Early Access games seem to divide opinion somewhat -- and it's easy to see both sides.
On the one hand, an Early Access program gives you the opportunity to play a game in an early state and, in many cases, help shape its development by providing feedback directly to the people working on it. If you've been waiting impatiently to play a new game from a favorite developer, Early Access can help to build excitement and give you an idea of what the finished product will be like -- you're essentially getting the opportunity to have a hands-on preview without having to be an employee of the games industry, which is pretty neat.
On the other hand, releasing a game into Early Access provides no guarantees that it will be finished at any time soon, and it can be frustrating to see a half-finished game seemingly just sitting there in your game library, waiting for its next update -- which the developers have assured you repeatedly is "very exciting." Early Access games are also often buggy and/or feature-incomplete, so just as it's possible for them to build excitement, a poor Early Access build can dampen spirits, too.
Valve's been having to make some big decisions with regard to Early Access games, since a significant proportion of the games that make it through Greenlight each month aren't finished. Up until now, Early Access games that have appeared on Steam as a result of a successful Greenlight campaign have been given the same degree of prominence on the store front page as finished games, with the only indication that the product on offer is incomplete being a small and easy to miss "Early Access" tag in the game list.
Like the very concept of Early Access itself, there are pros and cons to this approach. On the more positive side, being featured in Steam's New Releases list (the default tab that appears when someone first opens the Steam store) is generally a sure-fire way for a developer to attain some significant visibility for their game, and perhaps pick up some customers that they might not have acquired otherwise -- and with the growth of the "pay for early access" model, this can be an important means of helping fund further development. The more negative aspect comes from the consumer perspective; all these new, in-development games being made more visible is great, until, that is, the sheer number of them starts to dominate the New Releases list to such a degree that it can be difficult to spot even more well-established, complete titles -- a problem that was just starting to arise.
There have been numerous community discussion threads complaining to Valve about the prominence of Early Access titles on the Steam store front page in recent months, and it seems that Valve has finally taken action. Gamasutra reports that two titles recently released into the Early Access program -- Indie Stone's sandbox survival sim Project Zomboid and Kunos Simulazioni's driving sim Assetto Corsa -- appeared briefly in the New Releases list before disappearing again, even as other Early Access titles released prior to November 8 are still showing up in the list and there are, at the time of writing, five Early Access titles (including both Project Zomboid and Assetto Corsa) in the featured carousel at the top of the front page.
"We've waited so long to reach this new audience on Steam," tweeted Project Zomboid developer Marina Siu-Chong, "And now that audience won't be able to tell we're there."
The disappearance of the two games from the New Releases list appears to be the result of a policy change on Valve's part that came into effect on the same day that Project Zomboid and Assetto Corsa released on the platform. Chris Simpson, another developer working on Project Zomboid, later tweeted that the policy change appeared to be Valve encouraging developers to "soft launch" their games while they remain in early access -- though expressed some frustration that the change seemed to occur without any warning. Once the games are finished, presumably developers will have the opportunity to do a more high-profile launch of their games and help build their audience further; in the meantime, it seems as if Early Access developers are going to have to work a little harder on their public relations and promotion via social media to get their games noticed.
Valve is yet to comment publicly on the apparent policy change.
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