Last December, video game developer Vlambeer officially released its roguelike-like Nuclear Throne on Steam and PlayStation Network. The game had been in active development for a little over two years, with regular updates hosted on the game’s Steam Early Access page. Indeed, Early Access paid off for Nuclear Throne’s version 1.0 release – by the time the game was ready to launch, the title had already earned a sprawling online fan base that ranged from Reddit to YouTube, tumblr to Twitter, and everywhere in-between.
Steam Early Access tends to get a bad rap, and in a way it’s understandable. Games like DayZ, Space Engineers, and H1Z1 have been sitting in Early Access for years, with fans complaining that updates have been slow and unsatisfying. But in the right hands, Steam Early Access can be an incredible opportunity for transparency and open game development between a developer and its players.
That’s the foundation behind Vlambeer’s “performative game development” initiative. According to the team’s GDC 2014 talk “Performative Game Development: The Design and Marketing of Nuclear Throne,” performative game development is a “fully transparent development process in which players can play, follow & discuss [a] game” in active development. The key here is to not just openly discuss a game, but to maintain full transparency between the player and the game’s developers during its creation.
When Vlambeer decided to make Nuclear Throne’s development cycle an open process, the team pioneered a new way to take direct input from fans, seeking feedback on the various tweaks, balances, and feature updates planned for the game’s release. In return, Vlambeer’s players not only saw how Nuclear Throne was made, but were also given the opportunity to impact the game’s development in real time.
Nuclear Throne entered Early Access on October 11th, 2013, over half a year after the game’s original release as Wasteland Kings following Mojang’s MOJAM 2013 game jam. As a Steam Early Access title, the game came out with a set of standard community features: an announcement section, a storefront page, a community hub, and a discussion forum for players to chat about the game’s overall progress.
Early Access developers are expected to check out their game’s discussion forums and respond to players, but Vlambeer’s Rami Ismail would take feedback one step further. He would chat about Nuclear Throne on Twitter and the Steam community forums, informing fans about bug fixes and gauging players’ thoughts about content updates and changes. Ismail’s regular presence established a direct line of communication with the game’s players, keeping them in the loop with weekly updates. More importantly, he made the Nuclear Throne team feel like an approachable group of people that players could reach out to if they had a problem.
That attitude went well beyond chats with players on Steam. When the Nuclear Throne development team originally unveiled the game’s Early Access launch, they also announced the beginning of live development streams every Tuesday and Thursday on the official Vlambeer Twitch page. The goal was simple. Vlambeer would show fans how Nuclear Throne was being made each week, twice a week, until the game’s official release.
There was always a plethora of development tasks to address during the livestreams. Whether it was Paul Veer’s pixel animations, Jukio Kallio’s musical compositions, Jan Willem Nijman’s game design tweaks, or Joonas Turner’s sound effects, Nuclear Throne’s team built the game from scratch in front of thousands of viewers at a time, often joking and chatting about the design philosophy behind every edit. Players could tune in and see why Vlambeer was changing the game and how Nuclear Throne improved as a result. With the livestream, Vlambeer made Nuclear Throne’s development entirely open to the public and made players feel like active participants in the game’s creation.
Of course, mistakes were made along the way. When Vlambeer decided to revamp the in-game “Weeklies” and “Dailies” challenge system, the team’s switch to a new server buckled under the player load, rendering the Weekly and Daily leaderboards broken for weeks. But Ismail was honest about the team’s shortcomings, and apologized to fans directly through the Steam community forums. Fans were not just understanding about the problem, they were patient and forgiving. Thanks to the relationship that Vlambeer had cultivated with the community, Nuclear Throne’s fan base trusted the developers. They understood that problems regularly arise during a game’s creation and they were happy to wait for a fix because they knew that Vlambeer put its best foot forward.
For most players, game design isn’t exactly straightforward. It can be difficult to understand the decisions that go into a game’s development cycle, whether it’s updating assets, adjusting bosses, adding new weapons, altering music, or all four at once. Fans are often left guessing why games change the way they do. In part, that’s because game development tends to be a closed cycle, done in the privacy of one’s bedroom or office.
Instead of hiding Nuclear Throne from the public, Vlambeer chose to show players exactly how their game was being made. Assets were developed in real time, and the game’s developers discussed changes they were making live with Twitch viewers. Any problems or complaints brought up by community members were addressed by the team, and taken up with the utmost respect. Simply put, the Nuclear Throne team treated development as an open relationship between players and developers, and they delivered a game built around constant feedback and communication.
Transparency in game development is still a novel idea in the gaming industry. It’s not practical for every game, either, as Rami Ismail admitted himself at GDC 2014. But the idea that players can actively watch how a game is made is nothing short of incredible for Steam Early Access. For a platform struggling with communication and transparency, games like Nuclear Throne show that pre-release access can build accountability and let players feel like valuable contributors during a game’s creation.
Trust is important in game development. Players have been burnt on hype for years, leaving many gamers skeptical about supporting video games before their official launch. But Vlambeer has cultivated trust, respect, and open dialogue with its players. Transparent and direct development, the team suggests, is the solution to Steam Early Access’s problems, and only time will tell if other independent developers follow that call.