It is a strange time for gaming, there have been many shifts and changes in the industry, culture, community and the way they interact. Not the least of these changes is the idea of playing and paying for games before they’re completed. This idea would have been crazy and unthinkable only 5-10 years ago, but here we are, in the age of Early Access.
Essentially, Early Access (as it works on Steam) allows developers to put their unfinished game up for sale on the store front and let people buy and play it. The idea here is to let gamers play upcoming games and provide real-time suggestions and feedback as the game is being developed. This idea is huge. It basically turns your entire user base into a giant play testing group that developers can directly interact with. This enables them to actually make money before the game has actually “gone gold.”
So what’s wrong with this? Well, the biggest problem is that last bit: gamers are paying the developer to essentially provide a service that the devs would either have to do themselves or pay someone else to do. Gamers are now paying to perform a service that devs would normally pay someone to do. It would be like paying someone to clean their house or mow their lawn because you really, really like cleaning or doing yard work. While from a business perspective, this is a veritable gold-mine, it just doesn’t make sense from a consumer standpoint.
Then of course there’s the “Scam Factor,” which anyone familiar with Kickstarter should understand. Kickstarter is rather infamous for projects that promise the moon, show a bunch of theoretical pictures, video footage, etc, but then fail to deliver on once the funding goal has been met. The thing about Kickstarter is that if the funding goal isn’t met, no one is out any money. But in Early Access, that money you shelled out for an unfinished game, on the promise of completion, is out the window.
Of course you could shout “caveat emptor,” buyer beware, and indeed Steam itself makes a habit of repeating this line every time an Early Access controversy pops up; read reviews and forums on the Early Access game you are interested in to see if it’s worth your time and money. The problem here is two-fold: a project may start out promising, with enough gameplay potential to warrant a $20 asking price, but if the game is never finished, its value is significantly reduced. Also, on Steam the developer has complete totalitarian control over the user posts and reviews, allowing them to silence any negative feedback about their broken or scam game. Just look at games like Earth: Year 2066 or Stomping Lands; these games went up in broken, virtually unplayable states but any time users tried to voice concern or warnings to other would-be buyers on the game’s forum, the devs were quick to delete those posts. Basically, these devs are able to run their own little totalitarian regimes on their game pages and silence any criticism or dissent. Some even try to reach across their borders and throw DMCA take downs at people who try and post videos exposing the truth about these broken games. And Steam just sits back on their supreme overlord throne, reaping the cash benefits.
TLDR: to me, paying money for an Early Access game is like buying a car frame (with or without wheels) and then expecting or hoping the manufacturer finishes building the car so that you can actually get your money’s worth out of it. Sure, if you put some work into it you might be able to use it while it’s being built or even have some influence over how it’s built. But in the end, you’re buying an unfinished, largely unusable product on the puppies and unicorn promises that it will eventually become something great.
Still TLDR: Early Access should be a place for developers to put up near-finished or beta builds of games to drum up support and iron out any remaining bugs, features or details. Either that or don’t charge for Early Access games.