With over 100 million active users, Steam is one of the most popular games distributors in the world. The service grows conistently, setting new records yearly, aided by its famous Summer and end of year sales and the fact that it offers over 3,700 games for players to choose from.
The service's latest trend, Steam Early Access, is also a draw to developers currently working on games, not just selling them. By allowing players to purchase 'early access' to games still in progress, the idea is that players can help provide feedback and constructive criticism on games ahead of their release while Valve and the devs make an early buck.
But as many people know, Steam Early Access doesn't always work like that. There are too many cases of devs using Early Access to make a quick buck, devs disappointing players and outright scams. To stop Early Access from being (even more) abused, Valve had now updated its rules and guidelines.
In new documentation that's been sent out to developers, Valve has outlined a series of rules and guidelines. The company has also made it clear that Early Access is not a crowdfunding measure and that developers should be looking out for their customers.
"Steam Early Access is a way to invite customers to get involved with your game as you develop, so that you can get the feedback you need to make better informed product decisions and to ensure the best outcome for your customers and fans. When you launch a game in Steam Early Access, there is an expectation by customers that you will continue development to a point where you have what you consider a 'finished' game. We know that nobody can predict the future, and circumstances frequently change, which may result in a game failing to reach a 'finished' state, or may fail to meet customer expectations in some other way. We work hard to make sure this risk is communicated clearly to customers, but we also ask that developers follow a set of rules that are intended to help inform customers and set proper expectations when purchasing your game."
Furthermore, Valve also asks that devs should be mindful of how they market and sell the game.
"There is no way you can know exactly when the game will be finished, that the game will be finished, or that planned future additions will definitely happen. Do not ask your customers to bet on the future of your game. Customers should be buying your game based on its current state, not on promises of a future that may or may not be realized."
"We work really hard to make sure that customers understand what they are buying when they get an Early Access title on Steam. But we've seen that many of these titles are sold as keys on other websites where there is no explanation of what Early Access is or what the current state of your product is now versus what you hope to achieve."
"We expect Steam customers to get a price for the Early Access game no higher than they are offered on any other service or website. Please make sure that’s the case."
Valve's guidelines also state that developers must launch their game on Early Access at the same time that it is unlocked elsewhere. Given that Steam is such a huge platform, a policy like that is unlikely to turn devs away the way that the Xbox One's parity clause has.
However, there are clear problems with this already. As witnessed with the Steam tag systems, where some users used tags to insult games rather than appropriately label them, Valve's mod team can't cope.
Although Valve has asked for pricing and release dates to be the same across the board, they will probably find themselves hard-pushed to check out every single online listing of every single Early Access game, nor will they be able to scour the web for "specific promises about future events" in regards to Early Access games.
There are more guidelines to follow too, although it's not clear on whether or not violation gets you immediately booted from Early Access or if you'll be given time to fix them.
"Don’t launch in Early Access if you can’t afford to develop with very few or no sales.
There is no guarantee that your game will sell as many units as you anticipate. If you are counting on selling a specific number of units to survive and complete your game, then you need to think carefully about what it would mean for you or your team if you don't sell that many units. Are you willing to continue developing the game without any sales? Are you willing to seek other forms of investment?
Make sure you set expectations properly everywhere you talk about your game.
For example, if you know your updates during Early Access will break save files or make the customer start over with building something, make sure you say that up front. And say this everywhere you sell your Steam keys.
Don't launch in Early Access without a playable game.
If you have a tech demo, but not much gameplay yet, then it’s probably too early to launch in Early Access. If you are trying to test out a concept and haven't yet figured out what players are going to do in your game that makes it fun, then it's probably too early. You might want to start by giving out keys to select fans and getting input from a smaller and focused group of users before you post your title to Early Access. At a bare minimum, you will need a video that shows in-game gameplay of what it looks like to play the game. Even if you are asking customers for feedback on changing the gameplay, customers need something to start with in order to give informed feedback and suggestions.
Don't launch in Early Access if you are done with development.
If you have all your gameplay defined already and are just looking for final bug testing, then Early Access isn’t the right place for that. You’ll probably just want to send out some keys to fans or do more internal playtesting. Early Access is intended as a place where customers can have impact on the game."
The update to Early Access along with the fixes for the troubled Steam Curators feature show that Valve is clearly a company that can roll with the punches. These things are incredibly important considering that Steam accounts for an estimated 75% of all PC game sales. Furthermore, improvements to Early Access can help to set a precedent for other companies looking to set up similar business models.
And while it is true that Valve makes many millions from Early Access sales (DayZ is just one example of this), these new details are huge in terms of consumer protection. However, as their effectiveness will be determined by how closely developers follow them (and how Valve enforces rule breakers) we might have to wait a while to see some proper results.