The State of Early Access: What it Means for Gaming, and How to do it Right

The State of Early Access: What it Means for Gaming, and How to do it Right

From the success stories to the fiascos, we go in-depth on one of gaming's most controversial business models.

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In the Early Access survey mentioned earlier, USgamer reader Damman shared similar sentiments while noting that there's a definite 'Buyer Beware' quality to the program, "I think Early Access will balance out like Kickstarter has. The market saw some early successes and was quickly flooded with everyone's half-a-game. I think some gems will come out of it that wouldn't be made otherwise, and certainly some people will pay money for dead in the water projects. As a guy who has seen his fair share of crappy movies and bought plenty of stinker games, it's all pretty normal."

Regardless of one's feelings toward Early Access, community participation in game development feels more and more inevitable, especially when it comes to developing multiplayer games. In the course of writing this article, I bore witness to such community feedback firsthand as a studio brought in a handful of their top players to play and offer suggestions for their game. While they didn't pay for the privilege — their status as top players earned them the right to represent their community — it was more or less a variant of Early Access. From Street Fighter to Call of Duty to Madden, such feedback has become vital to the process.

At the same time, though, its important to acknowledge that games like The Stomping Land exist — games that build up lofty expectations before being abandoned, damaging the trust of those who invested in the project in good faith. And even if there are only a handful of projects that abuse that trust, the high-profile nature of such fiascos can't help hurting the whole industry.

In the face of such distrust, the best developers can do is be as transparent and honest as possible. "If you try to do right by your game and community at every turn, you're unlikely to become an example of "what's wrong with Early Access," says Don't Starve Togther's Seth Rosen. "And I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with the system, just examples of developers that haven't been adequately prepared to execute on the guidelines I proposed."

"Why is Sony’s unfinished multiplayer zombie survival game H1Z1 proving so popular? On paper, it doesn’t make a lot of sense," Alec Meer wrote on Rock, Paper, Shotgun back in January. "Initial reports were negative; we’ve already got DayZ; even if we wanted a less hardcore DayZ with more crating, we’ve got 7 Days To Die already. So what on Earth is H1Z1 for? And why am I enjoying it even though I really feel as though I shouldn’t?"

It's a pertinent question. As the descendant of the mod that launched the immensely popular zombie sandbox survival genre, it naturally enjoys the support of a large and incredibly loyal community. But as a test case for Early Access, it's tough to say whether it's a hit or a miss. In Early Access since late 2013, it's not due out until sometime in 2016, and it continues to be extremely buggy. There's also the fact that what will eventually be a free game currently costs $35; which, as Meer notes, "is a bit of a thorny issue." Finally, its original creator, Dean Hall, has departed for greener pastures, leaving his creation in the hands of a team tasked with living up to the lofty expectations of its fervent fanbase.

Despite these setbacks, DayZ continues to flourish, mostly because it's such a unique experience, and because it lends itself so perfectly to streaming. And when it finally launches for real, there's every chance that it will indeed live up to expectations. But then, there's also every chance that it will end up being disappointing. Regardless of how it turns out, though, you can pay $35 for a sneak preview.

The Path Ahead

For as many Early Access horror stories as you hear, it's interesting to hear from the developers in which the process has become a path to redemption. For Shadowrun Chronicles, for instance, it was a chance to reboot after a nightmarish year in which they ran out of money, had to completely change their codebase, and had their fans turn on them. Jan Wagner acknowledges that they were, in his words, "a bunch of idiots," but Early Access afforded his team a chance to find a way forward.

"A couple people stayed loyal to us. A couple people kept giving us positive feedback," Wagner says, "and that really helped us keep going in the face of such opposition."

H1Z1, the target of much vitriol when it launched, has largely settled down and avoided the headlines, with Daybreak Game Company rebalancing the paid airdrops and releasing new content like the popular Battle Royale mode and female avatars. Smedley considers the model a "breakthrough for the industry," particularly multiplayer games, because it allows developers to shape games in ways that they haven't before. What's more, he says, Early Access allows communities to form around a game much earlier than they might have otherwise.

As for how the model will evolve going forward, Smedley says, "It's going to become more and more important to Valve and companies that [use Early Access] that there's a clear path to finishing the game. And beyond that, I think you're going to see it evolve as it has been, which I think is the right way. So it's going to continue as it is, just get a little more selective to make it so companies don't use it as a Kickstarter to get money off of, and I think you'll see good things coming from it."

Sigman feels that Early Access will increasingly favor games that have a certain level of polish out of the gate, "Similar to Kickstarter, or XBLA before that, or iOS... the crowded spaces kind of start an arms race where you have to do more to stand out. But the main thing is, I feel like Early Access, like Kickstarter, is here to stay on some level. But it's not a no-brainer for success. On the consumer side, I think it's good that Steam has put some rules in place to try to stop the most common abuses or miscommunications. It's important for buyers to know that they are 'opting in' to an Early Access experience."

For all its benefits and drawbacks, Early Access is ultimately interesting in the way that it brings developers and their audience together in a collaborative relationship, serving to mold and shape the final product in ways that neither could have imagined. In no other artistic medium does such a deep bond exist. It continues to have its drawbacks; but if nothing else, it is one more reminder of what makes video games unique.

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Kat Bailey

Editor in Chief

Kat Bailey is a former freelance writer and contributor to publications including 1UP, IGN, GameSpot, GamesRadar, and EGM. Her fondest memories as a journalist are at GamePro, where she hosted RolePlayer's Realm and had legal access to the term "Protip." She is USgamer's resident mecha enthusiast, Pokemon Master, and Minnesota Vikings nut (skol).

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