The Wargamer

26 May 2017

Editorial: Early Access Games a good thing or a bad idea?

The Editor Muses once more

Published on 6 APR 2014 12:19pm by Wargamer Staff
  1. business and industry, english

Sort of following on from last week’s muse about Steam - http://wargamer.com/article/3556/editorial-the-editor-muses-on-steam - this week we turn our attention to the phenomenon of Early Access Programme’s for games. Lots of them around these days, even big publishers like Matrix do them now, but are they a Good Thing ™ or not?

Early Access seems to me to have developed out of funding campaigns on crowd funding sites like Kickstarter in which the developer looking for support offered the chance of an early release copy of the game to potential investors as an incentive. Steam have then driven it on further by allowing developers to sell partially complete games in order for the developer to have a positive cash flow to fund their development time. Previously the only way to get hold of games pre-release (other than by illegal means or journalist preview) was to sign up to a beta testing programme and assist the developers. A major difference from Early Access is that these beta test programmes were free.

So what we now have with the Early Access programmes is a way for developers to monetise the beta test process. I assume that the idea is that Early Access appeals to the hard core gamer who will then aid the developer by giving feedback on bugs, playability and the like – but they will now have paid for the privilege.

But is it a good thing. Here are some pluses and minuses that spring to mind whilst I muse on the subject.

Early Access is clearly a useful marketing tool for the developers, a way of getting the game into the public eye as early as possible. However, it strikes me that this will then, inevitably, diminish the impact of the actual launch as players are already well aware of the game and, through Early Access reports, know pretty much everything about the game. Now these reports may well increase the excitement, however, as the Early Access product is by definition incomplete, and probably buggy, it is far more likely that the public discussion arising from early Access will in fact be negative in tone – it’s just human nature that we talk about things that annoy us more than we do about things that we enjoy. Therefore, I would suggest that there is a significant risk that what starts off as a positive marketing tool, ends up as a negative one. This will then draw off developer resources as they try and counter the negative publicity – unlike a traditional beta test Early Access players tend not to be bound by Non Disclosure Agreements which limit the potential of bad news getting out.

Cash flow – as mentioned above this is most certainly a big positive for the developer; they get hold of income much sooner and so the day to day expenses are more comfortably covered.

More beta testers – there is a potential that a developer will get more people testing their product if they release it through Early Access rather than looking for volunteers to sign up to a beta test, possibly with an associated NDA (which some see as a off putting for some reason). The downside to this is that as they have paid money for joining this “test programme” the Early Access players will actually feel a lot less inclined to test and report back. After all, having paid what do they owe the developer?

I would think that Early Access means that a developer (and publisher?) has less incentive to make the game as good as it can be. Having already trousered the money it is quite possible that the developer will then put in less effort that they otherwise would have done to fix the bugs and implement improvements. We could see Early Access just encouraging sub-standard games in the longer term.

 

So there are certainly positives from Early Access in my mind, however, I can’t help feeling that on balance, and looking to the longer term, that Early Access is probably not such a good thing after all.