Shalem-11 slipped out of the service elevator smoothly, adjusting his tie and checking his corners, like always. This evening he was after secret R&D info held deep in a Sankaku Robotics facility. Shalem linked into the building’s security system and smirked as he deactivated a nearby camera. “Another easy payche- Wait, what the hell is that?”
Right around this time last year, Klei Entertainment was putting the final touches on its first public release of Incognita. The pitch was solid: Squad-based tactics a la XCOM, but with cyberpunk megacorporations and supercomputers, and a dash of Cold War-era style and flair. James Bond meets Johnny Mnemonic meets high-tension, turn-based decision making. On paper, it was ideal. But I was concerned, because unlike Klei’s impeccable Mark of the Ninja, this new project would be released as an “early access” game. Sure, Klei had found lots of success with early access for another one of their titles, the Tim Burton-esque survival game Don’t Starve, but I remained skeptical for a host of reasons.
My caution was tied to a sort of purism. I wasn’t sure how I felt about how early access let players influence a game. What if the fans drove the devs to make bad decisions? I also didn’t want to pour hours into an early build, burning out on the game before I got to play the launch release. I could be patient, I told myself. I had practical reasons to wait, too. Early access games can be bad: unbalanced, buggy, and often unfocused. At the early access stage, some games are little more than tech demos or proofs of concept. Worst of all, some games never leave early-access, being dropped entirely by their devs, left as an unfinished husks of unbalanced mechanics and programmer-made art.
But… cyberspies. Incognita was going to have cyberspies. I devoured the promotional streams, watched hand-held footage taken at last summer’s PAX Prime, and read the forums. I signed up for the newsletter. And when Klei quietly offered fans buy-in early access to the game last fall, I put aside my reservations and jumped in. Now, nearly a year later, they’ve added the game—now renamed Invisible, Inc.—to Steam’s ever-growing list of early access games. As I’ve watched the game grow, the devs interact with the community, and new players dive in, I’ve come to develop a new, more positive opinion of early access—though still with a degree of caution.
From Incognita to Invisible, Inc.
For months, Shalem had been infiltrating corporate outposts, slicing into their security systems, and sneaking away with the loot. But this time, unexpected things kept happening. The security systems had learned to bite back.
Week after week, I put hours into the game now called Invisible, Inc. The initial release was a bit thin; there wasn’t really any “metagame” to speak of, just an endless parade of corporate HQs waiting to be busted into. But every few weeks a new build would hit, and things would fill out a bit more. New characters, new equipment, new bad guys. The core of the game, though, rarely changed, and watching the devs try to figure out how best to stay true to that was an insightful experience.
While other tactical games might be about positioning (XCOM), unit synergy (The Banner Saga), or even relationships (Fire Emblem: Awakening), Invisible, Inc. has always been a game about information. From even their very first live-stream, designers Jason Dreger and Jason Lantz have emphasized the role that that information plays in Invisible, Inc. The corporations have assault rifles, armored turrets, and roving deathbots, but those are no match for your ability to peek through doors, hack cameras, and send out little pings of misinformation. You might be outnumbered and outgunned, but they’ll never catch you if you make informed decisions. Combat would happen, of course, but it was meant to be costly and unattractive.
One of the things that early access helps to illustrate, however, is exactly how hard it is for designers to meet their own standards. While there are countless differences between that original version of Incognita and last week’s Steam early access release of Invisible, Inc., nothing has changed as much or as often as the combat system. In some builds, players crossed their fingers and hoped for critical hits. In other builds, Klei experimented with cover systems and different damage types. There was a time when some enemies had seven or eight health points. Now, every unit has just one, with an easily understandable armor and trait systems allowing for different sorts of resiliency. Invisible, Inc. was almost always fun, but it took a lot of experimentation to make sure it was the sort of fun that Klei wanted it to be.
