’re like guests in the developers’ homes when we join the early access journey. We can chat, offer suggestions, and point out the squeaky floorboards. But let’s not be the overbearing guests demanding a five-course meal when they’re still setting the table.

As 2024 lines up its gaming treats, let’s foster a culture of understanding. Small studios need breathing room, not a ticking clock. They’re crafting worlds for us to get lost in, not racing against a stopwatch. So, let’s savor the anticipation and support these creators as they sculpt our cozy escapes. After all, the coziest of experiences deserve the warmest of receptions.

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