The term Early Access has become commonplace in the PC gaming market pretty much since Steam opened its doors to the pre-release launch model back in 2013. Before this time “early access” titles were few and far between, marketed mostly as “paid access” to early alpha’s or betas of games that had managed to garner a large community following during these early stages of development.
However, since then Early Access has become a booming marketplace, but is this wider adoption of the Early Access launch model doing more harm than good to the games that enter?
My earliest recollection of an “early access” game was Minecraft, a game which had a huge following, even from the very early alpha days. It wasn’t on Steam and the term Early Access didn’t really exist. However, Mojang allowed players to jump right into the game by paying to access the alpha of the game for a much cheaper price ahead of its final launch. Of course that game went on to earn millions and eventually be sold to Microsoft for $2.5 billion, but is it just a rare example of how an early access game can work?
When the Early Access launch model was adopted on Steam becoming a category in its own right, it opened the doors to many other developers who frantically waved their hands offering instant access to their games that were ultimately still in development. The idea was that this model not only helped fund development, but also those who opted into the Early Access release could help shape the game with feedback and suggestions as well as bug reports and other technical support for the developer.
Initially this seemed to work. Early Access offered a handful of success stories such as Don’t Starve, Prison Architect (though its Early Access was somewhat similar to Minecraft’s), and Kerbal Space Program. However, the Early Access directory quickly became full of games which, after the initial “launch” became dead and abandoned. This became a huge problem, and still is today.
Now Early Access is being seen as more of a business model than a way for independent developers to seek help with their games while also letting the community be involved at the same time. Companies like Atari, Codemasters, and Daybreak Game Studio (formerly Sony Online Entertainment) have taken to Early Access to market their games, and in some aspects its worked, DIRT Rally for example was one of the best examples of how Early Access can indeed be a great direction to go and was a huge turning point for Codemasters, especially when it comes to community feedback. As for RollerCoaster Tycoon World and H1Z1 things haven’t been so positive, especially because of how flimsy this business model can be.
We’ve also got the games which seem to be in a perpetual state of Early Access, games like DayZ (which entered the Early Access stage way back in 2013,) while still in development have yet to progress further than the “alpha” stage. Early Access, at least in my opinion, has lost its original purpose. There seems to be less focus on letting the community in on something early, and more on raking in the cash with the initial “launch hype” while actual development plods along slowly.
Now more often than not we’re seeing games launch on Early Access, benefit from a bit of launch hype, then when the hype dies it falls slowly into the abyss of other forgotten Early Access titles. One example is The Culling, a game I absolutely love. Since its Early Access launch in March last year, the game seems to have been forgotten about in terms of active players, compared to the those playing at launch. According to SteamDB (which I know isn’t hugely accurate) the game saw a peak of 12,995 players 11 months ago (around the game’s launch) which is absolutely huge compared to the game’s 24 hour peak of 1,251 (at time of writing). A pretty noticeable difference.
I’m using The Culling as an example here, it’s worth noting that I’m not criticising the game, its community, or the developers. In fact, I’d probably place the game in one of the better games in Early Access. And don’t get me wrong, there’s still a pretty active community around the game, and the developers have done a fantastic job supporting the game, fixing bugs, and even taking fan feedback into consideration, but ultimately outside of its Early Access release window, there just doesn’t seem to be that many players.
Games like DayZ have suffered the same fate, with a peak of 45,528 players around launch, and a 10,314 peak in the last 24 hours, though the difference here is that players have forged their own game within DayZ, somewhat similar to that of The Culling. Another Early Access title, this time backed by Warner Bros. is LEGO Worlds, a sort of open-world Minecraft-style building game. Two years ago, when the game launched into Early Access, it saw a peak of 4,911 players, the game’s 24 hour peak? 455.
I get it, people are going to jump in early to see what all the fuss is about, but then gaming fatigue sets in, or the next best thing comes along and it becomes lost in a library of games never to be played again. Games like The Culling, in my opinion, would have been much better off being held back, perhaps launching a series of free closed betas rather than sitting in Early Access. Though I can understand the developer’s reasoning for not heading down this route.
While in some circumstances Early Access can be incredibly beneficial, it should definitely be used sparingly. I for one often get excited at the idea of a game, but then become disappointed when I discover that it’d heading into Early Access rather than simply launching. I understand game development isn’t easy and certainly isn’t cheap, but there are definitely better ways to fund video games as well as receive feedback on the concept or idea, than being cast out in sea of dead or dying game ideas.
While I’ve mostly gone in on the developer side of the use of Early Access it’s also worth noting that the gaming community can also be a factor in whether a game succeeds or fails and again it has to do with the way Early Access games are perceived.
Early Access isn’t just a way to play a game early, it’s a way for players to become a part of the game’s future, to play and offer feedback on what they like, or don’t like. I’ll be honest, I’m exactly the person I’m talking about. I’ve purchased or grabbed a code for an Early Access game so I could play it immediately, then just left it by the wayside. One notable example was We Happy Few. I couldn’t wait for that game, and knowing it was entering Early Access I was exited and jumped right in. However, due to the early nature of the game I played a few hours, then moved onto something else.
Early Access, the way it is at the moment, is definitely doing games more harm than good, especially for much smaller developers. However I don’t see this changing any time soon, nor do I see any possible solutions to make this platform or business model more beneficial to both players and developers.