With the advent of the internet, PC video game production and distribution has changed greatly over the years. The old method of
- Design the game
- Create the game
- Get it on some form of physical media
- Have it sold at stores
has fallen on hard times. Digital distribution has taken over. The only reason I buy a physical game anymore is because I want whatever else comes with it. Take, for example, Doom. I bought it because I wanted the special edition with the statue, not for the disc. My PC doesn’t even have an optical drive anymore.
So why is the prevalence of digital distribution relevant here? Because it has enabled Early Access to exist. Only through digital distribution can something that requires constant updating be viable. Though it would be amusing to buy a game and then get sent a new disc every time a new build became available.
For those that are unaware, Early Access is where you can purchase a game that is still going through it’s development phases, whether that is pre-Alpha, Alpha or Beta. Sometimes the cost to buy the game in Early Access is less than that of the full release. Then, as the game continues to be created, the developers release updates to fixing bugs or adding new content. The theory behind this, as far as I can gather, is something akin to crowdfunding, where you pay for something before it exists in a complete state. A lot of crowdfunded video games offer early access in some form.
But is Early Access a good thing, or a bad thing? This is what I am here to discuss.
Let’s first look at it from the developer’s side.
There are two main reasons to release a game to Early Access and they are both about money. The first is if people buy the game in Early Access, that is money going to the developers so they can continue to create the game. Most, if not all, games I’ve seen in Early Access are from small companies, so they don’t have the massive budgets like triple A developers. Sometimes these companies need additional funding during the creation process. It is either Early Access or Kickstarter (or some other crowdfunding site, like Indiegogo) that they employ to gain those funds.
The second reason is free testing. Large companies sometimes employ massive amounts of people to test, re-test, and re-re-test their games to find all the bugs and problems. They never find them all, so many games hit the shelves full of bugs and require patching. The bugs are found when the general public play the game, because of the sheer number of people playing, the huge range of systems the game is played on and the crazy things people come up with, intentionally or not. So, instead of paying some people who miss things anyway, Early Access is essentially charging people to be testers. This saves the developers money and time and improves the game along they way.
On the reverse side of that, Early Access could have a negative effect on developers too. Releasing a game to Early Access effectively places a time restriction on it, because no one is going to want to wait many years for a game to slowly be released. This sort-of imposed time limit could force developers to sacrifice content or quality. There are games that have had long Early Access periods, such as Grim Dawn, but have come out of it still very successful.
Obviously some people dislike it.
So what about the consumers? What is good or bad for them when it comes to Early Access?
The most obvious benefit for consumers who purchase a game in Early Access is that they get to play it straight away, though how much one gets to play a game in Early Access varies. I Kickstarted a game a couple of years ago that I still can’t really play, but I’ve played around in it a bit, and I can see where it is heading. You get to watch the development of the game through the stages, which can be quite interesting to some. Some developers work to a schedule, releasing an update every month, or by some other time unit. Some even have countdowns to these releases, to let the public know exactly when those updates are coming.
Another benefit is that, usually, the price for an Early Access game is cheaper than that of the full release. This is to entice people to buy in, for the aforementioned reason, so the developers get more money to make the game. I bought Minecraft when it was still in a very early stage, and paid half, or less, of the current price (I can’t remember what I paid then, nor do I know what it is worth now).
There is one massive problem with Early Access for consumers, and that is dishonest or just useless developers. There is always a danger in giving money to someone for an item that doesn’t exist yet, or doesn’t exist in the form of which it is meant to become. Sometimes, the developers are overwhelmed, get lazy or just plain quit, and when that happens, the games suffer, either remaining uncompleted or not matching the promises made. I’ve been involved in this sort of thing once. The game was called The War Z, an open world zombie survival game. It seemed alright at first, things moved along. But as time passed, fewer and fewer updates occurred, promises remained unfulfilled and information started coming up that painted the developers in a very bad light. A whole bunch of controversy arose, making many claims of the project lead and how unprofessional he was. Instead of fixing the problems, The War Z was dropped and out came Infestation: Survivor Stories, which was essentially just a rebranding of the previous game. I didn’t pay much for it at the time, and the amount I did play it, I feel I got my monies worth, so I don’t feel too cheated, but I know many more people had a lot of issues that never got resolved.
So is Early Access good or bad?
Overall, I believe it is a good thing. The amount of genuine developers who actually need the money and want to produce something amazing (I believe) outnumbers the bastards who just want to nick everyone’s money. Those genuine developers need the support of the public if we want to see new game content continuing to be made. A little smarts on the side of the consumer could probably weed out a bunch of the shysters, one just needs do the research. Paying for something that exists already, like those Early Access games that are on Steam, is a better idea than backing something on Kickstarter. At least with the games on Steam, you already have something, and those games also seem to have fairly regular updates (or at least from what I’ve seen with the Early Access games I have acquired). If one does support games outside of Steam, then perhaps spending only small amounts of money, so if something does go sour, not much is lost.
If I get a game in Early Access, I will play it more than if I had bought that same game after release. When I buy a game, I’ll play it for as long as I find it fun, and then aside it goes and I move onto the next thing, because I’ve done everything I wanted to do and it is all old hat to me from that point. When I get that Early Access game, I’ll do the same at first, get bored and leave it alone. But a few months later, when things have changed and new content has been added, I’ll go back and play it again. This process may repeat several times. So I might get 20 hours out of Game X after it’s full release, but if I get Game X when it is in Early Access, I might get 50 – 60 hours out of it, depending on the updates and how long it spends in Early Access. I’ve recently started replaying The Forest, because there is new content and a whole bunch of the issues I had experienced earlier have been fixed.
Everything has it’s pros and cons, and Early Access is no different. To me, the pros outweigh the cons, but that’s just my opinion and there are others who would most certainly feel differently. I believe in supporting games developers, because otherwise we wouldn’t have nearly as many awesome games to play, and if I can show my support by buying a game I would have bought anyway, but at either a cheaper price or with extra goodies, then I am all for that. I have backed six games on Kickstarter (though one was unsuccessful), I have no idea the amount that I’ve gotten on Steam, but I know I have several in Early Access now (The Forest, Pulsar, Salt) and some that have left Early Access (Grim Dawn, Carmageddon: Reincarnation), and I have bought a few outside of Steam (Viscera Cleanup Detail, The War Z, Gnomoria). Sometimes it is the price that attracts me, or the bundled extras (with Path of Exile, I got a Kiwi cosmetic pet, which I thought was awesome, since I am a New Zealander), or just the game itself, because it looks so cool that I want to play it straight away. Some of my choices were because of multiplayer, like Pulsar. It’s not a game I would have gotten normally, and I never play it solo, but I have a great time playing it with my friends, even in spite of the massive bugs that exist within the game.
Any games in Early Access you want to recommend? Or perhaps you have a game in mind, but are unsure and want a second opinion? Let me know in the comments below.