Early access. Nothing’s quicker to bring out the jibes and claims that it never works, that early access games are doomed, and that they are all bad survival/Minecraft games anyway. Is this any kind of fair perspective, or might there be other aspects, benefits even, that are going overlooked?
At first there was great promise to early access, tied in as it was with Kickstarter and crowdfunding in general. The latter is a great idea in principle: Breaking the connection between publisher and developer, in favor of a system where prospective consumers can directly fund the games they want to see made, is a notion that holds tremendous appeal. Publishers had become gatekeepers of necessity, because they were the ones with the resources to pay for development and distribute titles. And it has to be said there is success on this front as the Internet has reduced, though by no means eliminated, their power in this regard. It has also helped motivate some publishers to look at crowdfunding not as the main source for a game’s budget, but as a gauge of interest and supplement, with Shenmue III being the prime example.
Early access quickly emerged as a factor of the crowdfunding system. It has merged with the messy arrangement that exists between demo, beta, and which also once had shareware in the mix. The idea is as simple as crowdfunding itself is, for it provides an incentive to buy into the game. This can be done variously, sometimes by giving an access code to anyone who supports the game, sometimes by having different reward tiers that offer increasingly early access to the game in question. When it is linked to different tiers, one can typically expect to pay increasingly large amounts for access earlier in the development cycle.
Giving such broad access to a game still in development was once unthinkable; if you happen to dig up an old demo disc from say the PS1 era, most of the demos will be disclaimed as not representing a final work as they were still in progress at the time the demo was pressed to disc. In fact I can’t bring to mind many games which differed radically from their demos, but it goes to show that at one point getting an early look at a game was for devs, press, and a pretty tight group of testers who typically had to sign an NDA.
Early access is usually dressed up in much the same way. Wise developers make clear the game is not to be considered a finished product until it hits 1.0 and official release. Many emphasize that it is access to an alpha and/or beta, and that ideally players are serving as testers who will provide feedback and report bugs. It is also presumed that, if one has to pay more to get earlier access, the monetary investment will make those buyers more, well, invested. They’ll give the game rigorous attention as well as serious thoughts on content and development.
But any early access game that is going along this route runs into immediate problems. First and foremost, someone’s willingness to pay has many factors, not least of which is their simple ability to pay. Perhaps someone is a fanatic of a genre and is willing to pay a lot for early access to a new ARPG (as I was with Grim Dawn, in point of fact). Perhaps someone just has a lot of money and thinks nothing of spending a bit more. None of these things mean that someone is going to be a better or more useful tester or provider of feedback. Still, given the raw deal professional testers used to get, and given the vast array of computer setups that can lead to all kinds of unexpected bugs, it’s hard to consider these problems as too serious either. Anecdotally, early access forums tend to have plenty of threads in the section regarding bugs and active dev involvement in investigating them.
No, the real issues arise not on the technical bug-squashing side of things, but on the design side of things. Buying into a product early also typically gives access to a forum for early access buyers, which is also where the aforementioned bug reports tend to go. The problem is, testing for bugs and genuine imbalance is a very different matter from deciding on what should and should not be in a game, how things should be implemented, and whether the game is on the right course. Buying a game the old-fashioned way is one thing as you pay for what is a finished product, you have reviews with which to judge whether you are interested, and if it fails severely you often have recourse to get your money back, or can at least trade it in for part of the cost.
Early access games work on an entirely different paradigm. Despite the forewarnings, players still expect to be getting something enjoyable for their money, and even if a player approaches such a game in good faith, that does not mean they will actually like it. They might, or they might be underwhelmed, and here is the important point to recognize; if they are underwhelmed or unhappy, even if they do not actively complain on the forums or elsewhere, they are also not going to be talking about it with excitement. Maybe it’ll just be “Yeah I was in the early access, it didn’t really grab me” or maybe it’ll be silence, but either way it’s a problem for developers, who need positive publicity to flourish if they want sales to be significant when the thing actually releases. And when a player encounters bugs or a game that doesn’t function, that is unenjoyable and diminishes enthusiasm no matter how much they might try to keep the caveats of early access in mind. This may be problematic in itself, but a bigger problem still arises for developers who seek too strongly to respond to criticisms and suggestions.
Early access buyers feel that they have a stake in something not yet completed, and in turn that means they feel they have a voice on where it should go. If a developer is level-headed that is fine; Grim Dawn and Prison Architect both stuck very well to their original visions and Iron Lore and Introversion (the respective developers) put out games that fairly closely resembled their original ideas. On the other hand failures to deliver are commonplace, and some are quite spectacular – the Ouya being perhaps the prime example, at least until Star Citizen finally collapses and implodes. The Godus debacle did massive harm to Molyneux’s remaining reputation in the industry. Mighty No. 9 was not well received at all, despite the tremendous degree of hype surrounding it. It seems that one of the biggest risks is making unrealistic promises, or piling more and more features on as a game gains the very hype that is needed for success. This is why a planned feature list is essential and why sensible developers provide a list of stretch goals, and remain very coy about going beyond this.
This is not to say there are no success stories. The aforesaid Prison Architect and Grim Dawn sit alongside games like Pillars of Eternity, Shadowrun, and FTL, all of which are extremely enjoyable games that delivered on all or almost all of their promises, and met with solid review scores at a minimum. Awareness of the pitfalls will remain vital for developers seeking this means of funding and the expectations that come with it. Still, in the end, a system that has given us games like that must be said to be one that is more beneficial than not, and hopefully standards will develop that help ensure best practice and realistic goals going forward.