Latest News Posts

Social
Latest Forum Posts

Steam Launches Early Access – But is it the Right Move?

Posted on March 22, 2013 4:14 PM by Rob Williams
Bookmark and Share

In recent years, there have been many trends in gaming that have rubbed me the wrong way, from DLC that merely unlocks content that could be gained through normal methods, to the ridiculous DRM schemes that we continue to have to deal with. But there’s another: paying for a game before it even has a launch date – or heck, before it’s even in beta.

Don’t get me wrong, I think services like Kickstarter have their purpose, but they instill me with no confidence at all. In the old days, developers used to develop, launch and hopefully reap their rewards. Today, many developers build a base, sell it to people, then spend a year or so finishing it up. That means that gamers pay way in advance for something that they can’t play for quite some time. You might gain alpha or beta access, but just how valuable is that? 

Prison Tycoon
Prison Tycoon

There have been multiple Kickstarter copy-cats spring up since its launch, with the latest being Valve, via its Steam platform. With a feature called “Early Access”, gamers will be able to pre-purchase select games (at the usual pre-launch discounts of about 10% on average), and gain immediate access to the game in its current state – almost always alpha (if it was beta, there’d be no use for an early access because it’d be nearly completed).

In the words of Valve, “Get instant access and start playing; get involved with this game as it develops.” That’s fair enough, and I acknowledge that while I might not have any interest in paying to bug-test a game, I can understand the appeal to it for some. What I mostly have a problem with is that this is where gaming seems to be headed. No longer are game companies just going to develop their game and release it.

For developers, this could even prove to be a slippery-slope. I am willing to bet that any developer that conducts a Kickstarter or Steam Early Access is going to have to depend on them for every other game in the future – unless of course, we see the next Minecraft, at which point the studio might be able to fund its own game.

Arma 3 Alpha
Arma 3

Of course, I’d have to be awfully ignorant to not look at things from a developer perspective. Immediate funding means less stress, and guaranteed work that can go into the game. Past that, if gamers help build the best game possible, then that’s great. We won’t see it from the biggest studios anytime soon, but we’ve already seen some huge franchises get in on the Kickstarter action. Simply put, something about a paid alpha just doesn’t sit with me too well.

Are we going to be running into issues where developers don’t end up even finishing their game in good time, or at all? One of the listed early access titles is 1… 2… 3… KICK IT! (Drop That Beat Like an Ugly Baby), a game that has been in pre-release mode for about two years. Back then, that game was effectively an “early access” title, but the only one I’ve ever seen. People could purchase it and play it as it was. In these ~2 years, the game never saw completion. It’s probably likely to happen now that the team has committed to Early Access, but why wasn’t it finished long ago? For what it’s worth, it’s actually a pretty fun game, even in the state I played it in back then.

Am I wrong about all this? What do you guys think? Should I just put a sock in it?


  • http://techgage.com/ Marfig

    I’m completely opposed to it, but likewise I’m not entirely deaf to some of the contrary arguments.

    My main beef is the apparent institutionalization of the idea of paying for alpha access — Something that once was a privilege and companies actually payed players to test their games. This in essence is working as a new, more aggressive, pre-purchase model in which the company starts to capitalize in a finished product way earlier in the development process.

    The problem I have with that is that it’s very easy to get it wrong. Marketing strategies can, and will eventually, distort players perception of a game and it becomes easy to herd gamers on screenshots, fancy words and lofty ideas, not on an the actual finished product. A distortion of what a supplier/customer relationship should be about.

    The strongest selling point for Early Access is the idea of players participating on the game design and development decisions by giving feedback and helping come up with a finished product that more closely matches the players wishes. But quite frankly there’s many ways to achieve this without incurring in a monetary risk to the consumer. One of them is, hold on to your hats, giving free access to alpha and beta versions; a common practice before. so there’s really no justification for Early Access.

