For crowdfunding programs like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo, developers present their ideas to potential customers and hope that those masses will fund the creation of a future game. But what if you already have a partially-working game and you just need that extra push to keep development going? Enter Steam's Early Access program, which allows developers to offer unfinished games at a price. For devs, it's a chance to keep working on something they love; for fans, it's a chance to contribute money and feedback to ideas they enjoy.
At the very least, it's rather impressive seeing how far the various games in Steam Early Access have come. Some have fallen by the wayside, but those that have continued on have been changed, tweaked, and expanded beyond their initial plans. Here are a few of the best games on Steam Early Access.
Starbound looks like the direct successor to Terraria, which itself was an offshoot of the popular sandbox game Minecraft. While there's still a lot of killing unknown creatures and building elaborate structures, Starbound is more focused on RPG-like progression. You craft a certain equipment to defeat a boss, allowing you to move onto the next harder sector. This focus may turn off sandbox fans, but it also makes Starbound feel more like a solid game than its predecessors. And there's not just the various worlds you can explore: 6 races and a ton of weapons and outfits means you can be whatever you want before some random alien monster inevitably kills you.
Wasteland 2 ($59.99)
Wasteland 2 is one of the most expensive games on this list. This is not the kind of game that you explore on the whim; if you're buying it, you probably know what you're getting into. Fans of classic isometric RPGs like the original Wasteland and Fallout Kickstarted this game into existence and Early Access lets you jump in on that creation. Wasteland 2 is all about player choice: how you want to look, what skills you want to have, and how you approach every situation. Do you fight or talk your way out? Do you save this townsperson, or let them die? And the skills dig down to a level that most RPGs won't touch. If you have the repair skill, you can repair pretty much anything, even small useless items you'll find in the world. InXile Entertainment promised one of the most robust RPG experiences they could build and so far, they've largely succeeded.
If that's your thing, Wasteland 2 might be pricey, but it might also be what you're looking for.
Prison Architect ($29.99)
Prison Architect is like a twisted version of the Tycoon series. It places you at the head of a prison, asking you to keep the inmates and guards in order. The interesting thing about Prison Architect is what you get out of the game is what you put into it. If you want, you can ignore the ethical ramifications of your actions, building a coldly efficient super-max prison whose budget is always in the black. Alternatively, you can try to build a prison that actually rehabilitates its inmates. Prison Architect gives you an overview of the situations real prison wardens and prisoners face every day. If you empathize with that, it operates almost like the critically-acclaimed Papers, Please, giving you a glimpse into a world that most of us don't think about.
Day Z ($29.99)
An unknown infection has wiped out society as we know it and you're one of the few survivors. Find and craft clothes, weapons, and structures to protect you from the undead horde, the cold, and even other players. Go it alone or form groups of roving survivors. Day Z is all about emergent gameplay and getting to the core of who you really are. Will you be helpful and benevolent, or will you kill anyone who stands in the way of your survival? Day Z kicked off an entire host of sandbox survival games, including Rust and 7 Days to Die, but there's only one original.
Kerbal Space Program ($26.99)
Kerbal Space Program is another type of sandbox, sitting in stark contrast to the oppressive gloom of Day Z. In KSP, you're put in charge of a your own space program. Using a wide array of parts, you'll put together your very own spaceship and launch it into the great beyond. Of course, Kerbal Space Program has a full physics engine and every part you use will affect the flight of your spaceship in some way. As you progress, your crew will eventually explore the galaxy, finding new moons and planets.
The magic of Kerbal Space Program is how close it sticks to the problems engineers face in real space flights. It's surprisingly educational, teaching you about boosters, capsule separation, orbits, planetfall, and more. Succeeding in KSP will give you a newfound level of respect for the amount of work organizations like NASA put in to get humanity into space.
If you've heard of Dwarf Fortress, wanted to try it, but was too afraid of that game's complexity and depth, Gnomoria is the game for you. Gnomoria starts with the same sandbox gameplay you can find in Dwarf Fortress, adds better graphics, and streamlines the experience so anyone can play. Take your team of gnomes, build a town in the harsh wilderness, and survive. Fight off starvation, goblins, your own poor planning, and the capricious whims of the random number generator. Unlike many of the games on this list, Gnomoria is also relatively cheap, so it's perfect if you just want to try something new.
Space Engineers ($19.99)
Yeah, there's a lot of sandbox gameplay action going on in this article. Like Kerbal Space Program, Space Engineers is primarily concerned with the building something amazing in the darkness of space. You'll weld and construct space stations and spaceships, mine asteroids for materials, and try not to die in hard vacuum. Space Engineers is for the hardcore, because it will teach you nothing, prizing exploration, research, and tinkering about all else. You'll have to find or craft every component of every ship and station you build. It can be monotonous, but it can also be very rewarding when you're floating in space looking at your completed project. Only the best engineers need apply.
And we'll end on something completely different. Instead of sandbox or RPG gameplay, BroForce offers up only one interaction with the world: SHOOT! You'll step into the shoes of the BroForce, inspired by some of the biggest movie action stars of the past 40 years. Rambro, Brommando, Mr. Anderbro, Ellen Ripbro, Brobocop drop into the wilds of Vietnam for FREEDOM. Each bro has their own weapon and special attack, plus you'll never know which bro you'll control next! Shoot everything, explode everything, destroy everything. When you're tired of blowing up the enemies of freedom in the developer-created levels, you can jump into level editor and create your own vistas of carnage. Unlike the rest of the games on this list, BroForce is perfect for dropping a few minutes of PURE PULSE-POUNDING AMERICAN ACTION into your otherwise boring day.