With all of the itchy, uncomfortable, and downright exploitative ways game dev studios are trying to monetize their game, it’s easy to pass off anything other than “gold product” as nothing more than a scam. And for the most part, you’re right. Even I can admit that crowdfunding a game is a whole lot riskier and possibly more scam-adjacent than not, when previously I had foolishly hoped that it would open up a lot more doors and ideas.
One of the most recent and proliferous forms of “alternative” game monetization schemes is the early access launch, which asks folks to buy an incomplete game, provide feedback, and watch it evolve into a fully-launched product. It’s, at the brass tacks level (and grossly oversimplified), spending money to be a tester instead of letting professionals do that and get paid for it. However, as vile as that sounds, there are a few games that I’ve come across that actually are worth the buy-in cost in my opinion, and so I wanted to take a moment to highlight them with today’s post.
This one was something of a recent surprise for me. It crossed my Twitter feed during one of the Steam sales that were happening or during this E3 gone — I don’t exactly remember. In any event, this is basically a game where you play games; a sort of semi-metaverse hangout spot with locations like an arcade, a roller coaster, bars, social spots, and a bowling alley, along with “larger” standalone games like a co-op wave survival twin-stick shooter, a kart racer, or a competitive Monkey Ball-style race. On top of that, there’s Steam Workshop support, meaning you can download custom character models. I’m running around as Y’shtola from Final Fantasy XIV, while my good friend is a Spartan with a cigar in their helmet and a cowboy hat.
This game can only grow from here, honestly. More games can be added, more locations can be introduced, more features can be included, but it already feels incredibly feature-complete. If you want to hop into a metaverse of gaming and don’t feel like giving attention to Epic Games’ Core, then this might be worth a look.
I’ve written about this game before — specifically about how it does a great job with visual storytelling — but I have to also nod to the way this one feels like a full game right from the off. It’s made a few updates since I’ve gotten it, including adding more ship types to break down and some overarching narrative beats, but even before then Shipbreaker brought something I’ve never before experienced in a video game: cutting apart derelict spaceships in zero gravity.
The closest analogue I can get to what this game is like is pruning a bonsai tree but in video game form and with a sci-fi bent. I play exclusively in freeplay mode and tend to lose hours breaking down every single part of a ship, which hits differently than any other game I’ve played before Of course, there are other difficulty modes and there’s even a leaderboard for the speedrunning sort, but even at its most easygoing, Shipbreaker brings huge amounts of enjoyment.
Care for a boomer shooter in the vein of classic Doom but made for new hardware? How about one that has a robust map maker? And how about one that has a selection of player-built maps that’s almost always expanding? Then you need to have Prodeus on your radar. This game would be incredible on its own, with tight level design, spectacularly good controls, and beautiful, beefy weapons, but add in a way for player creativity to shine through and you have one of the finest shooting experiences. And it’s not even fully done yet.
I’m not sure what more this game could possibly need, if I”m honest. Certainly more campaign levels. Maybe some more guns. Possibly more enemies. But even if it got none of those things, Prodeus is a stupendous piece of FPS gaming, especially those who pine for the classics.
Swords ‘n Magic and Stuff
This game is too cute to live, but I’m glad it’s not dying. Swords ‘n Magic and Stuff basically takes the idea of Trove — a colorful, cubic, cutesy vibe — and actually builds an RPG world instead of relying on procedural generation. It’s a small-scale multiplayer online RPG, with fun quests, really enjoyable combat, and just a whole vibe that oozes delight. I feel very much about this game the way I do about Trove; it’s a serotonin injection that always brings smiles whenever I boot it up, but it also feels more tightly designed.
In fact, this one recently had an update that added a new land, new crafting, and farming, all of which are activities that are right up my alley. It’s been some time since I’ve hopped in, but this new update has definitely piqued my interest and I am already eager to fire it up and dive in some more.
OK, I’m possibly stretching the “not trash” thing here because, I’ll be honest, this one still feels very rough around the edges, and maybe not in a good way. That said, this game also gets marks for doing the survival sandbox schtick so much more interestingly than its contemporaries, particularly since it has a unique way of unlocking additional crafting recpies.
Effectively, you move forward in time by placing items in offering to an altar, which in turn adds new weapons, armor, building materials, crafting stations, and more. Furthermore, opening a portal to new islands adds new enemies, new materials, and new challenges. It has just enough unique wrinkles and an overall more relaxed vibe to it that I can overlook some shoddy translation issues, weak dungeons, and odd combat. It’s worth a peek, in my opinion, but primarily if it’s on sale.
Boy, this game got on like a house on fire and kind of died down in buzz, huh? But the point remains that Valheim still stands as one of the single best survival sandbox games out there. And this is coming from someone who hates the sub-genre. The primary reason I feel this way is because it does away with a lot of the punishing, annoying contrivances that otherwise make survival sandboxes a chore to play; food isn’t a requirement to simply be alive, but eating it confers some boosts and benefits. Gathering is required to make tools, but it all makes sense, especially since materials don’t magically regenerate.
Pair all of that with a graphical style that hits a great middle ground between low-poly and high resolution, and a unique aesthetic that makes you feel like both a legend and a pauper, and Valheim still rises to the top of not only a sub-genre but also a monetization scheme that otherwise feels like a scam. Now if only the devs would have thought to put out content a little faster…