Early Access is here to stay. Ever since Minecraft blew the lid off the alpha funding model and Steam opened their doors, the scene has blossomed into a thriving new ecosystem. It's a fascinating opportunity for everyone involved; a way for us to get to grips with in-progress projects while contributing to a developer's war chest.
However, as with any new venture, Early Access is rife with pitfalls and has been drawing a fair bit of flack over the past year. With no guarantee of quality or even completion, more and more pundits are crying foul, with many gamers feeling cheated after spending their money on barely-formed embryonic ideas that don't speak to their tastes or standards. Much of this backlash is deserved, but all too often it stems from both gamers and developers not really knowing what makes Early Access unique.
It's essential, then, that we fully understand what Early Access is... and what it absolutely isn't. The clue, as we'll soon discover, is in the name.
Gamers: Know What You're Paying For!
As Battlefield 4 taught us, there's nothing more aggravating than paying good money for unfinished product. At face value, that's exactly what Early Access encourages us to do, so why - why?! - should we bother?
The key is to know what you're paying for, and as mentioned, the clue's in the name. We're paying for access to the development cycle, for insight into how a game is crafted and how it evolves - not for a polished product or preorder. We're paying to create communities and engage developers in useful dialogue, from the inside rather than the outside looking in. That's where the value stems from - the journey, not the destination - and as such we must take care to choose the right projects and curb our expectations. Again, it's not a pre-order or demo, it's something totally different.
Us games hacks are fond of torturing analogies from time to time, so let's have a go here. Paying for an Early Access game is like employing someone to build a car in front of you over several months... but you only have their word for what it might eventually look like, how fast it is, what the ride's like and whether it actually suits your needs. As the basic chassis takes shape, there's nothing stopping you from jumping in and taking it for a test drive, though there's no steering wheel yet. That's coming in the next patch along with some of the bodywork and a functional fuel pump. What's more, when it's finally complete, you could either end up with a gorgeous supercharged sports car or a lemon that looks nothing like the sketch the developers originally handed you on a napkin.
Gosh, well that was horrible. Sorry. Regardless: the joy comes from finding out, from being privy to the process and seeing how it's assembled ahead of time, all while offering feedback and enjoying the journey with others. As such, many will absolutely relish the opportunity to look behind the factory doors, but others will be better off waiting for the finished article.
Approach every Early Access title with equal parts curiosity and caution. For every Starbound, Loadout, Mercenary Kings, Rust or Dungeon Of The Endless, there's a disappointment like Horizon or skeletal husks like Interstellar Marines that might eventually evolve into something resembling a fully-fledged game. Maybe. Perhaps. At some point. As mentioned, the fun is finding out.
Exercise restraint and common sense by carefully choosing exciting projects that you want to support and learn more about from developers you trust and respect on a game-by-game basis; knowing that you're here for the ride, not the eventual payoff. Ensure that you keep your hopes high but expectations low... while only spending money you can afford to lose.
Developers: Do Your Homework!
If us consumers need to understand Early Access to make the most of it, it's doubly important for developers and publishers - many of whom just see alpha funding as a way of getting money for nothing. It ain't.
Minecraft practically wrote the book on alpha funding. Persson and co. made millions, so it's no surprise that any number of studios fancy a slice of the pie. However, it's clear that any number of developers simply haven't done their homework by looking at Mojang's epic and asking why it was so successful in the first place.
It's a sandbox. There's no rigid story or plot, rather Minecraft's narrative is entirely driven by players messing about with the mechanics and tools at their disposal. As such it was a perfect fit for alpha funding, since players were able to get on board with an eminently playable game and enjoy every new toy they were given. There were no plot details to spoil, nothing to repeat time and time again with each new patch, as the entire thing is a procedural playground. Starting afresh is arguably half the fun. It's unsurprising, then, that similar games such as Starbound, Rust and Prison Architect are enjoying strong early access sales and thriving communities. When a game is effectively a set of sandbox mechanics to exploit and enjoy, why not let us in on the ground floor?
But if you're working on a story-driven game, especially an RPG, Early Access probably isn't appropriate. At 'best' you'll only be able to release tiny polished demos that give punters the barest minimum of real access (see also: Wasteland 2), or deploy placeholder-strewn spoileriffic builds that loose story details onto the internet, and force customers to repeat content they've already played previously when the next update comes out. There are exceptions to this rule, Blackguards being a noteworthy example, but even then story-heavy games are probably best served by small prologue chapters, episodic launches or lengthy demos rather than the early access route.
And then, frankly, developers also have to ask if charging customers for beta entry is actually a good idea in the first place! The beta process ought to be symbiotic, allowing unbiased testers to run rampant over software with the sole intention of wrecking it up, providing feedback on what works, what's broken and how far the code can be pushed before it snaps. They're spending time, not money, and as such can offer valuable insight into how a game ought to improve without having any financial stake or entitlement in the finished product. A dynamic that completely shifts when you've asked them to pay for the privilege.
An Early Access consumer is a customer, not a tester. Sure, we pay for access, but parting with good money will always raise our expectations, not to mention giving us a feeling of entitlement that's not entirely undeserved. Feedback will usually shift from pointing out bugs to crying out for more content, and in turn, it's oh-so-easy for developers to lose sight of their original goal. Many studios end up adding more features, end-game content and advanced time-sinks into their games to cater for the existing hardcore beta community rather than focusing on their original target audience and newcomers, leading to a feature-bloated monstrosity that barely resembles the original pitch.
If you want so see this phenomenon for yourself, you need look no further than Red 5's Firefall, which has mutated from a skill-based shooter into a glutted grindy mess underpinned by an inappropriately convoluted crafting system designed to give its paying player base something to do - while leaving new free players with a sparse map, no PvP, weak tutorials and little to do beyond thumping, refining, waiting and thumping some more.
Oh, and opening the Early Access doors too early is rarely a good idea. I'll be writing about Interstellar Marines soon, which promises a revolutionary FPSRPG with unprecedented levels of immersion and revolutionary skill systems. 'Promises' being the operative word, since it currently only exists as the most bare-bones of multiplayer tech demos without advanced features like... erm... crouching. Releasing an early alpha is acceptable, but if you're only 3% into a three-year development cycle, allowing players to pay up front will likely backfire. If your project doesn't yet resemble the pitch in even the most primitive of ways, arguably keep it to yourself.
Alpha funding may be attractive, but it's not the only option - nor should it be. Developers and gamers alike, be sure to do your homework.