Being part of the community during development meant seeing the devs explain each of these experiments, engage with community members, and brainstorm new solutions. Some players helped to show how a design decision made combat a too-attractive option. Others in the community identified “abusive” strategies which made success a sure thing. The devs frequently engaged with the community, and I was pleased to see how willing they were to both take harsh feedback and to draw a line in the sand to stand by their design principles. “Sorry,” they’d explain, “but this just isn’t that game.”
How I learned to Stop Worrying…
When Shalem hacked the cameras, the alarm sounded. When he busted open the safe, the whole floor went into lockdown. When he deactivated that roaming combat drone, the floor panels under his own feet came alive with electricity. This was new. This was dangerous. This was fun.
While Klei’s relationship with the community was a plus, it was a moment in the game itself that finally convinced me that there was a unique sort of fun that only early access games can provide.
In Invisible, Inc., players command not only a team of infiltrators and saboteurs, but also a supercomputer (the formerly-titular “Incognita.”) Through a combination of active and passive strategies, players build up “power points,” and then spend these points to break through the “ICE” that protects different corporate infrastructure. For the first few months, this was simple arithmetic: Do I or don’t I have enough points to crack that camera? Then Klei rolled out one key update in the middle of the winter. Suddenly, on top of ICE, some corporate nodes were protected by security “Daemons,” which complicated the easy math I’d come to rely on. Now, on top of needing enough power to deactivate that camera, I had to decide whether it was also worth sacrificing my ability to hack for a few turns—or worse.
It’s tough to convey how momentous this felt. In many other games, once players reach a point in the game where they have a intuitive understanding of the basics, they might come up against a boss, level, or other challenge that complicates thing in an interesting way. This was like that, except it came after dozens of hours (spread over months) poured into the game. The veteran hacker running into something surprising is a classic cyberpunk trope, and no game has conveyed that experience more cleanly than Invisible, Inc. did here. And it could only do it because I’d invested that time to follow along.
Other “early access” games in other genres have been capable eliciting this feeling, too. A recent update to multiplayer survival sim 7 Days to Die added procedurally generated worlds, giving players an endless stretch of post-apocalypse to scavenge. The most recent major Dwarf Fortress’ update added things a laundry list of features, ranging from a new stealth system to the ability to spread rumors. Following a game throughout its development offers not only the ability to affect development and engage with an interested community, but also to be surprised and delighted as a game takes form.
Despite this experience, I’m always very careful about making an early access purchase. I look into the developers to see what their track record is. I dig up video of the game’s current (available) build to make sure that it’s as complete as the product page says it is. I try to get a feel for what the relationship between community and developer is. I try to purchase games that look like they’ll be fun at the time of purchase, not just months from now. If you follow these steps before buying an early access game, you probably won’t go wrong.
In fact, my greatest remaining reservation about early access isn’t about me as a consumer at all, but about the stress that early access culture puts on developers. When devs like Klei are communicative and transparent during development, it becomes easy to expect the same from other devs. Last summer’s procedurally generated, open-world RPG Cube World was an overnight sensation, with an active community who loved the project and was excited for whatever came next. Then the patches stopped coming, with info dripping out here or there every few months.
I don’t hold it against Picroma, the game’s developer. Studios should move at the pace they feel is necessary to produce the game they want to make, and not everyone feels comfortable sharing unfinished work. But because of the standard set by Klei, Mojang, and other hyper-responsive early access devs, Cube World bled fans. Never mind the fact that the $20 alpha still had dozens of hours of content—for months the game’s fan forums and Reddit page were filled with aggravated fans, many of whom felt ripped off. All of this makes me hope that developers are even more cautious than consumers when it comes to trying out early access.
As for Invisible, Inc., its most recent version is the best yet. New updates are rolling out every few weeks, and the Steam release has brought in a whole new batch of fans, ready to brainstorm (and critique). Klei’s added some new features, including hacking tools inspired by the critically-acclaimed card game Netrunner. The core of the game is still the same: information is still king, and combat is still lethal. I just can’t wait until I’m surprised again.
Austin Walker is a PhD Candidate in Media Studies at the University of Western Ontario, writing about games, labor and culture. He writes about games at @austin_walker and at Clockwork Worlds.