In Defense of Early Access

Since its inception, I’ve heard a lot of people complain about Steam’s Early Access. I’ve heard it described as “the worst thing to have happened to Steam ever,” as “one of the worst fads to appear recently,” and even that it encourages developers to “take the money and run.” Also, that it’s worse than Hitler. … okay, I haven’t heard that personally, but given that this is the Internet, the odds of that actually having been said are roughly 1 trillion percent.

... but is it worse than Kitler?

… but is it worse than Kitler?

But I think some of this criticism is overblown. As a developer with a game currently in Early Access, I’ve hardly turned into some sultan-like figure being fanned by an army of servants. In fact, I think being able to release the game early and get a bunch of feedback and bug fixes has had a very positive effect overall on the game, but most importantly, I really want to get the game done and out of Early Access. This isn’t something out of principle, either – like “I just believe in finishing things,” or “Steam needs at least 46 new releases per day to be cool.” Rather, I’m heavily incentivized to do so.

So why is Early Access not the worst thing to have ever been invented ever?! Because clearly that’s GFWL. Let’s look at some of the criticisms, and dispel them.

#1). “Early Access is a gold mine! What incentive is there to actually finish the game?!”

I’m not going to lie. This is absolutely true. … for very few games. Certain genres of games benefit disproportionately well from being perpetual betas – specifically, games without an endgame, like sandbox games. Notable examples like Kerbal Space Program and Starbound give you an incentive to come back again and again as they add new things. This keeps the community energized, keeps word of mouth spreading, which leads to sustained sales, which leads to them being able to finance more of the game for the community. Actually finishing the game would break this cycle… though that will happen inevitably as they run out of content to produce, new sales begin to dry up, or they run out of land to build palaces on.

Future home to Notchistan.

Future home to Notchistan.

But for most games, this isn’t the case. Single player games that (sadly) most people will only play through once (if that) don’t really see any benefit from being a perpetual beta. Hardcore players will certainly want to get in early and will enjoy watching as the development progresses, but this isn’t a majority of players. Today’s generation of players with more responsibilities and time constraints than ever aren’t going to want to waste their time on an unpolished product now when they can wait and have a better experience later (I’ve had multiple people tell me they’ve bought Wrack but are waiting until it’s finished to actually play it). We’ve tried to overcome this by trying to cultivate a modding scene to give people reason to come back over and over again, but with lackluster results.

#2). “Games are being put into Early Access too early in development!”

I get the concern here. People are worried about developers making a killing after first putting their games into Early Access, and then not having an incentive to finish. I understand that. But as an Early Access developer, I have a feeling there’s not much to worry about here.

First, I think it’s rare that many of these Early Access games – especially the really early ones – are making boatloads of money. Despite having a highly reviewed Early Access game that updates furiously, we’re still having a tough time. The game is making money, but not to the point where we can hire full-time employees and get an office. Sure, we botched our marketing leading up to our Early Access release (we won’t make the same mistake twice), but that’s kind of the point – simply releasing an Early Access game does not guarantee that you’ll make a fortune.

It’s true that developers may be deincentivized to finished, but not from making too much money, but from making too little. If people are skeptical of Early Access titles in general and stay away from them, this could be misinterpreted as a lack of demand for a particular game, causing the developer to cut the budget or abandon it completely.

Finally, if anything, putting a game into Early Access too early is risky for the developer. Like it or not, players will often times make up their mind about a particular game based on their first impressions. If a developer puts out a game too early, they risk the gaming public evaluating a game before it’s truly ready which can turn off a lot of players who might have liked it seeing it for the first time in its completed state.

Now for my last point:

#3). “Early Access games are buggy and unfinished!”

First of all… isn’t that kind of the point? If there weren’t bugs and all of the content was in place and completely polished, they wouldn’t be in Early Access in the first place.

To some extent, this is always going to be a blessing and a curse of Early Access. Seeing a game on Kickstarter isn’t going to disappoint you because you’re evaluating it based on a few carefully crafted images or videos. You’re only seeing very polished and completed sections or concepts of the game – your experience is limited. When your imagination fills in the blanks, it doesn’t imagine a bunch of missing artwork or bugs or unresponsive controls – it imagines the perfect version of the game. With Early Access however, you get to experience the game fully in its current state – warts and all. For a lot of fans, it’s very understandable how this can be a turnoff.

So, maybe it’s okay that Early Access games are buggy and unfinished. Perhaps it’s just the nature of the beast – a beast that’s not for everyone. Nonetheless, it’s a beast that’s important because developers need feedback, to tweak and fix, and support.

And deep-fried nachos.

And deep-fried nachos.

Early Access can be a wonderful thing. It can lead to less buggy, more polished, better designed games… but it’s not for everyone. Because it’s not for everyone, developers have a large incentive to actually finish their games to appeal to the majority of people who don’t want to play unfinished games, and Early Access provides them with the means to do so.

So, this form of crowdfunding isn’t so bad, folks. Celebrity crowdfunding, though… that’s a whole different story.

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