As popular as Steam's Early Access program is for PC games, you'd think one of the big consoles might have a plan of their own to let gamers regularly pay for and play games before they're finished. They don't, but from what two top people at Sony and Microsoft told me, they're at least thinking about the pros and cons of having one.
Last week, I talked about possible early access programs for PS4 and Xbox One with Shuhei Yoshida, head of worldwide studios at Sony, and Phil Spencer, the head of all things Xbox at Microsoft.
For context: the Early Access program on Steam has been hugely popular, helping games such as The Forest, Rust, Prison Architect and others find big audiences befoe they're even done. Gamers have happily paid for the right to download and play regularly-updated builds of games and give feedback as the developers keep working and releasing newer versions. Steam Early Access has at times also been controversial, angering gamers who buy into an early access game only to see the game's development stall.
So... an early access program for Xbox One or PS4?
"It is interesting, when you look at this year's E3 -- whether it's us or PlayStation -- there are a lot of betas that are happening," Xbox's Spencer told me. "I've started to think about: 'Is there a way to more programmatically think about what betas mean on a console?'"
The Xbox's Phil Spencer: "I don't have a plan that's locked on that, but just having a bunch of betas happening, I'm not sure if that's the best way to run a console, either."
Spencer mentioned that the Xbox One already has an early access program of a sort at the console platform level. Some 100,000 or so people are part of a "preview program" and receive console firmware updated in advance, experimenting with new features and stress-testing.
"I have thought: 'Is there a way to look at that platform all up for games, so you have this environment where, yeah, sometimes you have games where things might not work as perfectly as you would want but you're able to see things a bit early?'
"I don't have a plan that's locked on that, but just having a bunch of betas happening, I'm not sure if that's the best way to run a console, either."
Spencer's right about the proliferation of betas and alphas on consoles that is making for a somewhat ad-hoc early access offering already. Just last week, gamers suddenly got to play a Battlefield Hardline beta and a Destiny alpha on PS4.
More betas are coming throughout the year, and Microsoft is partially selling their big fall Halo collection with the promise of December access to a beta for Halo 5. What was once rare has begun to feel constant, albeit only involving huge big-budget games, as opposed to the indie games developing in public through Early Access on Steam.
PS4's Yoshida: "We cannot just to decide to do that alpha thing with one title, in my opinion. I think we have to work on the title of the program or channel to clearly to show that these are still early."
As for Sony?
Yoshida, Sony's head of worldwide studios says there is "definitely some interest from some developers but we have to really message and communicate well to consumers to do that. The good thing that has always been with consoles is that it's very easy to play. You just open the [game] and it works."
If someone downloaded a game on PS4 and found that it was not finished and in an alpha state, Yoshida said, they might be surprised to run into unexpected complications. "We cannot just to decide to do that alpha thing with one title, in my opinion. I think we have to work on the title of the program or channel to clearly to show that these are still early."
If that sounds like there's a plan for early access on PS4, not so fast. When I pressed to figure out if it'd be happening, he said, "From my standpoint -- head of studios -- there is interest from developers, that's all I can say."
The Sony and Microsoft men sound like they're well aware of the hazards, but Spencer's notion, in particular, rings true. If there are going to be all these betas showing up for console games, why not go with a full early-access program? Of course, early access wasn't originally about big game companies, but there are plenty of indies -- the kind who use early access on Steam -- making games for consoles, too. Maybe they'd like it.