The Early Bird Gets the Funding

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 Second: Early Access gaming provides an alternative to and subverts outdated publishing models of game creation.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.

Comments

I fall under the "I never buy early access games" category, but I can't argue with any of your points. It's just a personal preference, I don't see anything wrong with giving people the option to buy an early access game. Caveat emptor, after all - and they're rarely more than 20$, so it's not like your breaking the bank.

My only annoyance with Early Access is that it's further segmenting the conversation/zeitgeist/hype/whatever surrounding a game. Now you have an audience that's split between people who will buy a game early access, people who will buy a game at launch, and people who wait for a steam sale - often years apart. I often hear about a game that sounds fun on the podcast, but note that it's early access and decide to put it on ye olde wishlist - wondering wistfully if, by the time has come out, will people have already moved on?

In one way, it doesn't really matter - if it's a single player game, it's a self-contained experience, and if it's a multiplayer game, well, it either has legs or it doesn't. But on the other hand, we're people reading and posting about games on an online forum. The conversation surrounding games DOES matter to us, and it sucks in a way that the audience that might want to participate in that conversation might be split between people who jumped in early access and then lost interest, and those that waited until launch and are already miles behind.

My only annoyance with Early Access is that it's further segmenting the conversation/zeitgeist/hype/whatever surrounding a game. Now you have an audience that's split between people who will buy a game early access, people who will buy a game at launch, and people who wait for a steam sale

Again, I'd posit that's not a bad thing. It's creating three separate and fully realized conversations. I've seen with several early access games that hit release, a vibrant release conversation as good as any other. It doesn't seem like the separate conversations are cancelling each other out, rather they are just allowing those conversations to take place in multiple contexts. That seems pretty cool to me.

Early Access is awesome. Period. Full stop.

ARMA 3, Assetto Corsa, Don't Starve, and Insurgency are all games I had in EA which are released now.

DayZ, 7 Days to Die, Project Zomboid, H1Z1 are all games in EA that I'm playing now.

H-Hour is coming to EA and I cannot wait.

Some of these games didn't necessarily need EA to exist (I'm pretty sure there would have been an ARMA 3 either way), but some of these did (and still do). The final product DayZ will be upon its final release would not have happened any other way. It would have just been a release version of the mod.

Similar to me jumping in to back several games (about 10) on Kickstarter in 2012 and 2013 (most of which I was completely satisfied with), then making the decision to completely stop backing KS games, after buying into a handful of Early Access games in early 2014, I also came to the decision to stop buying into Early Access as well.* And like Dysplastic, that's just a personal preference. Overall, I appreciate and agree with the positive points you made in this article, but I'll leave it up to others to buy Early Access games (read: beta test), and if the game does reach a true, 1.0 product, that's when I'll make the decision to either buy it or skip it, assuming I was ever interested in the game at all.

This was exactly the case with Hand of Fate, which just officially "released" (1.0) last week. I first saw the game on Twitch a few months ago while it was in EA, and it seemed like an interesting game. When I realized that it had reached version 1.0, I read a couple reviews. They were positive, so I bought the game and have really enjoyed the 5+ hours (and counting) that I've played it so far.

* I recently "broke" that decision by buying into Besieged, because it's one of those rare types of games that is ideal for early access, in my opinion. And it's only $7!

My issue has always been that you never know which Early Access situation you're going to be participating in. Is it going to be two years of development after the initial purchase before official release (Prison Architect)? Is it going to sit in a half-baked state for months without much word from developers until all of a sudden there's the full release (Frozen Cortex)? Is it going to charge 3x retail to participate in EA (Planetary Annihilation)? Will I even get a finished product (pick some Kickstarter project)?

There's no good way to know. You can make a guess if you do your homework on the developers involved, but that can be time consuming and difficult if it's a new studio. The homework is a lot easier when the game has been released, you know the price, and you know your wait time.

