Early Access is a failed project – It’s time for Valve to take action
Steam is a beautiful thing. A digital marketplace and vault, holding countless virtual adventures and experiences, priced very fairly and is helmed by a company that for the most part keeps its customers needs in mind. They have made plenty of mistakes however, paid-mods, issues with keys, and the biggest one that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere – Early Access.
On the drawing board, Early Access should work. It gives developers the chance to sell a Beta version of their game, unfinished and needing testing. Indie devs cannot afford big QA teams or legions of product testers and evaluators, so this scheme gives them the opportunity to use the gaming public as guinea pigs. Gamers too should get a good deal, they get to buy a game for usually a cut price, and be part of its development – their voices helping to mould the game into what it should become.
This is not the reality. Essentially it has split into two camps, games that are pretty much done and looking to see what kind of review scores they would get before they launch proper, and games that have barely begun looking to get a quick buck based on the premise of something better. For the former type I have less of a problem with, they are using it for a marketing tool – but in a good way. They want the game to succeed, and are looking for some solid feedback before they decide to push into the wider world. It’s the latter that really tugs on my big one.
Some of these ‘developers’ are absolutely shameless. Publishing pre-alpha content is simply not on. It’s not okay to publish a game that has no content beyond walking around an empty world, with the promise of more to come. I understand that creating a game is an expensive business – but this is not the way to get it done. More often than not these games will linger and die, remaining an empty husk forever in early access unlikely to ever get finished. I’m sure there are some creators that are doing this with a legitimate goal to finish the game, unable to get funded through any other route they have turned to people buying into a promise to keep them going. Telling which creator is the real deal and which is just looking to make money on a promise they can never fill is another thing. Trawling through the early access titles on Steam reveals a litany of games that are filled with Unity assets, flashy but basic, making it seem as if the title could really go somewhere, when the developer knows it could not.
There are titles like DayZ which tread this line very finely. In essence they are asking people to pay £23 for a game that isn’t finished, but they are very up front with this. It’s in capital letters all across the store page, and they do seem to engage with their userbase quite often. Development has been very slow, and the early adopters have been left frustrated and a little hoodwinked. The central problem of early access is that once a developer already has your money – do they care if the game ever gets finished? Why keep working on a product they can’t sell anymore since anyone who would buy it, already has?
One Steam user’s review on the page sums up this feeling for me perfectly
“We need to stop paying premium title amounts for unfinished games.”
“It removes the incentive for them to finish. They’ve been paid, and we are SOL.”
Of course, DayZ is one of the better examples of a game stuck in Early Access. On the other hand we have titles like Steel Storm A.M.M.O in which the developers simply stopped working on the game, either running out of money or didn’t believe it would be a success. The Steam page is a sorry example of what could go wrong, a dead game forever in limbo, taking up space. We actually played this ourselves when it first came onto Steam, unfortunately the video we made is lost to the ether of video game history.
This is why I refuse to talk about any game in Early Access any longer. In the past we would discuss them like old-school previews, assuming it was an early look at a future game. As this has no longer become the case, I don’t want to give them a platform. Selling games that are unfinished that most likely will never get finished is just not cool. For the idea to succeed, Steam needs to separate them from the complete releases on the store. They should be locked away in their own section, for people to explore at their own peril – not counted amongst the genuine releases. It’s unfair that fully developed games should have to compete side-by-side with games that have been barely started. Early Access is a problem – and it needs to be fixed.