Editorial: The Positive Side of Early Access

Though the zombie pathing is pretty poor at present. Hiding on the second floor of a normal building works just as well...
Building a defensible home in 7 Days to Die is half the fun.

The Steam Early Access games seem to be drumming up a lot of attention lately, and not all of it is positive. It is little wonder why this is when games are being sold at full or near full price while missing key content or aspects of quality control. At the same time many Early Access titles are performing exceptionally well and are making certain games possible that might not have been otherwise. But something else I find important about Early Access is how it makes me view games and the kinds of games it gets me involved in. As videogames grew in complexity as well as number, it became increasingly common for me to examine every purchase I made with a scrutiny that aimed to eliminate any risk in the purchase. Over the years, and with the help of the increased pre- and post-release exposure of games thanks to the internet, I began to limit the amount of purchases I made to games I felt positive I would enjoy. Early Access, in just the few games I have bought under this label, seems to be changing this practice for the better.

When I think back on games I played years ago, for the NES or SNES, I can easily recall many of them being quite poor. But they sat in my collection alongside would-be classics like The Legend of Zelda or Super Mario World. But for every one of those games I also had a much less polished game like Metal Mech Man & Machine or the NES port of Castle of Dragon. Ostensibly these games are pretty bad, especially in comparison to stronger titles, but despite their quality I did have fun with these games. Pure excellence, like in the former two Nintendo titles I mentioned, is certainly something to seek out in gaming but there is something to be said for the rest of the crop. Missing out on what less-than-perfect titles can offer, even if this is only a greater appreciation of better titles, is not always an ideal plan. As alien as this might seem, (why waste time or money on poor games?) the trick to enjoying a game like this is the kind of attitude I hold going in. But with all the aforementioned exposure games receive today it is difficult to go into a game wholly unarmed. Early Access, however, gives me the conceit that the game I am about to play is not perfect or even finished and that buying this game means going in with an acceptance of its flaws.

My most recent Early Access experience was with 7 Days to Die, which I bought at a good discount and on the simple recommendation from a friend who just likes zombie games. The claims that this game is a more realistic Minecraft with more zombies is pretty accurate. Where the blocky world of Minecraft fits into its cartoony world, the similarly blocky world of 7 Days to Die is laughable alongside its realistic textures and structural physics. Also, nothing happens in seven days, there is no time limit of seven or any days, so as far as I can tell the title means almost nothing. But despite this and the poor weapon balancing, the easily cheesed zombie AI, and the limited nature of the game’s only adventure-mode map, I found myself having fun with this game. Especially the online multiplayer, as well as the Minecraft-like allure of building stuff, served to deliver a fun if flawed experience. Yet I felt more accepting of rather than cheated by these flaws, most of which are intended to be fixed upon full release. And my interest and acceptance of the Early Access model seems to be widely felt if the massive support of titles like this one or Rust or DayZ are any indication.

Which might be partly because there aren't any zombies. Maybe it's an art house thing. We ARE the zombies!!!1!
The most threatening thing in DayZ isn’t zombies, it’s other players.

Though Early Access is very similar in many ways to an open beta (or alpha as the case may be), there are some key differences. Mostly it rests in the asking price as most of these games are charging their full price. Minecraft can be credited, as it always seems, with giving rise to this idea, though access to its alpha was offered at a steep discount. And while I am not fully thrilled by the prospect of paying a complete price for an incomplete game, I find the practice at least more honest than those of some highly regarded AAA developers (Skyrim and Bethesda, I’m looking at you). DayZ, to speak at least of an honest financial success, is also one of the more interesting examples of an Early Access game. No longer a mod tied to some obscure military sim, DayZ is a standalone title in the appropriately bloated open world zombie game genre. But what marks DayZ as special is not the game it set out to be, but the game its players have made of it. As discussed last week, making a game-within-a-game can lead to special things and DayZ has become the newest site of this practice among many people. DayZ, unfinished as it is, includes few to no actual zombies in its online zombie survival game. Instead, as I witnessed it in the early beginnings while it was still just an ARMA 2 mod, the player-to-player dynamic (something not quite co-op or PvP, PtP might sound good if I say so myself) has taken over the experience. People are treating the game’s perma-death very seriously as a wealth of ridiculous videos can be found of players robbing each other at gunpoint, forcing people to do their bidding, and who knows what else. Despite DayZ‘s lack of any “Z”s, and other sundry issues, people have found a great game within. And thanks to Early Access something special came out of this game that might not have otherwise from people who bought the game that very likely would not have otherwise.

Early Access has gotten a lot of heat from some critics, but I just spent about a thousand words voicing my opinion to the contrary. What do you think, sweet smelling readers? Is Early Access a fool’s errand or do you agree with me that it offers something special in the way it disarms and makes the consumer more accepting of games they might pass up otherwise? Give me those delicious opinions in the comments.

3 comments

  1. I have bought several Early Access games myself, and while the majority play fine, there are some that just have bugs that make the game unplayable. Spacebase DF-9 is the best example of this as I can have a fully functioning base, only for my oxygen to randomly cut out. My O2 generators are all at about 65% functionality, but do my technicians do anything about it? No, they run around with their hands flailing like the rest of the population before dying in the vacuum.

    Let’s no forget the kickstarted games that have charged extra for people to get early access to the game. When these appear on Steam’s service, the price starts high and comes down over time as they allow people who funded lower tiers entry to the game.

    Lastly there are games like Dungeon of the Endless which are almost bug free, but limit how much content the player has access to. These are my favourite, because I can keep an eye out for content updates, much like I would with a full release, and be sure that there is something new to do.

  2. Yeah, I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about kickstarter. I think it’d be great if we lived in a world where everyone was honest, but obviously we don’t. The same criticism could be levied against Early Access, I suppose, but at least with that you can verify that the game is in some playable form from others who have played it. Kickstater is just an idea with a lot of hopeful dollars behind it until it releases and even THEN that’s no guarantee *you* will like it.

    I’m also getting tired of hearing about all these really cool games getting announced only to discover it’s just a kickstarter and there’s no telling if or when it’ll come out. *grumblegrumble*

  3. I think that Early Access has a good chance to become the next idea abused in the gaming industry. Right now it is being put to use in, for the most part, a respectable manner. I wish the prices were a bit lower for people willing to take a chance on an unfinished game, but I can’t have everything.

    However, I can easily see this being abused in the same way that DLC was. What’s to stop a developer from straight up abandoning an Early Access game if it doesn’t sell well? This could happen to the second half of Broken Age because Tim Schafer is a cunt that can’t stick to a budget.

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