A decade ago I'd have laughed in your face if you suggested that thousands of gamers would willingly pay to play unfinished games, but here we are. Alpha funding is now a big deal and a very good thing too in the main, allowing small studios to get investment, community and publicity while letting us into the development cycle first-hand. Huge advantages for everyone involved, despite the increasingly hefty drawbacks of a system that enables unscrupulous liars to make bank and buries quality Steam software under a mountain of utter crap.
It's clear that Early Access (alpha funding by any other name) is still undergoing some growing pains on PC, but developers and hardware manufacturers are now calling for a similar system to be implemented on home consoles. To be perfectly honest, I'm not convinced they're entirely ready yet.
"It's something developers have been asking for," [email protected] chief Chris Charla informed Develop, "and we are listening really closely to developers, but I don't have anything to announce on that right now." Sony echoed similar sentiments, though have seemingly thought through some of the potential downsides already.
"At what point does [a game meet standards of release]?" Sony's Adam Boyes told Gamasutra. "We still at some point ensure that we're being mindful of the consumer. We don't want somebody to stumble across that title and expect a full product, and have a negative experience."
"We're working through that right now," he continued. "We're figuring out what's okay. We obviously have our tech requirement checklist that people have to adhere to. So we're internally discussing, 'what does that list look like this? What are the caveats?' Stuff like this. So it's still a project that a lot of minds are considering. No details yet, but it's something on the top of my mind every day."
On a basic level, both new-gen consoles are ill-equipped to deal with early access right now. Discovery is still an issue especially on Xbox One, meaning that we'd need to see a new store overhaul with specific categories to avoid PSN and XBLA games being submerged under a deluge of alphas, but there's a more fundamental problem. Consoles may lack grunt when compared to a dedicated gaming PC, yet their main unique selling point is convenience: knowing that games will more-or-less work without messing about with drivers and compatibility issues. Something that can be incredibly difficult to guarantee when it comes to early access, to put things incredibly mildly.
Then factor in the potential for games to never release. Will Sony and Microsoft be willing to offer refunds and shoulder the risk themselves? Should they? To be perfectly honest, I'd like to see more in the way of content control and curation, but where can you draw the line when the whole point of alpha funding is to sell access to an unfinished prototype that updates over time?
Oh yes, those "updates over time." So-called Patch Culture should have led to a new standard of stable gaming, allowing studios to tweak their titles via title updates, but all too often we've seen developers release broken games and then spend weeks fixing them up, from Total War: Rome II to practically every Paradox Interactive title released between 2010-2012. Publishers and developers will cut corners and save money where they can. We're all only human, after all. If anything, I'd welcome harsher certification for disc-based home console games to severely reduce the number of day-one updates out there! Giving another avenue to legitimately release broken and incomplete software could be a dangerous precedent.
And is the casual proportion of the console audience even ready for the idea of being able to pay for something that isn't completed? Right now, the status quo sees games release on PC in early access, then launch on consoles as a finished game. Do we even need to change it?
But here's the thing: I love early access. Some of my favourite games of the year are still in development, including Broforce and Dungeon Of The Endless, both of which let us appreciate the work and dedication that their developers put in, and who am I to say the programme won't work on home consoles. A similar system definitely could, but will require a few tweaks.
There will need to be stricter quality control. There will need to be watertight refund arrangements. Consumers will need to be informed that Early Access games are unfinished and carry inherent risk without any reasonable doubt, requiring several extra screens of information and warnings before even getting to the payment page. Hell, perhaps "Early Access" could do with a rebrand - "incredibly exciting but unfinished game concepts that will probably release but could also leave you out of pocket, not to mention fail to live up to your expectations, yet require money up-front" is a bit of a mouthful, so I'm sure there's a happy medium.
And more than anything, we need to keep AAA publishers away from it. As far as humanly possible. You just know that EA would love to release Battlefield 5: Early Access with a projected completion date of "late 2010s, or never." They should not have the right to do so, already having access to professional QA testing and astonishingly deep pockets. Although... would it ultimately result in a better game?
So many questions, and so much potential, both for a new paradigm and a serious mis-step. At the end of the day, what matters is what you think. Sound off in the comments!