Early access bites games in the butt, period.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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?

Silliness.

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.

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10 thoughts on “Early access bites games in the butt, period.

  1. jameshateswordpress June 24, 2016 / 9:31 am

    Even more sad is this Early Access epidemic is moving into consoles. They used to be the mainstay of finished products…

  2. Sylow June 24, 2016 / 9:55 am

    It doesn’t help trying to say that to developers. They don’t decide. It doesn’t help too much to tell that to publishers. While they do decide, they want money. As long as early access gives them the money they want, what should they care?

    Bonus points: quite likely the managers got some financial incentive for getting in money early. So they get their payout, they personally consider it a huge success. If this hurts the game in the long run, why would they care, first they fire developers, then they move to another job.

    All that being said, the persons who really should learn out of this are we customers: as long as we customers preorder and pay for early access, it’s very logical for the publishers to milk that cow. Even if a company delivered several wrecks in a row, the same people (it seems) who got disappointed several times in a row are just too eager to follow the hype again and throw money at the publisher again. As long as this happens, why should anybody care for quality.

    It’s the customers who actually have to change. But my confidence in people being able to learn, not as individuals but as customer base, is nonexistent by now.

  3. David Bass June 24, 2016 / 10:36 am

    I discovered recently the ability to customize your Steam store to remove all mentions and references to Early Access games. Let me tell you… it’s been amazing. Aside from my store no longer looking like it’s 85% Minecraft knock-offs, I feel so much more confident in buying cool looking games I see in the rotating banner at the top.

    That said, I think it’s stupid that I need to even make a comment like that, since that’s how it was 5 years ago anyway 😛

  4. Ocho June 24, 2016 / 10:39 am

    Well said. I’m not so worried about Shroud because it has a *ridiculous* community that backs it no matter what, so I think it’ll survive it’s totally under-done launching. However, it’s not going to be gaining a whole bunch of new players that way. I get where they’re coming from, too: if they kept up wipes, they don’t get those players who are waiting until they stop wiping; but if they stop wipes, they’ll lose those potential players who don’t like a buggy mess. I’ve backed Shroud (not to a ridiculous level like some have), but I think I’m still going to wait until at least August/September or later before giving it a real shot.

  5. Tyler F.M. Edwards June 24, 2016 / 10:44 am

    More or less what Sylow said. I’m no fan of early access, but developers are just responding to the market. It’s clearly been shown that there’s money to be had by early access games. You can’t really expect them to just leave that money on the table. This is all just capitalism at work.

  6. Telwyn June 24, 2016 / 11:17 am

    Is this trend just a ramping up on the monetisation angle of the earlier ‘perpetual beta’ soft launches we had in earlier years?
    Games like Allods were in Open Beta for years while cashing in from cash shop purchases. Now you even have to pay an entry fee for the priviledge. I avoid this like the plague, personally.

  7. bhagpuss June 24, 2016 / 2:03 pm

    What Tyler said. And what’s more, even to question this or find it strange is a sign of getting old. The world changes. Expectations and assumptions change. Norms change.

    Which isn’t to say Early Access is with us for always. It, too, may pass. Not to suggest that you’ll like whatever replaces it any better…

  8. Talarian June 24, 2016 / 4:22 pm

    As someone who literally just released a game from Early Access this week (Eon Altar, for those inclined to look it up), I’d have to say I disagree with this. Early Access for us was an amazing process that let our game get the polish and feedback it needed to be awesome rather than just okay.

    Granted, we charged less for the game in Early Access and didn’t plan on making much money during that period. We weren’t planning on bankrolling the game via EA funds.

    We were also basically 80% done when we entered Early Access. That last 20% of work takes up like 50% of your development time, really. Polishing is hard. But most of the core was there already.

    Launching Early Access *is* like launching for real though, and if you’re not careful, you can totally steal your own thunder in a bad way. We didn’t do much advertising at all during Early Access, relying instead on word of mouth to get a few players who thought the idea of a mobile enhanced co-op RPG sounded cool enough to put up with bugs. Now that we’ve released, we’re ramping up, and honestly, I can say that we’re doing okay. As an indie dev, you can never have enough eyeballs, and I’d really rather we have *more* than we do now, but eh, it’s a slow burn. There is no “go viral” button, especially when your marketing budget is itty bitty.

    Finally, Early Access does come with a stigma; honestly, probably a well earned one at that. Your post encapsulates that perfectly. Even if your game is super polished, just having the Early Access tag is enough to drive people–including most media–away. By doing a full release, folks who wouldn’t have given us the time of day are now taking notice. I’m largely okay with that though, given the wide quality range of Early Access games in general.

  9. Pierre June 26, 2016 / 5:01 am

    For me, this is a direct consequence of the slow but sure rising of the marketing teams at the head of video game development, rising that’s completely achieve today.
    Except for some rare companies, marketing has taken power and creative people (devs) are working in the shadow and don’t have their say on how the games are delivered to the public.
    Marketing basically consists in making as much money as possible without caring about the quality of the product.

    Hence the DLCs, Early access and so on.
    Early Access is a marketing dream/paradise: you get money for an unfinished product, even sometimes for a product that will never get finished. Imagine that: you get money for selling… nothing, Isn’t it marketing and sales at its optimum?

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