An early access game, simply put is a paid alpha. A funding model in the video game industry where consumers pay for a game that is in the early stages of it’s development and are able to play the unfinished versions of the game whilst the developer uses the funds acquired to continue development. Those who pay usually help debug the game, provide feedback and suggestions and may have access to special bonuses in the game, depending on the type of funding undertaken.
One of the earliest and most prominent examples of an early access game is Minecraft, which was developed in 2009. The original alpha version of the game had gathered enough significant momentum, that within the month of release, Markus Persson, the developer, added a fee of $15 to access the game, which allowed him to continue development. Persson was able to quit his job and work on the game full time, creating Mojang, which allowed him to create a larger development team. Minecraft had offered early access throughout it’s development period and there was always the reassuring factor that those who bought it would receive the final version free of charge. The game was considered a complete project and released as a full title in late 2011. Prior to the release of Minecraft, over 1.8 million players had purchased the alpha and beta stage releases.
It sounds too good to be true, a game that is being built from scratch, the player pays and assists the developers in making their game with relevant feedback and suggestions, debugging and error reporting. On paper, the Early Access system is flawless, a win-win, with the dream that the product is one that satisfies both producer and player, who are both passionate about the game – the players want it finished, whilst the developers share the same goal, but also seek to increase sales and grow the user base. In essence, the Early Access system can be represented as a flawless system, allowing for greater collaboration between producer and player and thus creating the perfect game, one that both parties are satisfied with.
The concept was so good that the number of Steam Early Access releases per month has increased significantly since the programs’ launch in March 2013.
The concept even appealed to companies such as Ubisoft and Square Enix, who are beginning to observe and evaluate whether or not the early access strategy is applicable to their titles or not.
There are currently 338 Early Access games available on Steam, compared to the 103 in 2013. That is a 228% growth over the course of the two years the program has been available. There were 255 early access titles released in 2014, which was a 147% increase from 2013.
However, a very important detail follows these figures – the release of an Early Access version of the title does not mean that the title has been released as a full, completed game. This is important. They are called ‘Early Access’ for a reason, and it leads to many misconceptions about the games published. Consumers browse the Steam store, see the game concept they like, add it to their cart and check out and acknowledge the warnings that the game is in development. The consumer trusts the developer to follow through on their promise.
Upon release of the Early Access Program, the Early Access FAQ on Steam states:
“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.”
If it is looked at from the consumer’s perspective – by investing in an idea like this, they expect adequate return. They trust the developer with their money. The concept can be compared to investment. The investor wishes to invest in someone’s company, so they buy shares expecting dividends that provide a return in their investment over time. Except, in the context of games, the dividend is the production of the eventual final product as opposed to a cash return.
If we go back to March 20, 2013, when the Early Access program was announced, Valve had announced twelve titles that would feature initially in the Steam Early Access isle, and they were:
- 1, 2, 3 Kick It! (Drop That Beat Like An Ugly Baby)
- Arma 3
- Drunken Robot Pornography
- Gear Up
- Kerbal Space Program
- Kinetic Void
- Prison Architect
- Under The Ocean
Now, we evaluate the list and see how many of these games have been completed.
- 1, 2, 3 Kick It! (Drop That Beat Like An Ugly Baby) – UNRELEASED
- Arma 3 – RELEASED APRIL 23 2013
- Drunken Robot Pornography – RELEASED FEBRUARY 19 2014
- Gear Up – RELEASED JANUARY 28 2015
- Gnomoria – UNRELEASED
- Kenshi – UNRELEASED
- Kerbal Space Program – APRIL 27 2015
- Kinetic Void – NOVEMBER 21, 2014
- Patterns – CANCELED
- Prison Architect – UNRELEASED
- StarForge – SEPTEMBER 22 2014
- Under The Ocean – CANCELED
Six out of the twelve games initially released in the launch of the program have been fully developed, with four unreleased titles and two canceled titles.
A study conducted by GamesIndustry in 2014 stated that since the launch of the program, on average around 25% of all Early Access games have been developed fully and released as full titles. According to that study, 75% of titles remained unfinished.
The issue lies here. There are clear benefits of this model for developers and consumers alike; however, there is always the possibility of a broken promise. If we compare the Kickstarter model and the Steam model for example, the consumer pays up front for assured content, because all Kickstarters have to have an estimated delivery date. The key flaw in Valve’s program is that a game could theoretically stay in development for the next ten to fifteen years and sold to consumers indefinitely, who are still waiting for the finished product that may never come, that is, the consumer pays full price for a game that may never be fully developed, hence breaking their promise.
Games such as The Stomping Land and Earth: Year 2066 were removed from Steam because the respective developers failed to provide adequate updates on development for months, and the gameplay did not match what was being advertised, and due to this refunds were available for a short period of time. Alex Fundora’s Kickstarter campaign for The Stomping Land raised over $144,000. which was estimated to be released on May of 2014, however, it was not released and subsequently, there was no way for refunds to be provided.
It is also important to note that not all Early Access games are bad news, with games like ARK: Survival Evolved, H1Z1, Dead Realm, DayZ and Kerbal Space Program all leaving positive vibes with the consumer market due to the continual development of the games.
The takeaway message from all of this is simple – as a consumer, there should be precaution taken when investing in an early access product. Remember, you are paying full price for something that may be nowhere near finished, or that will be finished relatively quickly. There are risks and rewards for both developer and consumer, and both parties should tread carefully when heading down the Early Access Road via Steam.
It will be interesting to see if the increase in early access games continues strongly or slows down, and if the lack of releases over time will become a bigger issue for consumers than it already is.
The bright prospect of this idea may be tainted by a lack of release and eventual uproar. Only time will tell.
Article by Jonah
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