Valve have sent game creators updated rules for releasing games through Steam Early Access. The service, which allows devs and publishers to sell games before they're finished, is both or alternately a useful method of funding risky game ideas and a maligned method of delaying criticism and profiting from promises. Valve obviously want to cut down on that, as the new rules state that creators should "not make specific promises about future events."
The rules were sent to us by several developers, as well as Giant Bomb. Here's the full, most relevant rule change:
Do not make specific promises about future events.
For example, there is no way you can know exactly when the game will be finished, that the game will be finished, or that planned future additions will definitely happen. Do not ask your customers to bet on the future of your game. Customers should be buying your game based on its current state, not on promises of a future that may or may not be realized.
A set of guidelines - as distinct from rules - were also outlined in the update, which further suggests that creators "Don't launch in Early Access if you can't afford to develop with very few or no sales." I imagine that, if followed, this guideline would cut down on the number of games released through the service by about 95%.
While there have been few outright disasters released through the Steam's Early Access store - and those that were clearly iffy were removed and their customers refunded - there have been many instances of developers promising features or release dates that they then failed to deliver on. Most recently this happened in the case of Spacebase DF-9, Double Fine's Dwarf Fortress-but-in-space game which had its feature list significantly slashed before a final release.
Of course, these are problems that exist outside of Steam's Early Access program as well. They're shortcomings that are obviously a natural consequence of the unpredictable game development process, but it's significant that Valve are now taking a more explicit stance on how Early Access games should be advertised. At the time of writing, many Early Access games listed on Steam still sell themselves on the basis of what's to come rather than what's already in the game. Given the extremely early state many games are released in, one wonders who is going to continue buying barebones open world survival games when those promises start to disappear.
The other rules were all straightforward and pre-existing, but here are the guidelines in full, since it's all relevant to how Early Access games should be presented by their creators, both within and without Steam:
Don’t launch in Early Access if you can’t afford to develop with very few or no sales.
There is no guarantee that your game will sell as many units as you anticipate. If you are counting on selling a specific number of units to survive and complete your game, then you need to think carefully about what it would mean for you or your team if you don't sell that many units. Are you willing to continue developing the game without any sales? Are you willing to seek other forms of investment?
Make sure you set expectations properly everywhere you talk about your game.
For example, if you know your updates during Early Access will break save files or make the customer start over with building something, make sure you say that up front. And say this everywhere you sell your Steam keys.
Don't launch in Early Access without a playable game.
If you have a tech demo, but not much gameplay yet, then it’s probably too early to launch in Early Access. If you are trying to test out a concept and haven't yet figured out what players are going to do in your game that makes it fun, then it's probably too early. You might want to start by giving out keys to select fans and getting input from a smaller and focused group of users before you post your title to Early Access. At a bare minimum, you will need a video that shows in-game gameplay of what it looks like to play the game. Even if you are asking customers for feedback on changing the gameplay, customers need something to start with in order to give informed feedback and suggestions.
Don't launch in Early Access if you are done with development.
If you have all your gameplay defined already and are just looking for final bug testing, then Early Access isn’t the right place for that. You’ll probably just want to send out some keys to fans or do more internal playtesting. Early Access is intended as a place where customers can have impact on the game.
I'm glad that the standards expected for Early Access are being more clearly defined, though I'm not sure that any number of guidelines will ever remove the reasonable expectation that 'Early Access' games will one day be more than they are upon their initial release. What constitutes 'finished' is ambiguous, but it seems the very name of the service carries innate promises which sometimes will not be met.