I hear people say fairly often, “I never buy Early Access games, I prefer to spend my money on finished products.” Disregarding for the moment that I’ve played very few games I’d consider truly “finished products” at launch lately, I actually don’t really have much objection to this argument. It makes sense to me, and I think it’s a good line of demarcation to draw in the sand if you’re looking to be careful and thoughtful about your gaming purchases.
But what I don’t understand as much are the corners of open hostility to Early Access. From my point of view, I’d argue that not only is Early Access not a net negative for the gaming industry, for developers on otherwise challenging budgets and for a burgeoning business of homebrew game-development, but that, rather, it is a net positive.
I think Early Access games may be the best thing to happen in the industry in years, and I would argue that predicated on three key ideas. First: early access gaming leads to the creation of games that might not otherwise have existed. Second: Early Access gaming provides an alternative to and subverts outdated publishing models of game creation. And, most importantly, third: Early Access leads to better games at release.
I suspect that the animosity to the Early Access model rests to some degree in the sins of the past. It’s not hard to suspect that this kind of system smacks of gouging unsuspecting gamers to pay full price (or in some cases more than full price) for a substandard product. And yes, I think there are examples that bear that argument out.
If anything, these days it would seem more prudent to delay purchases not just to release, but after reviews are out, after user impressions are available, and perhaps even after a sale or two has come and gone. Delaying a game purchase is rarely a wrong move, and almost always leads to a better buying decision, so it could seem that Early Access game is in direct opposition to this mentality.
But it’s not.
The reason for that is that all of those things exist for Early Access purchases, and in fact they are often more plentiful and accessible in the Early Access market. I would be strongly suspicious of any Early Access game that tried to limit users providing impressions and information, but frankly I don’t see that very often. If anything, more often than not these games are looking for any way to drum up enthusiasm and visibility into what they’re working on.
In most cases it’d be pretty hard to jump into a game in an early state without having a pretty decent amount of information on the current state of that game, so developers can't really try and stifle users' discussion and opinions the way publishers might try to keep criticisms quiet with review embargoes or beta-access NDAs.
Even then, that open discussion doesn’t really cross a threshold of being overall a positive influence on the business of games. After all, providing potential customers clear information about what they’ll be buying and what state the game's currently in shouldn’t be uncommon.
Where things really begin to separate into something meaningful is that there’s a good reason this method for building, selling and supporting games exists, and it’s quite simply to allow for the creation of games that might either not have existed otherwise, or might have had to compromise themselves to find purchase in a more traditional model. Early Access gaming, I’d argue, has given us games that would not have existed ten years ago, or would have been substantially diminished from what they are in the current system.
That’s not to say they’re all winners, but I’m of the mind that the broader the diversity and options of games in play, the more healthy the industry is. We’ve spent a long time living under a model of game development that had a lot of barriers toward being able to fund the exceptional amount of work it takes to make a game, and while it’s produced some amazing experiences, I wonder what great ideas – what brilliant game creators – were left out in the cold because they couldn’t convince the right person at the right time.
These two ideas, more games being created and an option against the classical models of game funding, go hand-in-hand. Frankly, I have far more concerns about the Kickstarter model of crowd-funding game development than I do Early Access. I’m glad there are increasing alternatives to trying to get someone like Ubisoft or Activision to give you a bunch of money to make your game, but what I particularly like about this model is that there is an immediate translation of dollars into some resulting product. Yes, when you buy in you are not getting the full game in its final state, but there is a product and value you can start using right away.
Even better, you may be able to influence that product, which brings me to my third point. Early Access has the potential to create better games, if for no other reason than it gives the people making the game more information about how people actually use their game – and devs are getting that data at the same time that they're getting the money to do something about it. Yes, I understand the argument against paying to beta test, but is this really so bad? For those who choose to buy in, getting to influence the path of a game they are clearly interested in is a potential win, and for those who choose to wait, the release has an opportunity to be more polished by user actions and feedback.
I’m not saying it’s a flawless system, or one that isn’t open to certain kinds of abuses, but the same is absolutely true of the existing funding models. What I do argue is that Early Access addresses those problems in a more transparent way and that Early Access, in fact, equips consumers to make more educated decisions at every step in the process. For that reason alone, I think Early Access may be among the most important strides forward for the industry that I’ve seen for years.