Since it was introduced in March 2013, Steam's Early Access has taken off like a rocket as well as raising many millions of dollars in revenue for a range of titles which vary greatly in quality and playability. Put simply, this is a system which allows companies to sell unfinished games through the Steam storefront. Consumers can pay - often full-price or more - for the ability to play games while they are still in development. The underlying proposal to this is that those gamers then provide customised testing feedback to help the game 'evolve' for the better. Despite the pedestal on which Valve present the service, it has begun to attract scepticism and criticism from some areas of the gaming community and press. Meanwhile, supporters of the system, developers themselves in particular, are very vocal about how it's one of the many things currently helping to take the power away from big publishers and put it in the hands of gamers themselves.
The benefits of Steam's Early Access to developers are easy to envisage. For one, such a system can provide additional development revenue during a crucial time in a game's development. In fact, sometimes it can be very profitable indeed. Just take a look at two of the big names using this feature right now - Rust and DayZ. They have reportedly made a whopping $10 and $12 million in revenue respectively as of January 2014. Considering these games are supposedly still in the alpha phase of development, that´s not too shabby. Garry Newman, the honcho behind Rust, was recently quoted on GameIndustry.biz as saying, "...Rust has made about 40 per cent of what Garry's Mod made in about nine years."
In addition, this kind of pre-release access on Steam provides an opportunity for game developers to amass a very specific kind of community to provide testing for their game. Studios are often very complimentary about this part of Early Access on Steam, with many claiming that the kind of test feedback they receive is now coming from genre veterans who know exactly what they want to see in a game like theirs. Brian Fargo, making Wastelands 2, commented on this when I recently spoke to him, "...we're getting expert feedback from people who've been playing these types of games for 20 or 30 years... There's no way we could have done what we have without this kind of transparent process."
On top of that, it's worth considering the extra media exposure a game receives, not only via the gaming press but also via everyday gaming enthusiasts. Do a YouTube search on DayZ and just look at the mountains of stuff which comes up and how popular those videos are. Viewers will literally claw your hands off to get hold of some good quality DayZ footage, particularly if there's an eventful story going on. That has undoubtedly played a big part in how buzzing the gaming world now is about the game; blogs, tumblrs, and even gaming podcasts are all providing dedicated coverage to a game which the audiences are apparently frothing at the mouth to hear more about. Seen in a sceptical way, devs are charging someone full-whack to provide testing for an incomplete product and the customers will even go out and make their game the talk of the internet on top. That's a pretty good deal for the studios from anyone's perspective; and from the perspective of a small indie dev it could be their only affordable way of getting decent PR exposure and testing.
But let's take another look at those last two points about testing and publicity; couldn't exactly the same things be said for any well-organised alpha or beta testing program? This is the age of the internet and all that, it´s not too hard to throw together a forum, take a few thousand sign-ups, and do your testing that way; e.g. Path of Exile. You could argue that without the exposure of Steam, since it's well-acknowledge that being on Steam is a form of marketing in and of itself, some titles would struggle to get gamers playing in such large numbers. Nevertheless, is it really so easily excusable that gamers are being charged premium rates for the privilege of doing a job which used to be either free, or even a professional paid position? As it stands almost all games on Steam's Early Access are sold at premium full-price rates and gamers have to pay the bill upfront. Wouldn't it be possible to have a Steam Early Access system that had free or low priced entry? Even if some devs wanted to later, they could require an extra payment upon the full game's release. Steam has the embedded option of DRM, it wouldn't be too difficult.
It has to be said that at least some developers do something similar to that themselves. Notable examples are Jason Rohrer with Castle Doctrine, who is progressively going to make his game more expensive until two weeks after the full-game's launch, and The Indie Stone with Project Zomboid, which was available cheaply prior to release. They're gratefully doing what was done in the past, providing an acknowledgement of the valuable service which gamers have provided by testing the game and rewarding loyal fans. Still, this kind of Early Access pricing is most definitely the exception and not the rule.
Moreover, some people doubt the value of giving gaming communities such authoritative power over the direction of design processes; although this isn't a viewpoint I have much sympathy with myself it's still worth a mention. It may sound a little peculiar to argue that gamers don't know what's best for them, but just look at the MMORPG sector and how downright uninspired it's been ever since the success of WOW. People are resistant to change and that can be a bad thing. In paid alpha testing the devs have to be the ones to make design calls, but we have to wonder how well some of these small studios would stay true to their creative vision under the pressure of over a million screaming fans. Whether they should or not is an entirely different question.
