The Art of the Unfinished

Early Access Games and Other Works in Progress

by G. Christopher Williams

20 August 2014

If the player of a building game like Clockwork Empires is intended to help build a world in the game itself, shouldn't that player be able to take part in the process of building Clockwork Empires itself?

For the low, low price of 30 bucks, you can play test Clockwork Empires for Gaslamp Games. Or, at least, that’s what it feels like to me when an individual plunks down his or her money for most games labeled “Early Access” on Steam.

My perspective may be a bit retrograde in the post-Minecraft gaming landscape. I’m informed by the old school idea that playtesting is a paid position in a game development company, given that it isn’t necessarily a pleasure to play buggy and unfinished products. Playtesting is a part of the creation of a game, necessary to a video game as copyediting is to a novel. And while I have playtested in an unpaid capacity before, as a beta tester, still I never paid anything for the privilege. After all, it seems a bit like a job.
Again, though, this is a new age and a new economy for gaming. A kind of new patronage has sprung up around this art form, due to things like Kickstarter and, of course, the aforementioned “Early Access” concept. From that perspective, I understand the practicality of the idea for development companies with little start up capital and no official publisher. I understand the idea of future players paying for a product as the development team works in a sense. It’s crowd sourced patronage, crowd sourced production. No longer are a few wealthy individuals putting up cash for a stake in a possible blockbuster. Now, we all produce with the hope of just a good product that we will enjoy being completed.

So, it isn’t the economics of it that really baffle me. Actually, what it is is the aesthetic questions that arise around the idea of experiencing a piece of art in process, rather than as a product. Certainly, it wouldn’t be the first time that the arts or literature offered sneak peeks at works in progress. James Joyce’s novel Finnegan’s Wake appeared in serial form under the title of, well, Work in Progress. Charles Dickens major novels were largely written episodically as well. Famous painters have routinely hung their studies in galleries (a study, after all, is a work intended to practice particular features of a later, more complete painting).

While there is some precedent for incomplete works being published and marketed for the public, the aforementioned works, though, weren’t buggy or “broken” in some way. Finnegan’s Wake‘s early chapters were certainly edited and polished prior to magazine publication, whereas playing video games as works in progress is a curious thing. My recent playthrough of Clockwork Empires, for instance, was fraught with strange moments in which I wasn’t sure if I was not understanding how to play it (there is still no tutorial within the game itself) or whether I was just running into features that weren’t fully playable yet. In some sense, playing some early access games is like watching a movie before the special effects have been added or the sound has been edited. It really is an incomplete work, almost like playing through various drafts of a piece of art.

While scholars of Shakespeare read the early folios of Hamlet, an audience for the material isn’t especially interested in viewing draft after draft of the famous play on a Friday night. They want to see the beautiful object, certainly, perhaps, edited by the director (almost no one puts on the full text of Hamlet), but that’s kind of the point. The director has polished the work for reception. He doesn’t offer the audience a chance to peruse the edits he made to the script or the chance to watch the play’s rehearsals or for that matter the chance for the audience to experience that editing and rehearsing and to then help him make corrections.

Strangely, though, the medium of video games may be one especially suited to the concept of an audience-based directorship, oriented as the medium is towards a more directly interactive relationship between the work and its audience.

Indeed, Clockwork Empires may be an especially apt example to consider in this regard given the nature of the game itself and how it wishes to present its ideas to its audience. Clockwork Empires is a game about building. The player takes on the role of a whole colony of people, plopped into a new world with meager supplies who then have to survive and get an economy running. The player is intended, as it were, to build a world, so why not, then—on the “meta” level—allow its audience to build the game (in some way) as well?

In that sense, perhaps, 30 bucks is indeed a low, low price to spend in order to have some opportunity to be a part of the creative process itself by finding and squashing bugs or giving generalized feedback on the developer’s boards about what is working and what is not. If the audience is intended to manipulate the final product to their own ends, then why not afford the opportunity (for a price) to manipulate the process of that work as well?

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