The video game industry is undergoing some growing pains at the moment as developers and publishers try to walk a fine line between developing games that can qualify as a "next-gen" (now, current-gen) experience on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, while still releasing them to the larger player bases on the aged PS3 and Xbox 360. On the PC side, Valve's Steam service and online store is more popular than ever, breaking records fast and furiously on the number of concurrent users while exponentially increasing the number of games added to the store over the last year.
A lot of that has to do with the ease of indie developers getting into the business, the growth of mods that spawn entirely new games (see: DayZ), goofy trends (see: Grass Simulator) and most of all in recent months - early access games.
Gamasutra held a Q&A with with Sony Computer Entertainment America's Adam Boyes and the most interesting points of discussion fell on the growing popularity and success of early access video games on PC - products that release partially or early on in development, missing features and often times broken, that let players get in on the action from the ground floor... for a price of course. DayZ, a mostly broken demo of a game sold 800,000 copies in its first month at a whopping $30 a pop.
The devs warned of the quality of the game but players were interested anyway. The real issue there is that the developers could actually stop developing the game, never deliver on their promises and pocket that money. Valve even altered their Steam terms of service to allow this very thing. You want to buy an early access game? Be warned that it may never be "completed." It's the same warning Kickstarter backers get on any crowdfunding campaign they pledge to.
That sounds great for developers then, right? Why not go after Kickstarter money or offer up a demo for an idea you have on Steam and call it early access for more money. After all, you can get paid for not even finishing the game. It's a scary thing, but its also a lucrative thing from a business perspective. That's why we can expect it from the industry giants in the near future. Electronic Arts is already toying with the idea of Battlefield early access, something when you think about it, they're already sort of doing - given that Battlefield 3 and 4 both released in a rushed fashion, lacking polish and features that were patched in later. Hell, we're even getting incomplete games sold at retail (see: Planetary Annihilation). I suppose it was inevitable given the advent of on-disc DLC and DLC season's passes. You will never get the full game experience for your $60 at launch again. Well, it'll be rare anyway.
So that brings us to the consoles and Adam Boyes, VP of Publisher & Developer Relations at PlayStation, who says Sony is having "conversations" and looking into how PlayStation platforms can take advantage of the early access phenomenon.
"We're always looking at different ways to make life easier. There's no stone unturned for what we cando. We're having conversations. We have a global strike team, plus an SCEA strike team, who are in charge of trying to figure out how to look at what's happening with early alpha access, or paid betas -- which we've allowed before with Dust 514. Even with our own product, PlayStation Now is going into open beta at the end of July. We're always looking at ways to make it easier and more accessible."
How would Sony allow this on their store and just how broken/incomplete could the game be when users are paying money for it on a PlayStation store?
"That’s one of the massive conversations we have internally -- that, at what point does [a game meet standards of release]? We still at some point ensure that we're being mindful of the consumer. We don't want somebody to stumble across that title and expect a full product, and have a negative experience. At the same time, I'm like you -- I want to help bootstrap people, to bootstrap them, to help them out. Like supporting the underdog for a sports team."
They cited Rust as an example of a game that was fun despite its quality and issues, but how does one draw the line between what's acceptable as a product for sale?
"Honestly, we're working through that right now. We're figuring out what's ok. We obviously have our tech requirement checklist that people have to adhere to. So we're internally discussing, what does that list look like this? What are the caveats? Stuff like this. So it's still a project that a lot of minds are considering. No details yet, but it's something on the top of my mind every day."
There's obviously potential for this to be good, and also very, very bad. DayZ was an example of something relatively overpriced ($30), and while it was popular when it first hit Steam, it left many of us bored after a few days, and now they're designing it for another new engine - putting into question when DayZ will ever be polished enough for a "full" release or when it'll exit its alpha status and move into its beta. That is, if it ever does, right?
On PlayStation 4, how expensive will early access games be? Will DLC and upgrades to beta or new versions be monetized? Will developers be allowed to release an early access title with a promise of future features/content but never need to deliver? Will Sony hold developers to delivering on the final product or will they follow the trend of other services where all the risk is taken by players and we can choose to buy an early version of a game for what it is and that's that? How would this model affect developers/publishers from taking time to polish games (see: Watch Dogs, Batman: Arkham Knight)? There are a lot of questions to be explored and sorted out by Sony before they can embrace Early Access games, and right now, they still have to figure out PlayStation Now... which wasn't ready when the PS4 launched... which is still in beta but charges insanely high prices... see? This is normal.
Like Boyes says, some services and titles have already launched this way on PlayStation platforms, but one of those is a service that either functions or doesn't, while the other is a free-to-play game. Remember the uproar last week when a few EA Sports titles (accidentally) had prices added to their demos?
What are your thoughts on Early Access titles and do you want them on (or not on) consoles?
Follow Rob on Twitter @rob_keyes.