Defenders of Early Access on Steam argue that it's completely open about what people are paying for, and therefore everything can be reduced to a question of supply and demand in a free market. If you want to pay $29.99 for a game which is under development with no quality guarantees, then that's your choice. As it happens, devs are often very clear that what is for sale is certainly not finished. Dean Hall, the creator of DayZ, responded to a potential customer by saying, "I would strongly discourage you from buying the game right now.” Such a statement has apparently not dissuaded eager buyers, in mid-Jan it was reported the game had sold over a million copies in four weeks.
However, the issue at hand is not so simple. Just because we might think that some developers are open and clear about what's being offered, that doesn't indicate anything about how others will behave. Not to discredit his good intentions, but Dean Hall is in a position where he can afford to be the nice guy, it's clear that people are going to keep flocking to his game no matter what he says and the cash will roll in. Someone out to make a quick buck off a dodgy game may not be so honest. Imagine a story-driven game with about 20% of the content finished. A dev in need of a quick-cash injection can chuck that on Early Access, and before the news of the content wall spreads they could have taken a decent sum of money for something which not only is unfinished, but there's no certainty it ever will be. The practice of heavily loading the best content in the first 10 - 20 hours of a game in order to throw early critics is already becoming worryingly prevalent; a notable recent exampling being Total War: Rome II by the Creative Assembly. What if a studio ran out of money and unavoidably had to stop production and shut down? Early Access could be a nice quick way of cutting back on losses by cashing in on a half-made game. On the subject, Valve are explicit that refunds will not be issued for unfinished Early Access titles.
Another problem here is that there really are no standards for what a developer has to openly declare about their game in order to have it on Early Access. Is the game absolutely bug-ridden and barely playable, as DayZ initially was, or does it just need the finishing touches, e.g. Broken Age. Some Early Access titles are described in candid detail as to the content contained within, but this appears to be a choice on the makers part more than anything else. Other titles have vague and short descriptions - saying little or nothing at all about what portion of the game buyers will get for their cash or when the next big content update will be coming.
There have also been multiple reports of studios heavily moderating the discussion forums on Steam and, indeed, removing negative posts about games; so that's not much help. At least we do have access to the user 'reviews' displayed at the bottom of the game's Steam page, but all you're actually getting there is a thumbs up or down which could easily be based on fan-boy enthusiasm. It also seems that there's often a bias towards positive reviews being marked 'most helpful', whether this is an indication of actual quality or merely the power of tight online communities is difficult to say.
We have to be wary of the possibility that markets like Steam's Early Access could quickly become normalised. The more popular it gets, the more people will get used to it. Then we come back to the question, are you OK with being charged full-price to test an incomplete title with no assurance about how much is finished or if it will ever be? Because that's what we need to be happy with if we accept Early Access as it currently stands. Having popular games in a perpetual alpha or beta hell is not an ideal situation, especially if we have to pay the whole RRP. What happens after playing a game for 60 hours when your character falls through the floor and disappears into oblivion? Tough, because the game wasn't finished and you knew it. There's no come back from that, you don't have the right to whine about it because the game was still in testing; even if it has been available at full-price for over a year.
In much the same way, games in alpha and beta used to be considered de facto immune to the level of criticism applied to final releases; professional game reviews in other words. If paid alpha testing continues to grow in popularity, that's something which should and will most likely change shortly. But for the moment, it's a tasty benefit for someone who knows that their game wouldn't stand up to the scrutiny of a full critique.
The reality of the situation is, whatever side of the fence you sit on when it comes to Early Access, it's hard to dispute that the system could be improved. We need to have more clear information about what state the game is in, what is working and what is not working and approximately what portion of a game am I getting here? Personally, I'd also like to see a different precedent for pricing; one which allows early access users to jump on board without forking out so much cash. Finally, there should absolutely be the necessity of a decent working final product. It's ridiculous that consumers are not entitled to a refund if the game is never finished. This isn't faithfully supporting a Kickstarter project, which is itself an issue some commenters are cynical about, this is a trusted online consumer platform which features Early Access titles on their front page and includes them in their overall best sellers list. Once again let me say, this is paying out for the right to do something which used to be considered a professional job.
It's true that we're seeing a revolution in terms of how games are made these days, and don't get me wrong, I'm 100% all for it. Big money has had too much influence on the creative vision of games designers for far too long and it's truly magnificent to see things like cloud funding and digital distribution come along and put the power directly into the hands of consumers and creators. Steam's Early Access has undeniable advantages, it's allowing games to be made which otherwise may not have been. It's really exciting to be part of the gaming community at a time like this. Nonetheless, that doesn't mean that now is a moment when we, as part of that community, should rest too heavily on our laurels. These new systems which are springing up are setting a precedent which may not be so easy to go back on if we later change our minds. We have to do everything we can to ensure that these are the kinds of standards we think will be of best benefit to gamers and games going forward. Now more than ever, we need to stay critical and make our voices heard.
Written by Rich Nolan.