Earlier this week I picked up a copy of Starbound, which should not be an unusual transaction in any way, except that the game isn’t actually done. Not by a long shot. Starbound — built directly from the DNA of games like Minecraft and Terraria — is, like many of its modern brethren, a game that is made available to buyers through Early Access, allowing players to have and play the game now, even though it is not technically finished.
It seems like a win-win situation. Instead of just pre-ordering and providing developers (or retailers, more specifically) money for the promise of a someday game, you get an immediate benefit. You even get the opportunity to watch how a game is built, refined and developed, and it’s all above board, because you go into the transaction knowing you’re getting something incomplete. The developer, on the other hand, gets the money they need to stay in business and keep developing, but they also get broad feedback that can improve the finished result.
And, of course, there’s no reason to buy an Early Access game if you’re not into that kind of thing. Just wait until the thing is released, and you’ll have months worth of direct gamer feedback to sift through to make the decision whether it’s the game for you or not.
Everyone should be happy, and yet there does seem to be this tinge of controversy to the practice. There are a lot of different ways to view the motivations behind releasing your game for Early Access, from the way it's priced, to quibbles over the semantics of an "alpha" versus a "beta," to concerns that this will be seen by publishers as a way to entice consumers to pay for beta opportunities that used to be both exclusive and free.
And, as is often the case in the gaming community, a lot of those perspectives view the industry trend with cynicism and distrust.
But before we get into all that, I want to take a moment to think about Early Access from an artistic point of view. Because the reality of my own experience is that, while I find myself incapable of resisting this kind of behind-the-scenes chance to play a game, in many cases the end result has actually been that, with limited features, crashes, bugs and under-developed ideas, playing the game early makes me enjoy the overall game less, even after it reaches a release state.
There is something undeniable about the first time you experience a game, something that can never be replicated in gameplay sessions down the line. It’s different than just knowing logically what’s going to happen. The act of first playing the game is unique, and I can’t help but feel like something about that experience is diminished by playing an unfinished version. There are certainly reasons, probably good reasons, why a game hasn’t been released, and to invest in that incomplete experience is, in my mind, to sacrifice meaningful experiences with the game in question.
Wasteland 2 is a recent example for me of a game I specifically decided not to play Early Access, because I genuinely believe the things that might make that game great will be diminished in its current state. It’s part of what makes release-day bugs and crashes so crushingly disappointing, this barrier that stands in the way between you and the experience you’ve paid for.
I can’t help but feel like paying for Early Access is just paying to have barriers in your game.
But, again, I have the choice to buy or not to buy, so why should it matter to me if the option is available to others? The answer to that is a selfish one, and not the sort of reason I would try to impart on the actions of a business or industry, but at the same time it is absolutely a thing I feel. Early Access availability robs me of something I genuinely love about gaming, and forces me into a choice where either outcome is one I don’t want to have to choose.
Not participating in Early Access steals my chance to be part of the conversation and to share in the community experience of discovery. It forces me into the position of having to decide whether I want to play an incomplete game that I won’t enjoy as much as the finished product, or if I want to miss out on the shared experience of those people playing a new game when it's first available — and that’s an important thing to me. It’s a substantive part of why I’ve chosen to invest hundreds and thousands of hours into writing and talking professionally about games. It’s why, despite my better judgment, I buy games at full price on release day. This is my community, my shared space, and not subscribing into Early Access segments me out.
I realize there are upsides to this model, too. It helps independent developers have the time to spend on their projects to make something special. It allows some game makers greater flexibility to stay independent and not have to rely on publishers that might push them down undesirable paths. It provides people a way to feel like they are part of the creation process. It gives gamers more choice. It allows game makers to reap the benefits of a pre-order system while delivering immediate value for the money.
I’m not even saying that it should stop. After all, I am able to make a choice and make one decision with a game like Starbound, where the downsides seem to me more manageable and less impactful, and a different choice with a game like Wasteland 2.
What I am saying is that there is an impact from this practice, even to those who choose to wait. And while I think there is some argument to be made that it can be a little sketchy to make a glorified beta tester pay full price (or in some cases even a premium amount) to provide the game-maker direct value, the real reason I bristle a bit is because of something far more personal. Getting the game at release, after it’s been ostensibly out for more than a year for people willing to put up with the warts, is a bit like discovering a favorite show on Netflix a year after it’s been cancelled.
When you get to that big season 4 reveal, and all you want to do is talk with your friends about it, you find that they’ve already talked it through to death. And besides, they can’t really talk to you about it anyway because of stuff that happens in season 6. Suddenly, it’s a much more solitary experience.