I love Early Access in the same way I love DLC, microtransactions and crowd-funding. They're all perfectly legitimate ways to make money -- the likes of Dungeon Of The Endless, Minerva's Den, Zen Pinball and FTL are all prime examples -- but they're also ripe for abuse. Whether from big publishers or tiny studios, willingly or even unwittingly.
We've certainly seen our fair share of Early Access disasters over the last year. From Spacebase DF-9 to The Stomping Land, Earth: Year 2066 and The War Z, developers often promise too much and deliver too little, turn their titles into vapourware, purposefully lie to consumers or just naively launch their game on the service with the best of intentions... only to discover that they can't actually follow through.
Steam recently updated their Early Access guidelines to better forewarn developers against the risks of launching an Early Access, but in this pundit's opinion, it's time they stopped talking tough and started flexing some muscle.
So we're all on the same page, here are the guidelines:
- Don't launch in Early Access if you can't afford to develop with very few or no sales.
- There is no guarantee that your game will sell as many units as you anticipate. If you are counting on selling a specific number of units to survive and complete your game, then you need to think carefully about what it would mean for you or your team if you don't sell that many units. Are you willing to continue developing the game without any sales? Are you willing to seek other forms of investment?
- Make sure you set expectations properly everywhere you talk about your game.
- For example, if you know your updates during Early Access will break save files or make the customer start over with building something, make sure you say that up front. And say this everywhere you sell your Steam keys.
- Don't launch in Early Access without a playable game.
- If you have a tech demo, but not much gameplay yet, then it's probably too early to launch in Early Access. If you are trying to test out a concept and haven't yet figured out what players are going to do in your game that makes it fun, then it's probably too early. You might want to start by giving out keys to select fans and getting input from a smaller and focused group of users before you post your title to Early Access. At a bare minimum, you will need a video that shows in-game gameplay of what it looks like to play the game. Even if you are asking customers for feedback on changing the gameplay, customers need something to start with in order to give informed feedback and suggestions.
- Don't launch in Early Access if you are done with development.
- If you have all your gameplay defined already and are just looking for final bug testing, then Early Access isn't the right place for that. You'll probably just want to send out some keys to fans or do more internal playtesting. Early Access is intended as a place where customers can have impact on the game.
Sounds good, no? All common sense tips and very useful advice. Unfortunately the problem with guidelines is that they're just a suggestion, not hard and fast rules, and this is arguably just a PR exercise rather than a way of protecting consumers against shoddy product. See, most developers take pride in their games and view their pet projects through rose-tinted spectacles, while more nefarious individuals or companies simply don't care. Meaning that in many if not most cases this advice will just be merrily ignored out of hand.
What annoys me is that the dreaded spectre of "quality control" doesn't have to be some tough developer-unfriendly brick wall. It's actually pretty easy.
I'm not asking for a return to the old days when Steam was a fortress, accessible to few and an absolute hassle to launch on. Steam used to be Harrods, but since gradually morphing into the PC equivalent of Costco, they still seem reticent to do a basic level of quality control, A&R and testing. So how about this for starters:
Someone should play an early access game to make sure the features listed in the initial product description actually exist!
Erm, that's it. Forget the promised features for future builds, but is it too much to ask that Valve should make sure that the basic product description and the initial early access build actually sync up? Even if you take informed consumer advice out of the equation, this would ensure that Valve couldn't be accused of false advertising. They'd be covering their own back first and foremost, and protecting us from abusive fake claims as a result. Perhaps said tester could also capture some screenshots from the initial early access build too.
To be honest I'd also like to see consumers forewarned and forearmed against the risks of Early Access too. As discussed in a previous article, alpha funding is not for everyone and should only be considered in specific cases, but Valve doesn't necessarily do enough to tell consumers that! I'd like to see an extra screen pop up when attempting to buy an Early Access game, clearly stating that the game may not turn out how you hoped, and that 9 times out of 10 you'd be better off waiting for the finished product. Again, just to better cover their own backs if nothing else.
I'm also not sold on offering deals and sales on Early Access titles too. Odd considering that I write for a deals site, but frankly encouraging consumers to buy an unfinished product alongside other sales and specials isn't a healthy practice, especially when first adopters have already paid a premium.
Personally I'd like to see Valve go further, because there's a difference between crowd funding and early access. Crowd Funding is massively risky because it's effectively charity, with pitchers able to ask the community to give what they can to help an idea come to fruition -- whether an idea for a videogame, a TV series pilot, stage show, comic book print run or whatever. And that's fine. That's how it has to work. You win some, you lose some, but you've paid what you can so that someone can try to make something happen. But Early Access demands a set amount of money up-front, and in my opinion, should guarantee a product. Access is the aim of the game, of course, but I'd like to see a bigger example made of developers who flout the system and quibble-free refunds too. Hell, I'd even like to see developers pitch an early access game to Steam before it even goes up.
The risks should, as much as possible, lie with the developer and Valve themselves. Not the consumer.
Too much? Maybe. But even though the Early Access bubble will eventually normalise, Valve certainly could do more to ensure that, at the very least, the unfinished product we pay for resembles what's written in the product description. Talk is cheap and guidelines are worthless without the enforcement to back it up.