Launches Refinery, Attempts To Fix Early Access

Splendid home of indie gaming,, has launched its own version of Steam’s Early Access, Refinery. This offers a way for developers to put up early builds of in-development projects, but be able to charge an entrance fee. Good news for devs, but possibly not too welcome to those who have been burned by the system elsewhere, right? Well, Itch hopes otherwise, announcing its launch with the words, “Early access has a problem.”

They certainly seem to get it:

“Overly competitive environments, sometimes misunderstanding communities and non-existent sales model flexibility has moved the focus of away from growing and fostering a game’s development, to simply completing an early transaction with meager hopes of good feedback.”

Their solution? A strong emphasis on a toolset designed to push both developers and customers toward something productive – something to create communities and drive player feedback. It offers devs the ability to define their own state of earliness, with the options to distribute limited keys for paid alphas, or closed betas, open betas, etc. Which is a stark contrast to Steam’s non-solution of just having a game either be on sale or not.

That seems key, as Steam’s enormous issue – so far entirely ignored by Valve – is that they’ve simply created a way for devs to sell unfinished games. With no possible (nor reasonable) way to guarantee an investment at that stage will ever result in a finished game, it’s a system that’s easily taken advantage of. Of course, the deeper abilities of Refinery are no protection against the same, but it certainly offers far more sensible ways for incomplete games to reach an audience, while receiving an injection of cash.

Other features of Refinery include the option to give rewards to people who buy at certain points, a smoother way of patching so players don’t have to redownload the whole game each time, and the option to sell physical goods. Already using the service is Overland, Manifold Garden and Jenny LeClue, amongst others. It’ll be very interesting to see if this not only can address some of the most serious issues of early access, but also drive a bigger audience toward itself. They conclude,

“Maybe it’s been forgotten that accessing games early is a privilege, not a right; we believe by putting developers in control of that access, that won’t be the case.”

I’d contend that perhaps some more rights put in customer hands might be the next necessary step.

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  1. Hobbes says:

    “Maybe it’s been forgotten that accessing games early is a privilege, not a right; we believe by putting developers in control of that access, that won’t be the case.”

    Right, rewind the clock twenty years. Beta testers were paid by companies to test games. It wasn’t a privilege, it was a job, one that required developers to treat the testers with some level of respect because back then it was the entry gateway into game development.

    Now testing is done via mass aggregate and analytic testing. This means the cost of testing drops significantly (because all you need is a QA department to catch the code issues) as you can throw the gates open when you do a closed and open beta and allow thousands of the unwashed to play the game, and have it submit anonymous reports every time there’s a crash or a fail state.

    However, you’re still getting something valuable from every person who participates – their time. That means this is not some airy fairy cuddly situation where it’s all rainbows and unicorns. You’re providing access ahead of time to your product so a consumer can decide if they fancy buying into it, and they’re providing their time and potential testing feedback via the automatic toolsets embedded into your game systems (if you’ve done your work properly) which saves you an awful lot of money on actual testing departments.

    Indies take this further by leveraging the fans as volunteer testers, some of whom will work for free almost to the same quality as professional testers. Again, make no mistake, whilst they might present it as a privilege, they’re the ones getting the better end of the deal, they get free testing time from dedicated players who find and solve bugs in the product they will be selling, and the people who do the testing generally get nothing except a preview of the build in question.

    Suggesting that this is something “special” that the developers should lord over people, ESPECIALLY those who fork over cash to buy into early access programs is intellectually dishonest at best and entirely bullshit at worst.

    Here’s a novel idea, developers reward people who find bugs and provide valuable feedback? I know, it’s a scary thought, but you’re getting work out of them for free, maybe you should be a little more thankful for that.

    • whatisvalis says:

      “because all you need is a QA department to catch the code issues”

      And how expensive is it for Indies to contract QA? Having an engaged fan base is great for feedback, but this notion of a free labour pool to cut your testing costs is incorrect. You will still need to go through QA first, and it will be expensive.

  2. trjp says:

    I’m suspicious of anyone who says “we recognise that our competitors are doing something badly” and then clearly goes on to explain how they can’t miss-out on the MONEYS and are going to do the same thing ‘but better’ – yeah, right (GoG did pretty much exactly the same thing)

    The “problems” of Early Access are almost all down to either inexperienced or exploitative publishers/developers and customers/players who lack common sense – nothing the ‘middle man’ does will fix either of those.

    You can’t force people to make/finish “good” games and you can’t stop people throwing money into a hole – “curation” won’t work unless you own a time machine here.

    End of the day, all customers/players need to do is “use their brain” – don’t throw money at half-baked content “hoping” it will come out OK unless you’re happy to risk that it won’t – read, watch videos, be realistic and everything will be peachy.

    • Baines says:

      To be fair, Valve took the problems with the idea of Early Access and made them much worse than they could have been, due to their desire to have zero oversight over and zero involvement with the products that they sell. Add to that Valve’s tendency to favor publishers/devs over customers, their glacial response times, and various other issues and you have a system that was pretty much built for complete exploitation. (Which describes other parts of Steam as well.)

      Simply showing the slightest concern or responsibility already puts you above Valve’s efforts.

      • trjp says:

        Valve’s “hands off” approach is the same with EA and normal releases tho – you can just-as-easily get a crap game onto Steam with or without EA

        EA’s unique issue is half-finished games which remain like that – and there’s no easy solution (some people have suggested extending refunds for EA titles until release but I can see that being disastrous)

  3. Sam says:

    I think this is solving a real problem, but maybe not “the” problem of Early Access.

    Something easy to set up that lets the developer have a controlled and limited early release of a game for testing is very useful. Releasing on Steam Early Access is now extremely similar to releasing for real. Setting up tests with strangers is quite a hassle of emailing secret URLs and so on. A tidy system for it will be great.

    I don’t think it does very much to help the consumer directly. Paying to test a game still feels kind of wrong. But it’s definitely a tool that can be used well by developers to do good things.