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Is Early Access A Good Thing For Players Or Developers?

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Early Access games are here to stay, but is that cause for concern or celebration? We gathered to discuss whether early access benefits developers or players in its current state, and how we’d make it better. Along the way, we discussed the best alpha examples, paying for unfinished games, our love of regularly updated mods, Minecraft and the untapped potential of digital stores.

Adam: In recent times, there are two phrases that instantly chip away at my enthusiasm about the announcement of a new and exciting game. One is “coming to Kickstarter soon” and the other is “coming to Early Access soon”. Hearing that the juicy morsel that has been promised is locked into crowdfunding or a possibly endless series of iterative releases is like receiving a coconut as a gift, and nothing to crack it open with. That’s changing though. We’ve had Kickstarter successes and we’ve seen the benefits of Early Access. Let’s discuss the latter.

John, you’re first up. Can you think of an example of an Early Access release period that has helped a game in a way that has been noticeable from your point of view and do you think the whole segmented part of the Steam store actually changes the fact that betas, alphas and works in progress aren’t an entirely new concept? GO.

John: I know that everyone cites Prison Architect, but honestly, management games make me want to hide in the corner, so I can’t judge that one. But survival games – that seems to me to be where early access (EA is an annoying shortening, eh?) shines. To be plonked on a deserted island, given a scant set of tools, and asked to survive, works even when a game is very limited. Adding more only makes the game become more interesting to play. So the model suits that, for me. But then I struggle to enthuse about it for anything else.

I think the main issue for me is, while betas and the likes aren’t a new phenomenon, the idea previously was to only allow outsiders in when you believed a project was finally good enough – let the beta testers find the bugs, bump up against the issues you’d missed, and refine this nearly finished game. Whereas Early Access seems to be about letting people see your bare bones early ideas, and the problem is: first impressions stick.

Graham: I disagree and agree, in that order. I don’t think survival games are particularly great fits for early access, because those desert islands are only as interesting as the content that’s yet been added. When I play them I often feel like I’m attempting to survive in a half-created world where resources are slim because they haven’t been made yet, as much as I feel like I’m surviving against the natural elements or other players. A better fit for me is something like Kerbal Space Program: a game that had obvious space to grow, but which had a single, fun mechanic at its core – rocket construction – from the very beginning.

But I agree that first impressions stick, or at least that my interest to discover whether a game is good or not is linked tightly with the experience of playing that game for the first time. Even if I know something will have improved greatly, even if I liked it the first time, if I’ve played it at all then my desire for its final and presumably best version is dampened. That seems a shame.

Adam: I’m at the point where I think of sandbox survival games as unfinished. It’s one of the features of the genre. And I’m not sure if Minecraft was the first of that type – the early release paid-for free-form game.

John: I’d say that Graham’s point is correct for certain games. But then something like The Forest, which managed to be a wonderful space to explore, and a fucking terrifying place to get killed, was something I wanted to keep going back to just because I’d heard there’d been an update. Like Adam says, it’s that Minecrafty thing of returning to see what’s new.

Adam: The strength of the iterative releases is precisely that, I think, for games that feel like a world that you can visit, with little in the way of persistence between lives.

Alice – do you have any Early Access tales? Either within the Steam branded world that gives the idea that capitalised name, or outside it?

Alice: I will fail to deliver even a Lukewarm Take here (until the final page when things heat up – ed). I’ve bought a few games on Steam Early Access, I’ve paid for a few games outside it. Some have been updated and grown wonderfully since, some have been barely touched. Either way, I follow a simple rule: if I wouldn’t be happy for the game to stay as it currently is, I don’t buy it. This covers both games I want as Finished Products and developers I want to see play with an idea a bit more or, heck, just have a few dollars to spend on marbles.

I suppose the last alpha game I paid for was Planeter Deluxe. It’s pretty nice, that. I’ve enjoyed fiddling with it. I don’t think it’s been updated in months. I’m fine with that.

Graham: There are lots of early access games I’ve played and enjoyed, and long before “early access” was a phrase we used, my favourite game was the mod Counter-Strike. Each update was incredibly exciting, changed the game in radical ways in response to player feedback, and it was fascinating to see a game grow up in public. I can think of lots of other examples of alpha games I’ve enjoyed following along with since, and I’m down with both the financial benefit that lets otherwise unlikely games be made, and with the onus being at least somewhat on personal responsibility when it comes to purchasing decisions.

All that said, most of the early access games on Steam are total drivel, dozens of them are abandoned or will never be any good, and while the recent addition of refunds mitigates the problem a little, the store does a pretty poor job still of communicating what the current state of a game is. This is bad for players and I think probably makes Steam a barrel of landmines for anyone who isn’t totally savvy about PC games.

I don’t even think the service is that great for developers, sometimes. When I spoke to Soren Johnson in March about Offworld Trading Company, he said he wished there was a way to make the game more hidden on Steam when releasing into early access. The money and the feedback can be useful, but the process also attracts a lot of money from people who are going to have a lousy experience and will hate you for it.

Adam: I’m instantly wary of games that don’t seem to have an ending in mind, development-wise. Early Access has become home to a lot of games that seem like half-empty buckets with a hole in the bottom – new features and content dropped in every once in a while but only ever enough to maintain a status quo rather than moving toward an endpoint. That mainly relates to the survival-style games, which seem like sandboxes for the developer rather than the player.

My worry is that it leads to bad habits; suggesting (BLAGH ILL FIX THIS SENTENCE IN THE NEXT PATCH) that improvement can mean more rather than better, and that a vague outline is sufficient if you scribble in enough between the lines. Is that harsh? And does it even matter as long as people know what they’re buying in to?

John: If I were a cynical developer, I could totally see the advantages of putting together the framework of something potentially interesting, throwing it against the EA wall, and know that even if it doesn’t stick, a trickle of money will have come my way for my efforts. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be so mercenary, or even if it were, not necessarily be a wrong thing to do. I just think that it, and indeed Kickstarters in a different way, need to learn to communicate this to potential customers.

Instead of saying, “I’m going to create this extraordinary game that will be bigger and better than anything else ever, give me a million dollars!” you could say, “Hey, I’ve got this neat idea, and no clue if it’ll be possible, but no chance to find out if I don’t get a bit of financial support. Let’s see where this goes.” Fewer people might want to support it, certainly, but at least there’d be a notion of realism about the process, and a more understanding audience if perceivable effort doesn’t go anywhere.

Although I’m conscious this is very easily exploited.

On page two, examples of Early Access done well and how things would work if we ran the world.

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