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In Defense of Early Access
by Brad Carney on 05/05/14 06:03:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Since its inception, I've heard a lot of people complain about Steam's Early Access. I've heard it described as "the worst thing to have happened to Steam ever," as "one of the worst fads to appear recently," and even that it encourages developers to "take the money and run." Also, that it's worse than Hitler. ... okay, I haven't heard that personally, but given that this is the Internet, the chances of that actually having been said are roughly 1 trillion percent.

... but is it worse than Kitler?

But I think some of this criticism is overblown. As a developer with a game currently in Early Access, I've hardly turned into some sultan-like figure being fanned by an army of servants too busy to bother with finishing development. Instead, I've been able to gather valuable feedback, find additional team members, and improve the game dramatically - all while still really wanting to get the game finished and out of Early Access. This isn't something out of principle either, like "I just believe in finishing things," or "Steam needs at least 46 new releases per day to be cool." Believe it or not, I'm actually heavily incentivized to do so.

So why is Early Access not the worst thing to have ever been invented ever?! Because clearly that's GFWL. Let's look at some of the criticisms, and dispel them.

#1). "Early Access is a gold mine! What incentive is there to actually finish the game?!"

I'm not going to lie. This is absolutely true... for very few games. Certain genres of games benefit disproportionately well from being perpetual betas - specifically, games without an endgame, like sandbox games. Notable examples like Kerbal Space Program and Starbound give you an incentive to come back again and again as they add new things. This keeps the community energized and word of mouth spreading, which leads to sustained sales and their ability to finance more of the game for the community.

Most are perfectly fine with this - just ask the millions who've played Minecraft since the alpha days. It's a happy balance that could actually break should the game be finished... though that will happen inevitably as they run out of content to produce, sales begin to dry up, or they run out of land to build palaces on.

Future home to Notchistan.

But for most games, this isn't the case. Single player games that (sadly) most people will only play through once (if that) don't really see any benefit from being a perpetual beta. Hardcore players will certainly want to get in early and will enjoy watching as the development progresses, but this isn't a majority of players. Today's generation of players with more responsibilities and time constraints than ever aren't going to want to waste their time on an unpolished product now when they can wait and have a better experience later. In fact, I've had people tell me they've bought Wrack but are waiting until it's finished to actually play it, and many more that they're waiting until it's finished to buy it.

#2). "Games are being put into Early Access too early in development!"

I get the concern here. People are worried that once developers put their games into Early Access, they'll go "Everyone who's going to buy it already has, so why develop further?", and that this is happening earlier and earlier in the development cycle. I understand that. But as an Early Access developer, I have a feeling there's not much to worry about here.

First, I think it's rare that many of these Early Access games - especially the really early ones - are making boatloads of money, and that the majority of their sales are coming during Early Access (as opposed to after completion). Despite having a highly reviewed Early Access game that updates furiously, we're still having a tough time. The game is making money, but not what one might expect for a game of this caliber. When we put our ear to the ground and listen to why people are holding back, it's because the game is in Early Access. Sales are stunted because the game isn't yet completed, which is how things should be. The system works.

Also, it's true that developers may be disincentivized to finish... but not from making too much money, but from making too little. If people are skeptical of Early Access titles in general and stay away from them, this could be misinterpreted as a lack of demand for a particular game, causing the developer to slash the budget or abandon it completely. Making games costs money, and without it, development shuts down. Plus, if it's looking like there isn't going to be a good return on their investment, developers won't be incentivized to produce as much and as high of quality of content.

Finally, if anything, putting a game into Early Access too early is risky for the developer. Like it or not, players will often times make up their mind about a particular game based on their first impressions. If a developer puts out a game too early, they risk the gaming public evaluating their game before it's truly ready - potentially leading to lost sales. What developer in their right mind would want to risk that? Not many, which is why generally only the ones that have to - indie developers - do.

Now for my last point:

#3). "Early Access games are buggy and unfinished!"

Aside from the obvious "That's what Early Access is for, silly!", the fact that this is such an issue speaks to a very important point that I haven't yet made - Early Access isn't for everyone.

