Splendid home of indie gaming, Itch.io, 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 Itch.io 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.