Dysplastic wrote:

My only annoyance with Early Access is that it's further segmenting the conversation/zeitgeist/hype/whatever surrounding a game. Now you have an audience that's split between people who will buy a game early access, people who will buy a game at launch, and people who wait for a steam sale - often years apart. I often hear about a game that sounds fun on the podcast, but note that it's early access and decide to put it on ye olde wishlist - wondering wistfully if, by the time has come out, will people have already moved on?

In one way, it doesn't really matter - if it's a single player game, it's a self-contained experience, and if it's a multiplayer game, well, it either has legs or it doesn't. But on the other hand, we're people reading and posting about games on an online forum. The conversation surrounding games DOES matter to us, and it sucks in a way that the audience that might want to participate in that conversation might be split between people who jumped in early access and then lost interest, and those that waited until launch and are already miles behind.

The closer I've been into the zeitgeist on gaming, the more it started to feel like a swarm of locusts arriving, devouring, and quickly moving on, except leaving plenty behind at the same time in a way that made it feel even more wasteful. So I guess what I'm saying is that if the model of the conversation and hype cycle gets broken up, then that's a great advance for gaming in itself.

I think completely the opposite way, especially for multiplayer games.

Consider the recent Blizzard betas. I frequently hear about you guys playing these games on the conference call. Will any of you be playing these games at release? Probably not: you'll be bored with them by then. This has happened with more games than I can count.

- For example, I joined SW:tOR and Wildstar a couple months after release. (Didn't want to buy a dud with limited funds.) I found that not only were the guilds starting to collapse from lack of interest, they had already started that as early as a few WEEKS after the games had left beta. Guilds collapsed on me JUST as I reached the level cap.

- Dark Souls is a nightmare. I happily bought DS II on release day, and played it when people were still exploring and being cooperative. But playing Dark Souls or Demon Souls months after the release date meant endless griefing and no help with bosses from anyone I could find online.

Buy at release? Forget it: you are so far being the learning or levelling curve you're on your own. "Newb!"

Buy, god forbid, in a Steam sale? Good luck finding ANYONE to play.

Early access can do nothing but exaggerate this.

I love Early Access, for all the reasons Mr. Sands enumerated above. Mainly, I love more choice in how I purchase and consume games. Also, they are usually cheap enough that the risk is low. The ones that are asking a premium price (like Planetary Annihilation), I wouldn't buy at the price they were asking for anyway. But I have no problem dropping $20 on something that looks promising.

My personal line is that I don't buy early content-heavy games. Those I wait until they are done. Re-playing content is not something I am interested in. I broke that one time, with Wastelands 2, and I regret it a little.

But a game where you make your own story? An nice strategy game or open world sandbox? If I am interested, I will buy those every time, so long as the price is right. For every Spacebase DF-9 (a game I like but wish was actually finished), there is a Darkest Dungeon, a Rimworld, and an At the Gates.

I can see folks not liking EA multi-player focused games. That's probably another line I won't cross either. But as for the rest, I say let's get more EA games, not less.

I've liked Early Access since before it had a pithy name. That sounds hipster, but when Mount & Blade was on sale as a playable alpha I thought it was one of the most innovative ideas. Then Minecraft came out, did the same thing and blew up.

I prefer it as a funding method to Kickstarter. While some KS campaigns start out with something usable I need to see that the people I'm giving my money to have some practical idea of what they are doing. So far I've paid money for M&B, Minecraft and Gnomoria, while I've never contributed to a Kickstarter.

One thing I don't understand is people paying a premium for early access. Testers should be paid, if not in actual money in the pocket, then with less money out of your pocket. I bought most of these EA games right before price increases as they matured.

I feel that it does help if the wary potential buyer of an Early Access product is a little bit discerning when making their purchases.

If a game is promising the world (almost literally in the case of the seemingly endless survival/crafting/explore world sims out there) then it's going to be very difficult for that to ever be finished. But if you look for Early Access games that have a clearly defined scope, and concentrate on a modest number of game mechanics or ideas then it's much more likely to one day be a complete and good experience.

