Two years ago Steam introduced its Early Access platform to both developers and players. The system allows developers to put their game out on Steam in an unfinished state. The idea is that the system allows players access to games they are looking forward to sooner and from that the developers get more revenue earlier on as well as feedback to help them develop their games. I see a lot of people decrying the Early Access system and calling for others not to purchase any games that utilize it. Personally I feel that point of view makes the issue much more black-and-white than it is. Every game under the Early Access umbrella is different, as is every developer and their intentions and aims. I happily buy games that are still in Early Access within reason.
The most obvious positive as a developer to putting your game on Steam Early Access is the early access you’ll get to revenue. Receiving money earlier on can mean a developer gets to work on their game longer because they are being compensated for their time. It can also mean a developer can add more features or squash more bugs earlier in development. Another plus is that you can receive feedback quickly and from more people. With more people looking at your game, they’ll find more bugs for you to fix and you’ll get multiple perspectives for feedback.
On the player side of the equation, you get to start playing games you are looking forward to sooner. Rather than waiting around for a release date and watching news sites for a steady drip of information, you can get right into the game. Another aspect of this is that players can help the game develop by providing feedback and reporting bugs. Play testing is an important part of game development and it makes sense to include people passionate about the game.
While these positive aspects of utilizing the Steam Early Access system are profound for both developers and players, it is important to also weigh them against some of the less obvious downsides.
Misunderstanding of what it means to be on the Early Access system is the biggest disadvantage to the system. Despite being tagged as an Early Access title, some players won’t understand what that means for a given game or won’t bother to research it. This leads to frustrated players with bad first impressions because they expected a feature-complete game and instead got an alpha or beta version. This can also lead to bad reviews crafted too early in the game’s development cycle. Many game reviewers and Let’s Players test out and review games as soon as they are available – and this includes during Early Access. If a game is very early on in its development cycle this can lead to reviews that are inconsistent or inaccurate once the game is fully fleshed out and polished. Additionally, misunderstanding of what Early Access means can lead to player burnout. Players who excitedly buy the game early on may become disillusioned or burned out with the game if they experience too many character, world or save file wipes throughout the game’s updates.
Some games get put on Steam Early Access way too soon in their development cycle and worse – some may never reach a feature-complete stage. 7 Days to Die was put on Steam Early Access with some of its core gameplay mechanics missing, meaning the game was nearly unplayable. Jim Sterling in his Jimquisition video series makes a case about how oftentimes the price of Early Access games does not match up with the state many games are in when they hit Steam Early Access. Occasionally developers get burned out on their own games or don’t receive enough funding to finish their projects. This can leave players who have already bought the game very angry for not receiving a product they felt they were promised, such as what has happened with Towns whose main developer left the project without giving anyone else the code.
I’m Still Buying
There are strong arguments to be made for each side. Some games are definitely not worth $25 while in Alpha stages. But those same games might be worth $25 in about 6 months. Ultimately, the key to buying Early Access titles is self-education and research. When I see a game on Steam and go to buy it and see that it’s Early Access, I always make sure to check a few things before I add it to my cart. I check the current Steam reviews first since they’re close at hand. If there are a lot of negative reviews, that’s not a good sign. Next I do a quick Google search with the game name and “impressions” or “review” to see how others have received the game in its current stage. If it still doesn’t seem too bad, I’ll check any YouTube videos for Let’s Plays or Impressions type videos so I can see the game in use. At this point if I’m still interested, I’ll buy it. That simple.
If I’m still wanting it but not that enthused about playing it in it’s current state? Well, that’s what the wishlist is for. Early Access isn’t a big evil system like some make it out to be. As long as you’re smart about which games you purchase (which honestly you should do this much cursory research of any game you buy, whether it’s Early Access of not), then it shouldn’t be an issue. So go forth and support games in development! As long as your research doesn’t send up any red flags of course.