There are over 6,000 video games on Steam in early-access at the time of writing. The platform advertises that supporting titles in this category is a way of discovering, playing and getting involved with releases as they evolve through their creation process.
As stated on their official page: “We like to think of games and game development as services that grow and evolve with the involvement of customers and the community. There have been a number of prominent titles that have embraced this model of development recently and found a lot of value in the process. We like to support and encourage developers who want to ship early, involve customers and build lasting relationships that help everyone make better games.”
Early-access can come with plenty of benefits when it works. Players can get their hands on a game (albeit an unfinished one) at a potentially discounted price and are given the opportunity to be a part of a community which provides feedback and helps shape the product. The developer can then use this information to fix any problems with their project as well as change the development direction when necessary, enabling them to create an even better game, attract more players and keep the cycle going.
It’s not always a positive experience though. When most gamers see the term on Steam, they consider it a warning sign and know that bugs, crashes and a lack of content can lie ahead. It can also give the impression that a creator is unable to complete their projects without more money and may therefore never reach a full release. As advised: “You should be aware that some teams will be unable to ‘finish’ their game. So you should only buy an Early Access game if you are excited about playing it in its current state.”
Once such game is the uniquely-named 1… 2… 3… KICK IT! (Drop That Beat Like an Ugly Baby). This was part of the first group to be released into early-access in March 2013 and it’s still sitting there with no progress made seven years later. The latest news entry on the Steam page was added in July 2013 and, although the developer has been active in the discussion forums for other releases recently, the last update for this particular title was posted in August 2014.
We’ve been familiar with betas for several years now and see them as a way for a creator to refine their game before it’s published. They provide a way to allow people outside of their team in when they believe that the project is finally in a good enough state, and with their help they can find any bugs and make final improvements. But early-access lets anyone see right down to the bare bones immediately – and the problem with that is that first impressions are usually the ones that stick.
Let’s look at The Black Death as an example. My other-half and I first came across this survival title at EGX in 2016 and watched a session where the developer responded to the criticism it had received since being released into early-access in April 2015. Only 48% of players had rated it as positive back on its initial day with many of them highlighting bugs, empty servers and poor levels of quality in various areas; and not much has changed in the five years since. It currently has a 60% rating on Steam and still hasn’t been published in full.
The only early-access game I’ve ever purchased was Satisfactory for my other-half after he’d seen it streamed on Twitch and wanted to try it for himself. He ended up putting over 65 hours into it (more than enough entertainment from an unfinished game that I paid £27.99 for) but he now hasn’t touched his save file in the past two weeks. The absence of a full story and final objective, something the developer has said will only be revealed in version 1.0, isn’t giving him the incentive he needs to continue.
Friend-of-the-blog Phil was also a Satisfactory addict for a period but has now stopped playing too. He told me: “I reached the end of the current content (the top technology tier) but I didn’t do everything. There wasn’t really a goal to progress. I could spend 100 hours playing with nuclear power and continuing building at that level but its not what I enjoy, I need goals! I still watch the weekly development streams though, read the regular Q&A, visit their reddit now and again to see when new stuff if coming, so the game isn’t dead to me.”
It’s for some of the reasons above that I won’t buy an unfinished game for myself or play one. The early-access titles currently waiting in my Steam library are there as a result of keys received from backing Kickstarter campaigns, but I won’t install them until the full title is available. Like Pete and Phil, I know that not having something to aim for in terms of story or objective will mean I’ll get bored very quickly and then won’t go back to the title once version 1.0 is finally made available.
It might therefore seem hypocritical then that I’m open to making pledges to crowdfunding projects. What’s the difference between this and buying an early-access game? I’ve done a lot of thinking about this question while writing this post because it’s not one I’ve got an easy answer for. The best I can come up with is that backing a Kickstarter campaign feels like a way of buying into an idea and supporting a developer’s dream, whereas early-access seems like it’s more to do with business and profits.
Games like KICK IT! raise questions about the potential for early-access games to take advantage of customers. Should a developer be allowed to continue selling an unfinished game that hasn’t been updated in several years? By including a disclaimer on the page for every relevant release which says ‘This Early Access game is not complete and may or may not change further’, Valve places the onus firmly on the player. This isn’t unexpected though and seems in-keeping with the way they tend to manage their platform.
I guess the only thing we can do with early-access releases right now is judge each game on a case-by-case scenario – the same as for Kickstarter campaigns. Read all the information provided on the Steam page, particularly the section where the developer gives their reason for using the platform, because this could be a good indication of whether they’re going to succeed. There’s nothing wrong with giving your support to an unfinished title or a crowdfunding project – but it’s important to know what to expect.
Have you ever bought an early-access game? Has it now been fully released?