For quite a long time, certain games have offered beta and alpha access to games (generally for free) to test their servers, work out bugs, and get general feedback from the players involved in the testing. This system is a good way for players to get an idea of how the game is going to play, and it is a good way for developers to find issues from an outside perspective. A common trend that has grown from this style of testing is “Early Access” games. Developers can now put up unfinished games on Steam, and allow people to buy them and play an early version of the game, complete with bugs and updates throughout. Is this a bad approach, or is giving players early access to games the next step in beta testing?
What exactly is Early Access? If a game company wishes, they can now allow access to a game while it is still in the earliest stages of its development. Games like Starbound
have allowed players to buy the game early, similar to pre-ordering. Players are allowed to play the game and offer feedback to issues that they might encounter, as well as be a part of many updates and game changes along the way. Steam has said that, “this is the way that games should be made.” This is unlike beta tests, in which players get early access to a game for free and are allowed to do the same things as with early access, just without paying for it. The logic to traditional beta testing is that a player should not have to pay to play a game that is not yet finished. Fans of the game Final Fantasy XIV will remember that, as an apology for releasing and making people pay for an unfinished game, Square Enix gave players months of gameplay for free while they worked on re-releasing a more finished, more complete version of their game.
The benefit here to studios (and in some ways, to players) is obvious. With more feedback before release, developers can address issues that players might have with the game before they officially launch it, giving them the opportunity to release a better version of their game than what would have launched without any Early Access. This also gets people involved in the creation of the game that they want to see. Getting access to a game before it launches gives a sense of involvement to the player, and gives them the opportunity for their issues and wants actually to be met (assuming the developer listens to their personal feedback). The biggest benefit to players is early access to a game, or what would appear to be early access.
The downsides to this program are numerous. First, it promotes laziness in developers. By being allowed to sell a game that is not complete, developers no longer have to worry about meeting deadlines and polishing a product before putting it out. Companies have been doing this anyway already, releasing unfinished games to the masses and then patching them over time. However, they have simply not called it “early access” before. Before it was just a lazy company putting out an unfinished game. Beta testing has its place, and is effective for a lot of MMORPGs, but it is also free. Players typically submit an e-mail for a chance to get a code that allows early access to the game, typically for a weekend at a time, so that companies can test servers and look for bugs within their game. Companies should not be encouraged to release a half-finished game to the masses, and charge them to play it, all under the guise of involving the players in the creation of the game.
Another issue that has already been touched upon a little bit is the fact that people are being charged for this service. Early Access as a free thing that lets players be involved in testing and the search for inevitable bugs that will be present throughout a young game is a great idea. Charging for it, however, is not. Nobody should charge for an unfinished game, whether it is a developer offering beta testing, or a company marketing a game as complete that is nevertheless still full of bugs and issues that will inevitably be patched out down the road. The simplest solution to this would be to allow for early access to games, but keep the testing free. Or, barring that, one simple payment to be part of a group of “early access” gamers who have access to all of the games that would be released early. That way, the studios are not getting full price for an unfinished game, but they are also not giving away their game for free.
Taking a look at the pros next to the cons, it is understandable to think why some people would like this program. It gives them a chance to see the games early, and let them feel like they are a part of a special group of people who get to affect the direction taken in the development of a game in which they are interested. However, there are downsides and dangers to allowing a studio to release and charge for an unfinished game. What do you think? Are you a supporter of companies allowing early access to their games and charging full price? Do you take issue with the program? Do you like breakfast food? Post your opinions below. Until next time, Lusitoons.