I have made no secret that I am not a fan of this “era of early access” that we seem to be in, both in MMOs and general gaming. It’s starting to bite games in the butt and I think that studios are blind to the damage it’s causing in their pursuit of the almighty dollar.
Let me first say that my feelings on the matter are not directed toward the trend of increased open development and communication on behalf of the studios. I actually think that’s pretty great and I’ve been enjoying seeing the studios more open about the development process and fostering a stronger community through it.
But this early access thing? It’s gone from being a sporadic fad to having its own section on Steam, which means it’s now entrenched and The Way Things Are Done. And I can’t see anything but more negative than positive arising from it.
My main beef with early access can be summed up in four points:
- It’s letting the judgey crowd in way, way too early, which means that people will formulate opinions (that are very hard to change) and share testimonies based on the game in its most incomplete state. It’s not good word-of-mouth for the title, is what I’m saying.
- It’s a blatant attempt for studios to get a payday for a product that is still in the making, which is ridiculous. I used to think that paying to get into a beta was silly, but now we’re past the looking glass into a truly bizarre wonderland. Propped up by these sales, studios have less financial incentive to get a good product done in a reasonable time frame.
- It’s absolutely stealing any excitement and publicity from the game’s eventual release. You hear that “early access is the new launch” and it’s totally true. We make a big deal when a game hits early access, but when that game eventually crosses the barrier to an official release, no one will care. It’ll be old news, an old game, and the studio will lose a valuable opportunity to sell the game to a wider audience than early adopters.
- It’s pressuring interested players into making a decision to either play the game now in an incomplete state or to get left behind waiting for launch as others play and talk about it.
Of course, there are always exceptions to point to, and I won’t deny that games like Minecraft and ARK have benefited greatly by letting audiences into the alpha, pre-alpha, early access, or whatever you’re calling it. Project Gorgon has built solid word-of-mouth by keeping its (non-paid) alpha open to all.
But every other day we’re getting notices of early access, as if this is the golden ticket to ensuring a success, and it’s going to end poorly, mark my words. Look at Landmark, for example. Now, there’s a lot of reasons why Landmark is completely bombing right now, but the fact that Daybreak pushed it out the door of early access years ago really didn’t help. People who were possibly interested in the game checked it out for a month and then, upon finding a buggy and incomplete game, wandered away, ne’er to return. The launch, when it came, was about as exciting as trying to light soggy fireworks. It was a non-event followed by savage Steam reviews (again, other factors such as the backlash about EverQuest Next must be considered here).
I’m also starting to develop an eye condition due to how many times I’ve been rolling mine over Shroud of the Avatar. If you haven’t heard — or don’t really follow the title — this spiritual successor will be sort-of-but-not-really launching next month with Release 32. Character and data persistence is going to be turned on with no further wipes planned and the game is already taking money, so this is launch in any sense of the definition except for the fact that the game is not in a launch state. It’s still early access. It’s still alpha or whatever.
So Portalarium is trying to make a big deal out of the launch while throwing its hands up and going, “Whoa WHOA this isn’t launch! Don’t say it’s launch! Don’t treat it as launch! But get excited about it!” and general confusion over it reigns supreme. Once again, early access has made a muddled mess out of what used to be the clear-cut lines dividing an online game’s testing period and its launch state. It’s ridiculous because early access can also be the new “you can’t criticize this, it’s still in beta!” argument we used to see. Oh sure, the game is sort-of launched, but you can’t lob criticisms at it, it’s still in development don’t you know?
Studios, stop trying to make a fast buck on early adopters. Have your limited alpha tests, sure. Build that community. But don’t flip the switch for a launch — no matter what you call it — until you’ve got something that’s worthy of being called that.