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.
Adam: Everyone has forgotten to mention Invisible, Inc., which was extraordinary not only because it was SO DAMN GOOD, but also because it was possible to see how the Early Access process informed the finished game. It was fine when it first released and Klei worked to improve almost every system, intelligently and with careful attention not to what players were saying, but to what players were doing.
That and Divinity: Original Sin both went through Early Access and came out the other end looking rather dapper. But I think we still instinctively think of Early Access games as being new things or twists on existing ideas from unproven developers. The quantity of Early Access games that are precisely that shows the instinct to be correct, but is there a difference to the way you view the whole idea of selling an unfinished product if the developer has earned some good will already?
John: Divinity is a good example of what we mentioned earlier. I played the first released version, and bounced off it like I was Mr Bounceyman at a bouncing convention, and no matter how much praise I’ve heard for it since, my first impression always means there’s something else to play first.
Alice: I think that's fine, though. You may bounce off, but someone else may adore it and eagerly follow development - every rumour, every forum post. I know I did the same for some mods back when I was a Young Person, keenly discussing every beta change with my pals. Early Access games won't be for everyone, but they clearly have an audience.
Though that does lead to the interesting situation where you'll miss all The Buzz, and by the time a game's done enough for you to hop in, your pals have played for a year and moved onto something new.
Adam: Graham, you said that the minefield of Early Access is bad for players. Do you think that’s mainly because people are paying for games that are unfinished and bobbins, or would the problem exist even if the money weren’t changing hands? Is the quantity of bad Early Access that drown out the rest a problem in and of itself? (Also, is your husband/favourite game Dwarf Fortress an Early Access game and if not why not)
Graham: I don't think the quantity of bad Early Access games is a problem in itself, but Alice just identified one of the reasons why it's about more than money. Even if you can get a refund, even if you can read reviews and get a clear picture of the current state of a game, it's hard to know when the time is right for you to start playing. If you wait for the final release, you risk joining a game that feels 'done' in the bad sense of the word as well as the good. If you join early, you risk tiring yourself out before the game is at its best. You have no idea which is which and a lot is dependent on your friends and the community.
Dwarf Fortress is definitely Early Access, but the decision as to whether or not I should start playing it is easier there. Because I'll be dead before it's finished.
Adam: Lest we all be dead before we definitively fix Early Access, let’s all do that. One sentence, one change - what would you do to make it all better?
I’ll go first: Erase DayZ from existence and watch as the timeline corrects itself. Graham. You’re up.
Graham: I think you'd have to go back further and erase Counter-Strike, but… To make it better I would: Make the punishment for failing to finish an Early Access game be that you have to go work for Tarn Adams for the rest of your life.
Adam: And John has wandered back into The Forest, looking for animals to roll around on a beach. He’s happy there so there we shall leave him.
Either that or he’ll get back to us by version 0.04 of this feature. Alice?
Alice: I've been biting my lip but: who cares? Early/alpha access exists now, and shall continue to. Many games which wouldn't have existed without it do now. Some of those games are bad and some are good. I'm in favour of more games existing, so I think it's good. The most commonly expressed negative - that people buy a bad game that stays bad or is abandoned - are solved by people not spaffing their money around because they believed too eagerly in someone's dream and spent money they weren't willing to 'lose'.
On the final page, Adam and Alice discuss spaffing, think of the children and create a Utopian vision of near-future cybershopping.
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.