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.