Why Early Access Games Are A Double-Edged Sword

Imagine you see a new book by your favourite author. Unlike most books, this one is not finished yet. The author will send you updates when they are available so you can see the story develop as it is written. You are even encouraged to send the author comments on the work, so he or she can fix and adjust the manuscript to make it better.

Picture: Claire Sutton

This seemingly odd proposition describes a relatively new way of selling games. Early access, as it is called, has been embraced as a way to support innovation in gaming. But just as many players have decried it as a cynical money grab that is damaging the industry.

So how exactly does early access work, and what are some of the concerns about it?

In the past, details of games in development would normally be tightly guarded secrets, but recently game companies have started offering players access to games while they are in the final stages of development (called "beta" stage in the industry).

Beta access allows games companies to get feedback before launch so that the game can be fine-tuned. It also helps to heighten anticipation of a release, generating stronger sales.

The trend now is to provide access even earlier in the game development process, sometimes even before the game is playable or has all its features.

Early access success

Perhaps the best-known example of a successful early access game was Swedish game developer Markus Persson's Minecraft. Like all software in development, Minecraft had bugs. It also had only a fraction of the features that it would end up with, but Persson made it available online anyway.

Minecraft proved extremely popular with gamers, despite its shortcomings. Money raised through selling the unfinished game to players meant Persson was able to leave his job and focus on developing Minecraft full-time. Five years later Minecraft has spawned a development studio and has sold more than 8 million copies.

Some early access games have been funded through crowd-funding website Kickstarter, with early access provided as an incentive to backers. Chris Roberts' Star Citizen was able to attract more than $US44 million in Kickstarter funding despite an anticipated release date of the end of 2016.

In March 2013, Valve Software's Steam digital distribution platform launched its early access portal with 12 games. Steam has since become the epicentre of early access and hosts 237 titles.

In the northern hemisphere's winter season, the top three games on Steam were early access releases. One of these games, Rust, sold 1.8 million early access copies at $US19.99 a copy. DayZ, sold more than 1 million copies in just one month. A third game, Starbound, now has 204,000 backers and has raised $US4.1 million.

Early access and 'indies'

It is no coincidence that many of these early access success stories have been attributed to small independent game developers. Independent developers (or just "indies" as they are sometimes called) are game developers who are not signed with a publisher.

In the game industry, publishers provide funding for game development and look after testing, distribution, marketing and sales. But they also take a big cut of profits and often take a level of creative control from developers.

Digital distribution platforms such as Steam, Apple's App Store and Google Play provide independent developers with a way of distributing their games at a relatively small cost. Until recently, though, these platforms have sold only finished games.

Early access provides a cash flow for independent publishers during development. It also provides a large number of players who are effectively testing and helping the developer find bugs and refine the game.

Supporters of early access games argue that development funding and access to a large test group are invaluable in supporting independent developers. This in turn supports innovation in the industry and provides opportunities for new talent.

The double-edged sword

Early access is not universally embraced by players or the industry. For many, early access is seen as little more than a way to exploit well-intentioned players. Fuelling this criticism are a number of high-profile early access failures.

Infestation: Survivor Stories (originally The War Z) received widespread criticism in industry press for lack of advertised features and alleged poor overall quality. Another game, Earth: Year 2066, was removed from Steam early access in May due to claims of false advertising.

Even success stories, such as Starbound, are still unfinished and may never reach final release stage.

The many criticisms and high-profile failures of some early access games led Valve to issue a warning in June this year about its early access titles. Valve reminded players that they were provided with no guarantees that the titles would be completed.

Some commentators have noted that early access can diffuse interest in the game during development, effectively making it unprofitable once finished. Others have raised concerns that early access may remove the incentive for developers to finish their games, leading to longer development times and more unfinished games.

Despite such concerns, early access is clearly a successful strategy for certain kinds of independently developed games. It provides a compelling model for start-up developers.

Early access is certainly no silver bullet, and not all games or developers are well suited to the approach. Players, too, will need time to understand what they are paying for when they invest in an early access title.

