I've been thinking about this a lot lately, and I've come to the conclusion that Early Access (and the same concept under various different names) has only improved my gaming life.
Increasingly, the games I love the most have been released as knowingly unfinished projects, and I've been able to revisit them repeatedly and have different experiences as they evolve - old friends with new clothes and new stories. That has meaning, and I'd sorely miss that if it went away now.
I'm not blind to reality, though. Without doubt Early Access has been oft-abused, whether it’s with projects which ultimately don’t go anywhere, ones which launch in such a rickety or skeletal state that there’s no worth to playing them for months or more, and ones which turn up in Early Access mere weeks before full release because some minor publisher is cynically trying to achieve a double whammy of launch coverage in the hope more people notice the title.
There are people taking the piss, there are people who find they don’t have the resources to achieve what they planned to, there are people who are hopelessly naive, and it all amounts to perpetuating the widely-held stereotype that PC games are all broken and arcane. I guess I’d like there to be some adjusted barrier to entry for Early Access, but at the same time I’d worry about that inadvertently shutting out small devs who potentially rely on that kind of funding to get their game finished.
Even so, I find I’m increasingly looking upon the Early Access concept with some fondness. I’ve played some absolutely corkers - just off the top of my head, Sunless Sea, Darkest Dungeon, Invisible Inc – and what’s been particularly exciting is the idea that, a few months later, I’ll get to go back to a game I enjoyed hugely and there’ll be more of it. It’ll have new content, it’ll have things in different places with surprising outcomes, it’ll look or feel slicker and flashier. It’s like going back to a favourite hotel and finding out they’ve added Jacuzzis to every room, or the minibars now also boast every flavour of Monster Munch. With a ‘standard’ game, going back to it means fundamentally repeating the experience or combing around for stuff I missed first time around.
With Early Access – when it works – I get to have a second love affair. Something as simple as the later versions of Sunless Sea having new ports with new stories rendered the whole thing mysterious and magical again. All being well, Darkest Dungeon in six months’ time will surprise me with a whole bunch of new ways for my beleaguered heroes to lose their minds, or it’ll have sorted out the glacially slow character barks and feel like a smoother-flowing game with new purpose. I really do look forwards to that. There’s no way I’d have that level of anticipation for a post-release patch, or even for a big chunk of DLC. Something I like changes and evolves: going back thus becomes a big deal.
Another positive is that problems can get ironed out, games can improve before it’s too late. In the case of Darkest Dungeon again, they’ve already patched it to take out some of the speech/negative effect delays I and many others griped about in the initial release. Days later, it’s a better game already. Had it been a fully-released game, there’s every chance the devs would have made excuses, unwilling to make potentially serious changes to a project they were wrapping up work on, and we might be lumbered with something really aggravating.
Early Access doesn’t just mean unfinished – it also inherently means a degree of open development, of listening to the userbase almost every step of the way. It can mean better games. (Of course, this can backfire too – maybe you end up drifting away from making the game you wanted to make, maybe you end up too focused on trying to please the arcane demands of a vocal and hardcore minority).
Without a doubt Early Access makes things a whole lot more complicated, both as a player of games and as a critic of them. To spend money on something that you then can’t really play because it’s too broken or meagre is a horrible feeling. To suggest that others should or should not buy a fundamentally unfinished game isn’t any less unpleasant, if you’ll forgive me the gripe. Slamming a game for something which might well change in a couple of weeks’ time is a tricky business, but even harder is trying to appreciate the potential of something that’s barely begun, rather than simply dismissing it.
Clockwork Empires is a case in point for the latter – it’s a concept I’m very keen on, but even several months on from the last time I checked in, comparatively little of it has been executed. It's not that they're not visibly working hard on it, but just that all the many elements they're gradually putting in have yet to coalesce for me. There isn’t enough for me to latch on to; I can barely get a sense of what the game will be like if and when it’s finished, and so praise seems hopelessly optimistic and damnation pointlessly cruel. I’m concerned that CE is a case of can’t see the woods for the trees, but fingers crossed something more certain emerges from it any day now. Because that would be a beautiful return too, to see something troubled become something brilliant, and perhaps then to get even more of it further down the line.
I'm well aware that many players of PC games feel very differently about this, and boy do they let us know about it. Despite some readers' repeated demands that we should, Early Access isn’t something RPS can simply ignore, as it’s become such a prevalent part of PC gaming. It's where we’re getting our first experiences of some of the most interesting and ambitious new games, after all. Unfortunately, we can’t post about any game which bears that classification without someone demanding that we do not, that they refuse to read the article, that all of PC gaming has become a joke, or words of varying vitriol to that effect. Honestly, while Early Access is rife with problematic projects, it just seems so sad to reject the whole concept outright. There's so much to be said for finding a diamond in the rough, especially when that diamond can end up gleaming all the more a little while later.
Perhaps I just like the idea of games having a journey. Early Access emphasises that these are shifting entities, changing direction, making compromises, stumbling into unexpected surprises, or simply able to add more and better elements once they’re over the biggest humps of development. I look at my list of installed Steam games, and most of them are Early Access titles. I clean out my hard drive of games regularly – have to, in this job – but the Early Access ones I keep around. Their names tell me stories. Their names are little promises. “One day, I shall come back. Yes, I shall come back.” And something will have changed.
This feature was originally published last week as part of, and thanks to, the RPS Supporter Program.