Yes, EA games are often buggy and unfinished, which is why the majority of players ought to (and do) avoid those games. Despite being somewhere between finished games and Kickstarter projects, both of which have mass appeal... somehow EA does not. Seeing a game on Kickstarter isn't going to disappoint you because you're evaluating it based on a few carefully crafted images or videos. You're only seeing very polished and completed sections or concepts of the game - your experience is limited. When your imagination fills in the blanks, it doesn't imagine a bunch of missing artwork or bugs or unresponsive controls - it imagines the perfect version of the game.

With EA however, you get to experience the game fully in its current state - warts and all. For a lot of fans, it's very understandable how this can be a turnoff. But that doesn't mean that it isn't vitally important. Most indie developers can't afford large QA operations, but they still need lots of feedback, bug reports, and support.

... and deep-fried nachos.

My argument is not that Early Access is a magical perfect thing (perhaps it's too difficult to differentiate EA games from finished games). I'm also not suggesting that everyone immediately go buy games that are in Early Access (not even this one). What I am suggesting is to take a more individualistic approach to EA games, and realize that their genres, situations, and how they handle it are all very different. It would be silly to not buy any Early Access games because a few handled it poorly. The opposite is true as well. Buyer beware!

Also, if you're the kind of person willing to take a chance and see something you truly like, by all means go for it! You'll help finance the game to make a higher quality end product, provide valuable feedback, support the developers, and watch a new game develop before your eyes. Enough people are skeptical of EA games though that they'll stay away until they're completed - putting the onus on developers to actually finish. Again, the system works. It's just not for everyone.

So, this form of crowdfunding isn't so bad, folks. Celebrity crowdfunding, though... that's a whole different story.

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Ryan Geiger
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I think the main reason it has received so much backlash is that it's not "sectioned" off from finished games. Most often you will even see Early Access games in the main banner of Steam, which is quite misleading to the consumer.

This has led to a situation where instead of being a banner of goodwill for growing developers, it's seen as a cash-grab or bait-and-switch. I think Early Access could benefit a lot in the PR department if it were a separate store from the main section of Steam, similar to how Greenlight functions now, so that consumers interested in being part of the development process (which is really what's being sold) can do so, while simultaneously not unintentionally (?) misleading customers looking to purchase new games to play.

Stephen Horn
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I'll confess that this has been something that's surprised me as well. I've been disappointed a couple of times when I've clicked something that looked interesting in Steam and then been taken to the Early Access section, and have subsequently shied away from a purchase. Mostly this is when I think something went to Early Access a little too early.

On the *other* hand, and this might be strictly because I'm a game dev, or because I think indies have great ideas that I want to support, there have also been times where I've been pleasantly surprised that something was in Early Access. A less expensive purchase, a chance to have an impact on development, and I have a much easier time forgiving bugs and incomplete features when it's a title in EA.

David Paris
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I think you've hit it exactly.

It would be a different experience if Early Access titles were sectioned off and kept in a special "we're not done yet" section for people who want dibs on new stuff before it is done.

Instead, it just gets clumped in with all the finished products and released in exactly the same paths.

This should really be fixed. It devalues the entire Early Access process and makes it an undesirable rather than positive experience.

Dane MacMahon
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Yep, nail on head.

When I see an early access game promoted heavily, or in a big sale, I just roll my eyes. Early access should be a separate tab entirely, and it should be made abundantly clear these are unfinished games.

As a customer I have to assume the reason they are not sequestered, and why they are in sales, is because developers want as much money as they can get as early as they can get it, which comes across as a money grab (or worse, a funding grab without which the game would never be finished).

Brad Carney
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Yeah, it definitely should be more differentiated from released games. EA games are somewhere between finished games and Kickstarter concepts, yet Valve treats them almost exactly like released games. That ought to change, though I don't know that it will while games like DayZ and Rust are printing money for them.

Ron Dippold
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'Yes, EA games are often buggy and unfinished, which is why the majority of players ought to (and do) avoid those games.'

I have to admit I was taken aback here, because it's where you first switch from 'Early Access' to 'EA' and I read this as 'Yes, Electronic Arts games are often buggy and unfinished [me nodding], which is why players do avoid these games [what?]' Even though Early Access is the subject, EA is just a hardwired acronym.

Kai Boernert
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Yep, read EA Games too, and started nodding :)

Most of the Early Access games I played are actually quite stable. (or at least as stable as released products of larger corporations)

Adam Bishop
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There are two primary concerns that I have.

