Steam Early Access is a store system almost unlike any other seen in video games. While for many games we can ‘pre-purchase’ a title and pay for a full copy of the game which will then be delivered to us upon release, Steam Early Access lets you get hands on time with the title in its beta or even alpha form, allowing developers to profit and earn development funds to continue working on the game while players play it.
The idea of developers providing unfettered access to their projects might seem to some like paid-for admittance to a tour of a building site but for others it’s just a way of getting the things that they want months, sometimes years in advance. However, between those who are sceptical about Steam Early Access and those just hungry for in-the-works titles, there is a bit of confusion as to what an Early Access title is meant to be, leading Valve to clarify.
Gamers are perhaps quite right to be wary of Steam Early Access titles as recent release Earth: Year 2066 was pulled from the Steam store after the $19.99 cost of the title seemed to provide ‘early access’ to what was nothing more than a broken assembly of ideas. That’s a bad example of what Early Access games are meant to be like but Valve was frank when asked if Early Access games are meant to be finished.
“Early Access is a full purchase of a playable game. By purchasing, you gain immediate access to download and play the game in its current form and as it evolves. You keep access to the game, even if the game later moves from Early Access into fully released.”
So the game has to be playable and in development in some capacity, allowing the developer to add vital nuts, bolts and other features (as well as crucial bug fixes and reports gifted to them via player feedback) as they go along. City management game Towns wouldn’t fit the bill then after the game launched as an ‘in development title’ in 2012 (prior to the launch of Early Access) before being so far from completion that its developer actually abandoned the game, leaving people who’d paid for access to the full thing with receipts for something that was no fun to play.
While behavior of developers like the developer of Towns is also warned against, a certain amount of caution should be exercised by the players themselves.
“Its up to the developer to determine when they are ready to ‘release’. Some developers have a concrete deadline in mind, while others will get a better sense as the development of the game progresses. 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.”
However, these stern warnings may not be enough which is why a pseudo-checklist of things to consider before you do fork over funds for an Early Access title has also been included in the FAQ, in a move that Steam’s Director of Marketing, Doug Lombardi, says is “intended to help set customer expectations of what may or may not happen over the course of development of an Early Access game.”
Of the checklist, Valve states that players “should consider what the game is like to play right now” and that if their excitement isn’t ardently pushing their viewpoint to the buy button then it would maybe be worth giving the game a miss. Screenshots and trailers can be a vital factor in influencing that too, as it’s largely agreed in the Steam community that if a game doesn’t showcase some sort of gameplay footage (even if it’s only 10 seconds of the stuff) then potential customers should beware.
Meanwhile, some other things to consider about an Early Access game are almost unique to the Early Access way of buying games. For example, how regularly a game updates would sometimes be of concern in console games (some people would ask if that means that there are a lot of bugs to fix) but in Steam Early Access, that usually indicates that the game is being worked on regularly and that it has a strong chance of meeting its release date. Pricing is something to be considered too as some Early Access games can be picked up as part of a discounted bundle (even if a more expensive RRP is listed) and RRPs are also subject to change, so prospective buyers should make sure that they feel as though they’re getting their money’s worth not just now but should the price come down in future with free to play zombie MMO H1Z1 being an example of this (it will be made available for some $20 via Steam Early Access before its release).
Considering that Valve is keen to boast the 202 Early Access games that are available on the Steam store, it’s easy to imagine that even with this considerable quality hiccup and the need to update the FAQ, that things are going well. However, recent stats about the amount of games released on Steam this year and the fact that the figures are believed to be because of Early Access games and Steam Greenlight, questions are being posed at just how many of these titles are actually any good and if the medium is a viable one in the long-term.
This concept essentially allows developers (and Valve) to collect money on promises of updates and new features and never need to actually deliver if the funds don’t keep rolling in. It means that games don’t need to be finished to be profited from, more than ever. And that’s scary. You’re going to see a lot of abandoned games in the near future on Steam. Will games like DayZ – which already made its massive profits – ever see all of its promised features deliver upon to the millions of buyers?
Are you concerned about the overabundance of Steam releases? Is Early Access good, bad or both?