    A more insidious argument I hear (and coming from players, of all people!) is that if you don’t wish to participate you are not required to. This is the equivalent of saying to a an anti-cancer supporter that if they don’t like cigarettes they aren’t being forced to buy them. It’s simply disingenuous and intellectually dishonest the thought that an industry institutionalized Early Access business model exists in a bubble and can’t spill out toxic waste to the consumer. A business strategy can eventually become a de facto industry standard — as we’ve seen in the past with DRM, DLCs, pre-purchases, etc — and when it does it invariably tends to evolve and shape itself into a business defensive mechanism that protects business interests above those of the consumer. It’s clearly a case of saying the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

    This does mean, that like DLC or pre-purchases, not all will be bad about Early Access. But invariably the general use of these strategies will exist in a context outside — and damaging of — the consumer interests. Call me cynical, but there is absolutely no reason whatsoever to trust the gaming industry on this or any other matter. Even forgetting we didn’t have an history of constant abuse, as consumers we should always remain vigilant and skeptical for our own benefit and that of an industry we wish healthy, but also balanced and serving our interests. (A task that should fall primarily on the gaming press, btw. But that we so rarely see amidst the constant glorification of people and companies over and above their products. But that’s another matter for another debate).

    Essentially, we must look objectively at what we are being told here. We are being “offered” the “amazing” opportunity to pay for alpha and beta access. And that will allow us to participate in the game development decisions. Alpha and beta access has historically been a free access area for those companies who wished to implement early access. So where does the idea to pay for it come from? Why exactly should we as consumers see in this a benefit to us? Should we accept that it is a benefit to pay for something when before it was free? What’s the dangerous logical conclusion of this train of thought?

    But even ignoring that, we have a potentially more damaging problem; only people who pay will have the “privilege” of participating in the development process. The industry is effectively shifting the idea of who is doing whom a favor. It’s machiavellian to say the least. With clever duplicity, the consumer is being robbed of what was before a leverage tool it had against the industry. If anyone thinks — again, assuming this eventually becomes an ubiquitous practice — we won’t be paying dearly for this loss, they are sadly wrong. When before a company was privileged to have a consumer base willing to participate in development decisions, now players who pay for early access are the privileged ones.

    It’s a complete distortion of reality. A joke. The industry is trying to sell us a service that is actually provided by us. And they may get away with it, judging from many of the comments I’ve seen elsewhere. Simply because the vast majority keeps insisting in looking at games as entertainment and constantly refuse or forget to weight this with the fact we are also consumers of a product.

    • http://www.facebook.com/deathspawner Rob Williams

      “The strongest selling point for Early Access is the idea of players participating on the game design and development decisions by giving feedback and helping come up with a finished product that more closely matches the players wishes.”

      I’m not sure if I’m alone here, but one of the things I like most about gaming is never knowing what to expect. Even with games I get stoked about, I read as little about them ahead-of-time on purpose, because when I do dive in, I want everything to be as much of a surprise as possible. Buying into an Early Access game and then helping direct it totally rids that feeling of wonder (I think, at least). If you actually participate in an Early Access, I wonder how great the game would even feel after it’s finally released as a final product. You might have had your fill by that point.

      “Alpha and beta access has historically been a free access area for those companies who wished to implement early access. So where does the idea to pay for it come from?”

      Yup – it’s even worse than Kickstarter, because there, alpha stages are not typically offered to the gamer. Betas are, but we’ve come to expect them nowadays.

      “But even ignoring that, we have a potentially more damaging problem; only people who pay will have the “privilege” of participating in the development process.”

      Good point.

  • http://twitter.com/madstork91 Stetson

    There is at least one game that I know of that was an early access game for over a few years and because of the limited narrow scope of feedback they got, the game turned into a nightmare as far as controls were concerened.

    Sure, people who had played if for over 6 months had no issues with the controls, but anyone new to the game on launch quit playing it almost immediately after trying it.

Recent Tech News
Recent Site Content
Advertisement