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Is Early Access A Good Thing For Players Or Developers?

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Adam: I agree about the spaffing and I also agree about more games existing being a good thing. But I do think there’s a distinction between bad and unfinished, and that people who buy something that is apparently in a development process rather than complete should be allowed to have some expectations. A grumble of disappointment rather than a desire to rant and campaign on the internet, sure, but if I buy something I want to enjoy it. I hope it’ll live up to what I hoped it’d be.

The game that sticks out in my memory is Spacebase DF-9. It went from barebones to barebones and then finished, and almost everything that had been on the design roadmap was left undone. I wasn’t angry at anyone when that happened but I was disappointed.

That doesn’t feel like a game that exists to me and I don’t think anyone came out of the experience feeling particularly good – dev-side or consumer-side. Maybe that happens even if Early Access, and I mean specifically Steam Early Access, isn’t a thing, but I think the most popular digital games shop in the world having that option makes taking a punt…easier? More acceptable? I don’t know.

Alice: Double Fine are interesting for going from being publisher-backed to these new models of crowdfunding and alphafunding. They built a reputation and earned trust in an environment where large companies helped back them and released the games once they were declared done enough for sale. The idea of the Double Fine behind Psychonauts now being a scrappy company surviving chiefly on what they can raise from players is alien. You expect they’ll deliver games as before. I don’t think people notice quite how much they seem to be clinging on at times.

Anyway, we mentioned before that people are more likely to back devs they trust, but I think it’s important for that trust to be grounded in the economic realities of each project. I’m more likely to trust a scrappy indie dev who’s delivered games only with the time and money they could get together themselves.

It’s a logical next step in going from carefully curated – and increasingly boring – physical shops to digital stores that were essentially the same then onto virtual markets which can contain literally everything in the world. We’re in a weird transitional period where suddenly these things become possible, but we still look at digital stores with a physical mindset.

What do you make of alphafunding through non-Steam stores? Mojang handled Minecraft themselves, and Itch lets folks do it if they want.

Adam: Answering that question honestly exposes how flakey my thinking about all of this is. SO HERE WE GO.

I love Itch, and one of the main reasons I love it is that it is a wild place full of things I’d never see otherwise, that lets me try a lot of things for free and pay as much as I want to the developers that I like. And this is something I think about a lot – my approach to shopping for games is probably not representative at all. I pick at things and I’m happy to buy something, try it for a couple of hours and find at least one thing that is interesting, and then move on. I like curiosities, whether that’s an entire game or one scene, character or line of dialogue.

That comes from the job, to an extent – treating games as part of a landscape that I want to have some kind of broad understanding of, daft as that might be – but it’s also how I deal with other media. I watch films that I’m almost certain I won’t enjoy if I think it’ll help me to understand the conversation around them and I’ve always been one of those people who often enjoys the culture around a thing as much if not more than the thing itself.

But I still remember being the kid who only got a new game once in a blue moon and there’s no way my mum would have been buying that game from Itch. She’d have been buying it from Steam because it’s big, obvious and has an air of legitimacy (actually, let’s face it; she’d be buying it from the last Game standing and it’d be a Sims add-on or FIFA ‘12). Birthday might mean a gift code for some zombie island without any zombies because it looked cool, or popped up in the suggested games section because I played Project Zomboid and Dying Light.

That said, my mum did actually buy Bloodnet for me from a physical store and I don’t think I got past the first five minutes. That was a bad year. Also, I was thirteen and I don’t think that game was suitable for a thirteen year old but I was probably already showing goth tendencies so a fame full of cyberDraculas must have seemed like the right thing to buy.

I now realise that my argument boils down to wanting some kind of quality control at Big Shop and saying “BUT WHO WILL THINK OF THE CHILDREN”.

Alice: Valve made clear years ago that they can’t, and don’t want to, do quality control. Games that we loved would struggle to draw Valve’s attention, while loads of guff crept in because a publisher had an in at Valve – not that a few humdrum outsider games didn’t make it in too. Greenlight was Valve throwing their hands up in the air and saying “Well look, you tell us what you want!” Within weeks that proved there’s no consensus on what people want on Steam. Do we rewind to back before Greenlight?

The problem with Greenlight, Steam Early Access, and all that seem to me largely to be that Valve want to sell All Of The Games (And Programs And Movies And Songs) but their storefront is still garbage. It has been all along. The oft-mooted curated storefronts – letting people present their own selections as stores in return for a small cut – would go a long way. Steam Curators clearly aren’t that much use.

I really like the idea that I could buy Proper Boxed Games alongside floppies with the game name scrawled on in the creator’s handwriting, and see a band playing their second gig on a stage that tomorrow will host the biggest band in the world (Status Quo). But how do you organise all that? Valve have no idea but are blithely ploughing ahead.

And so shall we. Who is wrong or right? Let us know in the comments.

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