Some games are steeped in secrecy, built over months or years with fans getting nothing more than the tease of a release trailer now and then. The game will eventually near completion, be tied in a neat little bow, and sent off for production, at which point you’ll see a complete package – for better or worse. At the other end of the scale, we have games that are basically built for Early Access, allowing players to not only watch as the game comes to life, but have a significant role in shaping the creation. No surprises, then. But, equally, no disappointment.
Kerbal Space Program was one of these games, developing organically and growing to accommodate the ideas and passions of its fans from the start. The game encapsulates so much of what can be gained from Early Access, and the strengths a game can draw from having an active and participatory community. Felipe “HarvesteR” Falanghe, the original creator and designer of Kerbal Space Program, is now working on a new game following a similarly community-curated approach.
Falanghe made the decision to release Balsa Model Flight Simulator in Steam Early Access rather than to seek external funding, and hopes the fan-led development of the game is reflected in the quality. He says that from the start, the project has felt like a real snowball effect, having always been intended for Early Access.
“I started building what I thought was going to be a small game, much like how KSP started, it was going to be a small VR model flight sim. The game started growing though, so I thought why not add a new vehicle editor to it? And then I thought, well, this is fun but you need something to do once you’ve got the hang of flying so let’s add combat and paintball dogfighting…” The game continued to develop, and Falanghe says that Early Access allows for this type of creativity in a way that scheduled releases don’t.
That’s not to say every game benefits from this style of development. As Falanghe says: “There are games where you are more like the director of a movie – it won’t make sense until it’s complete. Like an adventure puzzle game, you couldn’t do that in Early Access. How would you release an update if it wasn’t another chapter or a sequel? You can’t go back and revise stuff that’s already happened, and there’s not much replay value.” He comments on this finite process, and admits that – despite his penchant for Early Access and its incremental growth – he has sometimes seen the attraction of more traditional release methods. “Sometimes I think it might be nice to do a game where you are not worried someone is going to touch your code… but at the same time… maybe I would get bored,” he muses.
There is still a sense of being “ready” when it comes to Early Access games though. Falanghe politely points out that “Complete is a difficult word to use in early access”. He explains his philosophy; “I like to call things ‘release worthy’ or not. Something we learned with Kerbal Space Program as well, the whole process never ends, there’s always something you can add, but you get to a point where you’re getting diminishing returns. With KSP when we first added new planets it was great, an explosion of planets! Before you just had the one, so there were 100 percent more planets to visit. But when we added more after that it was the same amount of trouble but didn’t have the same impact.”
For all the benefits of Early Access, being able to convey your vision early in the game’s development is crucial to managing expectations further down the line, Falanghe notes. “Whatever’s there is the premise. Whatever is not there is for people to fill in. You’ll have a hard time conveying that to the community if you don’t make it clear at first. With Balsa, I’m hoping we’ve been able to put in everything that needs to be there so it gets itself across. In terms of quantity – it’s not all there, but the idea has to be there enough that people can fill the gaps, to make sure people understand the game the same way I understand it.”
This focus on quality over quantity informed his style of development throughout both Kerbal Space Program and now Balsa Model Flight Sim. The game already has an active Discord server with many participants sharing ideas, tweaks, tips, and mods for the game – developing things that even he wasn’t aware could be made within his own creation.
Falanghe was adamant that part of this informational process should be shaped by both veteran players and those who are new or – in some cases – those who are yet to play at all. “Something you have to be aware of as the community matures is that Veteran players will frequently want different things than someone who has never played the game,” he says, commenting that there is a line to be drawn between listening to the quality of life suggestions from devoted players, and working out what drew them to the game in the first place.
“We want to add things that might make the game more interesting for someone who isn’t playing it, which gets more players into the community, but when we do that it most probably isn’t something veteran players would care for. With KSP we had a lot of that sort of thing and I hope with Balsa we are now at a point where the game is able to accommodate the two sides because the game is very deeply made to be modded.”
Circling back to people “touching his code”, Falanghe jokingly confides that this situation has caused some sleepless nights, but in his new game he feels lessons have been learned. “Balsa Model Flight Simulator is a game meant for external input. It’s very different to what traditional development is like. It can be scary sometimes, you don’t have control of your own idea fully, especially if it’s a moddable game. When you give that power to players they can put things in the game ahead of you, with KSP that was something I’d lose sleep over. Here it works better, because Balsa is a freer space for building things. It hasn’t got a high concept burden to carry. Ideas are more welcome here than they were maybe in KSP.”
“The modding with KSP was there in its minimal way, but we didn’t expect or plan for it. You sometimes get the sentiment that the modders thought they were ‘patching our holes’ but that’s really not a good way to look at it. It’s much easier to make a closed game that’s impossible to modify, but we wanted people to make it their own.”
“Having the ability to mod things in itself is a feature,” he stresses. “That’s one of the things I really want to see in Balsa”. This affection for modding came as a part of his own journey into video game design, and has informed the creation of Balsa Model Flight Simulator, which allows players to fully develop, design, and fly their own model vehicles with full modding support.
Falanghe’s enduring interest in mods and collaborative gaming started before he even planned to make video games for a living, and it’s not something he plans on giving up soon. “This is how I started,” he explains, “when I was 15 or 16 I started modding skins for the first Sims game, I would do character skins on MS Paint.”
“I haven’t ever done it differently, so maybe I’m just a weird type of crazy.”