1. It used to be the case that there was a quid pro quo involved in betas. Players would get early access to try out a game in exchange for helping the developer find and fix bugs and balance issues. Maybe I'm just being nostalgic, but I'm disappointed to see this style of development going away. Asking people to pay you so that they can fix your game just doesn't sound fair to me.

2. I'm concerned that this is becoming part of the trend, along with pre-orders, in which players are expected to pay money for a product without any chance to research or verify its final quality. As a consumer, I don't like that.

Andrew Spearin
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Perhaps there needs to be greater recognition for games that actually have emerged from the process stronger, rather than focusing attention on the ones that either die on the vine or sell over a 1,000,000 copies.

It's a viable business and development model that when it works, will produce modest success for Indies to keep making and improving upon their games.

Early Access was an essential phase for Insurgency (one of the debut games when Steam launched it) that has created greater opportunities for us in the longer term.

Dane MacMahon
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I think Betrayer took a lot of early access player feedback and became a stronger game due to it. Not sure if that was reflected in their sales, but the game improved.

Brad Carney
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Yeah, definitely. At this point, I just don't think there have been terribly many games to come out of it. Doing a quality job takes time, and Early Access hasn't been around for all that long.
It certainly seems to have had a positive impact on at least some though, like the recent Sir, You Are Being Hunted. When more games start to emerge from it having been stronger for going through it, I think the tune could change a bit. Wrack is a great candidate for that, and once it's out I'll certainly write something up looking back at Early Access. Might be interesting to compare sales between the two periods, too.

Christopher Landry
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Personally, my biggest peeve with Early Access is the pricing model. I do not agree with paying full price for the game while it is still in development. I feel that a lot of the "Take the money and run." and "Delay release forever." attitudes spring from this grossly overpriced model that has been the norm since this system started recently. This is in stark contrast to the old Beta Access model, which was typically free.

However, I wouldn't suggest that Early Access necessarily has to be free to compensate for the negative attitude it has generated in the public eye.

How about this pricing model:

1. The consumer can get into Early Access for the game for about 10-20% of the full price (so 5-10 dollars for a $50 game). This allows them to access whatever parts of the game the developer wants to test, which may or may not be the whole game. This does not give them automatic release copy upon release, either.

2. Upon release, those that participated in Early Access get a 30-50% off coupon that can be applied to the purchase of the full title if used within one year of release. This coupon stacks with any sales that occur at the time of purchase.

I think this pricing model would be much more consumer friendly. The lower initial investment should encourage more people to participate, which can only help the testing phase get more feedback, or at least produce play statistics even if the person doesn't actively leave feedback. The discounted release price means that the consumer is rewarded for having helped the developer work out the bugs in their game.

Ron Dippold
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This just hit today:
-bought-1572931721 (general site trigger warning: don't read the comments for your own sanity).

Short form: Wildly overambitious promises, they sold 200K copies, it's buggy and unfinished as hell, they decided it was too much work to finish it since 'the game sales were declining that rapidly', and are 'talking about a possible Towns 2'. This is pretty much exactly what you were talking about in point #2.

(I still think Early Access, like Kickstarter, fills a useful need, but customers need to be far more skeptical when considering whether the devs can provide what they're promising).

Edit: Oops, just hit the Gamasutra article. Sorry Mike.

Brad Carney
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haha, between that and Earth 2066 getting shut down, I'm not sure my timing could have been much worse with this article! :( Ah well.

To be fair, I think they're done in the long run. They're totally alienated their fanbase, and I highly doubt a sequel will work. Even though Final Fantasy XIV was a mess, the developers refused to shut it down and move on to a sequel because they knew fans would never trust them again (article here:
sful_.php). It sounds like this game though has been horribly mismanaged, and that this new developer has been put in charge of a sinking ship.

There's always going to be room for abuse when people are offering promises, and because of that, there does need to be a healthy dose of skepticism. If Towns sold over 200,000 copies and never really had a solid product, clearly there wasn't enough. I hate to see people blanket all Early Access titles as being shady, though. That just isn't fair.

Ron Dippold
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I still mostly agree with you Brad... it's just one of those things that can be used for Good or Evil (or Ugly).