Right now the words 'Early' and 'Access' are starting to become a little unsavoury, and Valve wants to nip this in the bud. To that end they've updated their paperwork for Early Access, helping to define what it is.
Rules are the first thing developers must now adhere to, like not being able to skirt around the issue their game is in Early Access, and therefore incomplete. Valve also has guidelines to help devs and gamers.
This has been boiling to a point for a while now withSpacebase DF-9 a recent offender of being essentially abandoned and rushed to a 1.0 release despite rather glaring omissions in the game's features. The Brutal Legend and Broken Age developer claimed it had run out of money and couldn't continue. Owners of the game were less than pleased.
"Steam Early Access is a way to invite customers to get involved with your game as you develop, so that you can get the feedback you need to make better informed product decisions and to ensure the best outcome for your customers and fans," writes Valve. "When you launch a game in Steam Early Access, there is an expectation by customers that you will continue development to a point where you have what you consider a 'finished' game."
"We know that nobody can predict the future, and circumstances frequently change, which may result in a game failing to reach a 'finished' state, or may fail to meet customer expectations in some other way. We work hard to make sure this risk is communicated clearly to customers, but we also ask that developers follow a set of rules that are intended to help inform customers and set proper expectations when purchasing your game."
One such new rule for Early Access is that no sale of keys to games outside of Steam are permitted unless they clearly state how short they are as a complete experience. Valve also asks that devs no longer make so specific announcements as to when features or even a feature-complete release is due.
"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."
Valve is also cracking down on those who would try to inflate the price of an Early Access title on Steam, and also want it available at the same time ideally as other platforms or stores. The guidelines are the most interesting part, and here they are:
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.
Can these new rules and guidelines from Valve help save the Early Access program on Steam? There's a lot of wounds to heal no thanks to some shifty practices over the years.