Steam Early Access has been around for a few years now, having launched on Steam back in March 2013. Back then, only 12 games were available when the program launched and the concept, while not a completely new one, was in its infancy. Now if you take a look through Steam’s Early Access, you will find stack loads of Early Access titles which are accepting people’s money to play unfinished games as they develop. Gamers are becoming increasingly weary of parting with their cash however after numerous developers have “fully released” their game, only for it to be far from finished. That’s even if the game gets “finished”. Minecraft, created in 2009 by Markus “Notch” Pearson was at the forefront of what we now call Early Access and allowed gamers to buy into the game during its alpha stage and play the game as it was being developed right up until its full release, and remains as one of the biggest success stories.
Is Early Access however having a detrimental effect on game development and the industry? I have been, and still am to a certain extent, a fan of Early Access. I have supported countless games in Early Access, my Steam library is full of such titles from DayZ, Rust, H1Z1 to Reign of Kings, Starbound and 7 Days to Die to name a few. Unfortunately, none of the games I have listed above have been “finished”. Granted, some are newer to EA than others such as Reign of Kings but I am confident that some of these games will be finished. I know for sure DayZ, Rust and H1Z1 are games which are too big to never be released. This is when Early Access works well, those 3 games have come on leaps and bounds and can already be enjoyed for tens of hours, if not hundreds in their present state. However, Reign of Kings, I remain sceptical about. CodeHatch, the developers behind RoK have come in for a lot of stick regarding their previous game, Starforge which they marked as finished when it can be classed as anything but, and here lies the problem I and many other gamers have with Early Access.
Unfortunately, while popularity of Early Access has risen considerably over the years, trust in the program has fallen. A study made by Patrick Walker, EEDAR Head of Insights and Analytics back in November 2014 found that only 25% of Early Access titles have ever made it out of the program and have become fully released titles. Out of the 12 games which launched back in 2013, only 5 have finished being developed, one of those being Starforge.
The point of Early Access is to allow developers to get an influx of cash in exchange for a playable version of the game so that they can continue to fund their development and improve the game. We’ve seen with various games the development road map change as a result of achieving exceptional sales which in turn lead to a better end product. Put like this, it’s a no brainer that Early Access is extremely handy for developers, virtually all of whom are indie studios who can’t rely on big investors or publishers to fund their projects. More Indie developers is a great shift for the gaming industry as it frees developers of the shackles of deadlines and revenue goals, allowing them to truly create the game they wish to and to put full faith into their project. As a result we have seen the selection and variety of games increase dramatically.
As gamers and consumers, we have a difficult choice to make when it comes to buying into games early however. As a gamer, we get excited over the prospect of being able to play a game we are following sooner rather than waiting for the full release which could be months or even years away. The temptation to play the game right now is often too much to resist. As a consumer however, we have to weigh up whether or not the game will be finished and if it is, will it be as good as promised or expected. Can the developers be trusted to keep their word and time frame? In some ways, Early Access has been a victim of its own success, growing in popularity after success stories such as Kerbal Space Program, DayZ and Rust. This in turn has led to more and more developers deciding to use it as a means of funding their development and unfortunately, they aren’t always able to, or willing to keep their end of the bargain.
You won’t find a better example of this than The Stomping Land. Hugely anticipated after a successful Kickstarter campaign which saw the game land over $100,000 in funding, it made its way onto Steam’s Early Access in 2014. The game was pulled from Steam for a brief amount of time after developers only released one update for the game and then went silent, not communicating with its community at all or continuing to develop the game. The game was put back up by Steam but is has since been removed after development has ceased and the developer, Alex Fundora, is nowhere to be seen. If there was ever a reason to be sceptical of Early Access then The Stomping Land is it.
Does the blame lay with Steam who host the Early Access program or developers who are increasingly turning towards Early Access and sometimes, abandoning projects altogether? Or what about us gamers, as consumers? We all have a part to play in Early Access’s failing. As gamers, a small, vocal minority are responsible for constantly hounding developers to release their titles into Early Access just so they can play the game early. We saw this in the build up to DayZ and many other games out there. It’s ridiculous, yet these are the same people who will complain when a game is rushed or not in the state they expected. Despite the amount of times we have been scammed and stung, we still part with our cash as soon as the door is opened. Steam has been slow to react and to pull games from the platform and there should certainly be stricter rules and a minimum standard of product to be allowed to sale your game on Early Access.
As for developers, they need to re-earn our trust and start delivering on their promises and make their games live up to their potential. Not only that, but should developers only use Early Access as a last resort when funds are running low at the end of the development cycle? Or to push their game further with new features once in a near-complete state? Sure they may get the influx of cash straight away when released, but sales dry up quickly and a second influx of sales is unlikely when released fully. Games which have been on sale for months and years bring in less and less revenue as time goes on, and Early Access games are no different. The longer the game is available on sale for, the less it will bring in as time goes by. From a sustainability point of view, is Early Access always the right option for developers? I also wish that developers would stop marketing Early Access as a means to get their game at a cheaper price if they invest now. The truth is that years later they are still in development at the same price and any price increases are minimal. The amount I would save is not enough for me to buy a unfinished game early just so I get it cheaper now than in a few years time. I buy a game because I want to play it now, not for what it may become.
Whether or not you are concerned about developers running away with their cash, abandoning their projects or not living up to their promises, the bottom line for me is that I lose interest in Early Access games by the time they are released and I am sure I am not alone. When the likes of DayZ and Rust first released, I plunged hundreds of hours into them, now I rarely venture back despite them being much better products all round now than they were when they became on sale. I exhaust myself and get bored with the lack of content and find myself only checking in to see what has changed before I go back.
So, is Steam’s Early Access getting out of hand? I believe the answer is yes. Games seem to being appearing in more bare states then ever before and that is never a good thing. They are being sold earlier in their development, sometimes even in “pre-alpha”. Early Access should be primarily used as a means of getting thousands of players who are interested in your game playing it and testing it so you can improve it and iron it out before release. As our interest has risen this has become harder as at times tens of thousands of players purchase the game but it most certainly shouldn’t be used to entirely fund the development from the start. Gamers are losing trust in developers and I also believe they lose interest in EA games once they have sunk hour upon hour into it which impacts us as gamers, we play games to enjoy them and to have fun. We have to take some responsibility, but it has created a dilemma that previously didn’t exist. Not only that, but the sheer number of games marked as Early Access is ridiculous, some of which shouldn’t even be on Steam in their present state.
The bottom line though is that we shouldn’t buy a game on potential or promises. We should buy a game for what it has to offer us now. Developers equally need to be selling games for what they offer at that moment in time in its current state and not what it may become or they envisage. If they wouldn’t pay and play for it right now, then they shouldn’t expect us to either.