It will take time for early access to find its proper place within the industry. Until then, early access will stand as a digital monument to that well-known Latin phrase: caveat emptor – buyer beware!The Conversation

Sam Hinton is Assistant Professor in Web Design at University of Canberra. He does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Comments

    Things like starbound though have already provided many with the hours of entertainment you can expect for the price. It's when early access starts at a $40+ buy in that it really starts to look like a scam, personally.

      But even then it depends. Elite: Dangerous took the expensive route, making Alpha access US$200 and Premium Beta US$150 (though both of those also netted you the Lifetime Expansion Pass, which was US$50 on its own), and now Standard Beta is US$75 with the future release game priced at US$50. And the reasons for this totally make sense - by pricing it high like that, it meant that they weren't getting flooded with people who just wanted to jump in on a cheap game and were instead only capturing the enthusiasts who properly care about and want to support the game, and would be providing useful bug reports etc. People who actually understood what they were buying into, not people who would be complaining "this is shit it doesn't even work".

      Of course, it helps that they've been providing an extremely solid product to go along with it so most people are happy with having laid down the cash in the first place.

        Indeed. The other thing is when you limit the number of early access users (via restrictive pricing or limited numbers), you avoid inducing player fatigue before the game is even finished. I've found that most of the first games I got through the early access program I played for a while with what was there, and exhausted my desire to play it - some I never actually played after release because I felt I was already done with them.
        I wonder how many people walk away after completing the early access game less satisfied than they would have been had they waited until release, and how much this affects post-launch sales...

    Early access is great when you can get in early on a promising idea at a reduced price and provide feedback that will allow the game to grow into something great.

    Early access sucks when you pay too much for a concept that barely functions then the developer realises he's made as much money as he's going to off his broken, shitty game so there's no incentive to keep working on it. Instead, he'll make a sequel that incorporates all the features he promised originally and sell it at full price!

    It's a risk. From now on I'm personally only going to buy early access games if I'm content with how they run presently, because there's no promise it will ever improve.

    I just want to be able to turn off early access in Steam. That is, I don't want to even see any early access games when I'm shopping. Often I'll see something that looks interesting and only then find out it's early access. I don't have time for that and in my experience the games I do get early, even if I enjoy them, I get bored with before they're fully released. Personally I'd rather wait.

    If enough people selected that option and the stats were available it would also be an incentive for developers to finish their games in order to access that market.

      Yep, agree with you totally.

      I've got no problem with early access at all. No one's forcing you to buy them, and if people want to get in early, so be it.

      But the early access games on Steam are displayed in the market in exactly the same manner as full-release games, and that's pretty annoying sometimes.

      It depends on the game, of course, but many games the thrill I get when first playing them is in being overwhelmed with what there is to see and do in a game. When a game gets drip fed content as it is added, I feel this is removed from the game. I've backed Star Citizen, for example, but I'm not actually going to play any of the early alpha/beta content at all. I want to be blown away by the full game, whenever that release actually is ;-)

    To be fair, Starbound is still progressing albeit slow but what can you expect? They're such a small studio :P

    "The author will send you updates when they are available so you can see the story develop as it is written. You are even encouraged to send the author comments on the work, so he or she can fix and adjust the manuscript to make it better."

    Sounds like webcomics :P

    What annoys me are those who are well aware of the risks involved in early access but bitch constantly about it.
    I just can't take em seriously when they complain about early access only to keep buying early access games, throwing out the same "I'm never buyin EA again!!!" across multiple threads.

    Mechwarrior Online taught me a harsh reality. Developers will tell you whatever they feel appropriate to get your money, but once they have it, they couldn't care less about your experience.

    Never again will I play a game that isn't finished or at the least at an 80% completion.

    ive never payed for an early access game and i never will. I don't pay someone for an unfinished product that may or may not actually come out.

    Early access is the same risk as preordering. But unlike preordering, you can see and give your input on the game as it develops.

    About early access directly.... It's no different than other games, other than the title "released"... World of Warcraft is a popular unfinished title. It's an MMO. It'll never actually be finished as it's dev will keep adding to it until the day they close it.

    I think Early access is great. Like buying an MMO or placing a preorder, you take a risk... but it's a risk you knowingly take, so it's not harmful.

    As a (new) indie developer myself, i may one day use early access to fund the finishing touches of my game. Who knows?

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