Something like Gunpoint for example.

This isn't obviously a hard and fast rule, and some people like the wider scope and unfinished nature of some of these games. But like any project, I think that a clear vision and well defined scope will help a lot.

Rickyzinger wrote:

Something like Gunpoint for example.

Gunpoint was never an Early Access game.

I find myself in complete agreement with the game king.

There are upsides and downsides to everything. Why not choose to look at the upsides?

I've only bought two games on early access: Kerbal Space program and Minecraft (bought it early alpha before early access was even a thing). The key question for the purchases was "is this game good enough in its current state to justify the cost for the fun it will give me?" In both of those cases it was a heck yes!

I do understand Nathaniel point for multiplayer gamers swarming to each new release leaving husk of shells behind. It is quite common on the MMO scene.

Like everything else, and as we learned with Kickstarter, we should be selective on which games we should enter into early access. Its all about which will give you the best value for your gaming dollars and give you the best gaming experience.

I agree with your points. I definitely think early access is a better method than kickstarter. Even "gameplay" videos on kickstarter pages are often like a well polished conference demo. Get outside the rails of what they show and you often find the games logic doesn't even work as they are claiming. I have two concerns with early access which is why I tend to fall into the never buy early access camp.
A number of games are released in an alpha or early beta state and yet the early access price point is maybe ten dollars cheaper than the full retail price at release. This isn't so much of a problem with early access as a model as it probably just reflects the nature of a market that has yet to stabilize. How much should we really charge the consumer for what we are offering? Some companies seem to not have a good idea and seem to be building in a price point that is more an investment donation than a fair price for their product.
More critically for me is that a lot of companies seem to have no clear plan on how to end early access. The early access market is filled with games that never hit 1.0 or reach the final state years later than they would if they had to ship a game to start recouping development costs.
I think early access is a net positive for gamers and developers but right now they need to figure out what it should mean.

Early Access is A Bad Thing.

Thing is, it's only A Bad Thing for me. I burn-out on the half-working version of the game so that by the time it hits release, I have no interest in playing it. Totally my issue, but that's why I tend not to go in for them unless i have it on good authority that it's at worst a very late beta.

I'm probably in rare form: I don't buy early-access games unless some very strong reason exists, yet I have no qualms about donating some Kickstarter money for video games that are still in the conceptual stage. If those Kickstarted games provide early access, I still wait.

Sean's three points are absolutely correct; Kerbal Space Program will be immaculately awesome when I buy it. So I thank all you paying quality-assurance testers on behalf of myself and the rest of the retail free riders. And I know I'm not the only one (this is one of his rare exceptions).

Keithustus wrote:

I'm probably in rare form: I don't buy early-access games unless some very strong reason exists, yet I have no qualms about donating some Kickstarter money for video games that are still in the conceptual stage. If those Kickstarted games provide early access, I still wait.

Sean's three points are absolutely correct; Kerbal Space Program will be immaculately awesome when I buy it. So I thank all you paying quality-assurance testers on behalf of myself and the rest of the retail free riders. And I know I'm not the only one (this is one of his rare exceptions).

Funny, KSP is one of the very few early access games I've bought into. I put a HUGE number of hours into KSP, and really enjoyed playing it, but put it aside right before the ARM package was released. So, when KSP 1.0 is finally released I will have a bunch of new things to experience.

Also, I have never backed a KickStarter, so thank you for funding some games for me to buy later.

I'm very late to reading this, but this was a good read.

One thing though:

Frankly, I have far more concerns about the Kickstarter model of crowd-funding game development than I do Early Access.

Considering that I've seen plenty of Kickstarter projects make use of Early Access once they reach the alpha or beta stages of development, I don't think they're competing "models" as you seem to imply here. In my mind they're more like project lifecycle phases with Kickstarter starting at the concept or pre-production phase and Early Access happening once you have something playable you can start selling to people. These are not mutually exclusive funding methods.