A long, long time ago… In a galaxy far away… there used to be something called… a demo… and it was free!
Early Access is something that was made extremely popular thanks to Steam, and nowadays we’ve all come to accept the idea of getting into that game before most players. But what lies beneath this new business model, one that many developers are embracing like it’s the best thing ever created? Is this business model fair? Or even logical at all, MMO games or not? Let’s take a deeper look.
So, what is early access for the two of you who have been living under a rock? To put it bluntly, you pay a price to have access to a game that is still pretty much in development. It could be a beta, or even an alpha, but the general idea is that there are bugs, many bugs, several features may not be implemented, and you may be getting just a piece of a game for a price that is usually low, other times not that low, but you’re still paying real money for it anyway.
Now, we have two sides to this story. The Early Access adepts love to say that you’re supporting a game you like and helping the developers escape the grasp of the ruthless publishers, who usually take a large share of the profits. But the critics prefer to say that you’re paying for an unfinished piece of software, one that may even end up canceled along the way (more on this later), and doing the studio’s task of hunting bugs and providing valuable feedback, while still paying for that “privilege”. So, you’re paying upfront for something that may not turn out as the developer promised, or get a final release at all.
Technically, we could say you’re buying access to a beta. A decade ago we still had this very popular trend of releasing a demo for a game to gauge public interest and spread the word, but as technology evolved and creating a demo became much more difficult, the concept is now something of a rarity. However, replacing it with a system where you pay for a buggy and incomplete game (a demo) seems like taking the easy way out and make quite a bit of profit from it.
Sadly, there’s been quite a bit of a turmoil concerning Steam’s Early Access model, considering that only a small share of the games published through it actually got a full release. So there’s the case where a few studios or indie devs are taking advantage of this loophole, by promising something, selling it as a full price beta and never delivering on those promises. Players feel naturally cheated and Valve is finally beginning to notice and considering taking action on this situation. Sure, saying something along the lines of “This Early Access game is not complete and may or may not change further. If you are not excited to play this game in its current state, then you should wait to see if the game progresses further in development” isn’t exactly a lifesaver, but at least gives a bit of a hint to those players who are too lazy to think about what they’re actually buying.
There’s even this issue about valuable player feeback which most of the time won’t be used to fix or improve the game, but instead will be implemented in a sequel, so you’re paying to find bugs and help with your ideas and personal time. Wasn’t there something called QA for games, with staff devoted to finding the bugs and sorting out the mess? Or in the case of small indie developers, a few friends devoted to it? Sounds like something YOU should be getting paid for, right?
Recent statistics from EEDAR say that only 25% of Early Access games get a full release, so these are very troubling numbers from 2013 and 2014. Promises are regularly broken, consumers are deceived – with the cash flowing in, some developers relax and ultimately miss any kind of deadline, or even cancel the game.
You can always say ‘Hey, I like to support projects that I believe in and studios that are completely reliable’. And we’re fine with that. However, there’s no such thing as a completely reliable studio. Take the case of Double Fine, a developer that everyone loves and that has a few Kickstarter success stories. Even this studio canceled the game Spacebase DF-9, a game that was in early access and ended up canceled because it required more and more money. So those who paid for it were left with an empty shell and two disappointments: first, the game wasn’t finished; second, if it was a helluva fun game, then you have to cry yourself to sleep because it is now dead. So this is proof that there’s no safe bet with early access.
In case you haven’t noticed yet, we’re not particularly in love with early access. Sure, we understand how sometimes we just can’t resist supporting a game and playing it before everyone else – and we would love to have early access to a few theoretical games, like The Nomad Soul 2, but there are more risks than rewards, as well as the chance of getting scammed without even noticing it.
So while Valve is trying to improve the negative numbers and we do appreciate the effort, this is still a lot like paying full-price or close for a glorified and overlong demo, one where you’ll struggle most of the time to find the fun and the value for your hard-earned cash. In the end, this question remains: do you really need to play that specific unfinished and buggy game, with so many other complete games that you can buy and enjoy immediately?
What is your opinion on the early access model? Do you like it or do you find it deeply flawed at the moment?