A rising trend on Steam and elsewhere is the introduction of the early access game, which allows players to buy in to a game that is in early alpha or beta phase. Since its introduction, it has become increasingly popular not only among indie developers, but also among some bigger developers as well, though not as big as triple A developers like Bethesda or Bioware. I’ve had mixed feelings about the early access buy in option, and felt it was time to address the issue head on.
Having players buy in to a game is not a new concept. Pre-orders were always a major part of the marketing process when new games were coming out. It was an investment to the developer that you were going to buy their game when it came out, and helped them gauge how well their game would do fiscally upon its release. With the pre-order usually came some sort of perk or additional content, such as in-game items exclusive to those who made the early investment. Some games even allowed beta access where applicable. These in-game items usually weren’t anything significant, though, but pre-orders were and still are successful forms of marketing and a big part of the industry today.
Now, through Steam, players can essentially “pre-order” the game but are allowed access to play despite what stage it is in development. Paired with the option of buying in to early access is usually a disclaimer stating that the game is still in its early testing phase and while playable, is incredibly glitch and does have issues. It’s a necessary disclaimer that I’m glad the developer includes, even if buyers don’t always listen to it and still complain on the forums.
Such an example of an early access game is the DayZ standalone game. DayZ is a popular Arma II mod that gained a huge player base from its unique survival style gameplay in a massive open world. The developer has begun the process of creating DayZ from the ground up and making it in to its own game. I’ve done extensive research in to the quality of gameplay of DayZ, and while it looks fun, it has to be noted that as the disclaimer says, there are numerous bugs and glitches which can and does hamper gameplay. A quick browse of the forums through Steam has mixed opinions, some saying the game is unplayable because of game crashes, lag, or glitches as well as unannounced character wipes. Others find the game to be a wonderful experience, despite these flaws.
Buying in to an early access game is like funding a kickstarter. Going in to it, you have to realize that these developers can never guarantee that the game will head where you, or they, want it to. Most developers that offer early access games are small indie developers looking for a leg-up with funding. It’s a dedication and a donation to the developers that you have faith in them and their game, even if it’s mostly unplayable at the moment. Another example of this is Folk Tale, a creative and unique fantasy sandbox game that I have been watching closely. This game only offers a tutorial and location editor at the moment, with a buy in price of $19.99. I think that the developers of Folk Tale are doing handling early access in the correct way: they have the disclaimer, but also regularly update their investors with the progress of development and where the game is headed and what they’re currently working on. Other developers like Rust, one of the top selling games on Steam at the moment, say they have no idea where the game will end up. Some consider this exciting, that the game could literally go anywhere and do anything, while others may find it unsettling that they’re paying for a game that the developers have no specific goal for. However, Rust still boasts 23,546 players at the time this was written, with 47,477 players at its peak, just for today.
What do early access games bring to the table in terms of future game development? Even top developers like Ubisoft have begun “crowdfunding” (a term I use loosely, as they don’t exactly describe it as crowdfunding themselves) for their future ambitious game ReRoll. Gamers can buy in to their game in the style of a kickstarter, with the promise of in-game rewards and early access once the game reaches a playable state. No other form of entertainment thus far allows its participants to participate in such a way with its development. In this aspect, early access in to games is a unique phenomenon to the video game industry. I’m predicting that in the future, game development will become a crowd sourced endeavor, lessening the burden of financial woes and guaranteeing funds for further progression. Whether or not this is a positive implementation is still up in the air at this point.