Editorial: The Negative Side of Early Access

Last I checked, hiding on the second floor of any building was the safest way to ride out the night. I can do that in real life, thanks.
The zombie pathing AI in 7 Days to Die has always left something to be desired.

Some time ago I wrote about the positive side of Early Access games in the face of rising complaints about the distribution model’s ethical and qualitative shortcomings. The crux of my argument was that sometimes Early Access games can afford the excuse to play imperfect games, and that this excuse might be the only way quirky if flawed titles see any support. But there is a fine line to be drawn with this and perfectly reasonable questions to go alongside the endorsement of “flawed” games: Why support them? Is this support going to embolden more to simply produce flawed titles?

My response to the first question is ultimately more positive, so I shall begin there. Supporting a flawed game (ostensibly synonymous with an Early Access game), one that has major drawbacks or problems with visual or gameplay elements, can at least in theory lead to a better product. In some instances, the flaws are present only for lack of funding and not for lack of skill, interested, intent or even effort. Support for games that are, charitably some might say, “less than perfect” could mean that others see a platform for their future projects where things are not judged as harshly and where their limited resources could move them forward into bigger development and greater recognition. This is most likely the theory behind the much troubled Steam Greenlight section of Valve’s digital distribution platform. Greenlight could have been a fine place for indie devs, even single man efforts, to find a home amongst other smaller productions with the very open acknowledgement that these titles represent less than professional efforts. This is not to claim all Greenlight titles are not on the same level as professional indie titles or that all of them are even Early Access by name, but of late the vast majority of Greenlight offerings fit into both those camps. Slightly discounted but often times fully priced beta (or even alpha) build games have flooded that section of the storefront and have washed out the early hopes of spotting any diamonds in the rough. It has become difficult to remember my initial interest in Chasm, an old Greenlight Metroidvania that was announced a year back, that has yet to release amidst all the veritably broken content.

Unless it's the current build, in which case there's a handheld mining tool. Why the switch? ....????
StarForge, in which trees are shot to harvest their wood.

Far from just flawed, some of the Early Access titles are bereft of key aspects that make them games or even simply operational. In my own experience I once bought a very ambitious title, StarForge, which promised to be a marriage of several hit games like Minecraft, Halo, Borderlands, and Terraria. The initial video presentations seemed to confirm this as it involved unique first person weaponry with building, mining and crafting all lifted from Minecraft but all with a much greater visual fidelity and scope. I purchased it with a friend on the assumption that, though it may be rough today, it will become something more in time not unlike Minecraft, once again. However, close to a year later, the game has yet to move out of a volatile state of feature additions and drops, major gameplay recalibrations and revisions, large technical bugs that come and go with each update. For twenty US dollars the game asked me to put up with massive performance impediments, that indeed impeded me from playing the game for very long, and to continue to do so for an indefinite amount of time.

This leads me to the other question, is this going to perpetuate the production of more flawed titles? The very clear answer is yes, and in all the negative possible ways. Others are not making more flawed games because they see this as their big chance to make a name for themselves or their team or to learn the ropes. Other broken entries in Steam Greenlight and elsewhere are being loosed onto the market because they see money in selling false promises. The Early Access model, in many ways, is much riskier and a great deal more corruptible than funding platforms like Kickstarter ever were. With Kickstarter, someone can ask for the funds to make a potato salad, but the backers are not necessarily going to pay if they change their minds. An Early Access game is a full purchase for a less than full product on only the promise that the product will become fulfilled. Valve has even begun warning consumers that Early Access titles are not beholden to becoming “completed” titles that leave Early Access status. Simply put, a game can be snake oil that promises the world and the only ones who suffer are the buyers. However, “buyer beware” comes off to me a bit callous when the field of Early Access is so new that there is little to no precedent for the consumer to “beware” of. It could still be levied against the consumer, I will admit, but lines are crossed when developers begin to muddy the waters about their product by spuriously moderating their game’s forum pages. I do not apply that accusation to the developers of 7 Days to Die, but it does stand accused of Molyneux sized promises with Molyneux sized results. The title proposed a wealth of features in its simple sandbox zombie offering, and has delivered on a scant few of them while never truly elevating the experience beyond “simple”. As a title that wishes it copied the notorious successes of Rust or DayZ, 7 Days has not demonstrated itself very capable of flying very far from its nest which remains for some to be a post-purchase revelation.

But maybe it's time it gets accused of getting the ball rolling on this Early Access monstrosity.
Minecraft has been credited with a lot over the years for the indie scene.

More dreadfully than that, I regret to say, is that the same notoriety of Early Access successes has finally rolled far enough downhill and into the lazy gaping maws of AAA publishers. EA is one of those that took notice and delivered news that they were considering an Early Access model for their next Battlefield title, the most recent of which launched with copious technical difficulties. So many difficulties that EA also released an apology which apparently meant they were sorry they used the wrong terminology for the kind of game they released. In future, it seems, they wish to be a bit more upfront about when they release unfinished products for the paying masses to bug test for them. This coming from the single biggest publisher in the industry that currently employs over nine thousand people and now cannot find a way to meet a deadline for one of their many flagship titles. It boggles the mind how EA can think to assume the same position as deprived indies and yet the math does check out when it becomes clear that Early Access is now just a den of charlatans selling other people’s ideas on the back of aborted promises.

Firey stuff this week, readers, and also a bit of a downer. I wanted for an expanded approach to game production to open up the industry to more game makers and thus more kinds of games. But the idea seems to be crawling with leeches, at least presently. If you have been burned by an Early Access title (or beta or alpha) or you know someone who has, I urge you to call this number: 1-800-COMMENT, leave off the ENT for savings.

3 comments

  1. For the most part, I hate Early Access games. For every Minecraft, there is probably a hundred that end up being a StarForge or Godus. Part of the problem does indeed stem from the fact that Early Access basically gives developers a way to make money off of their Alpha and Beta builds. If the Early Access doesn’t sell as well as a developer predicted, they may abandon the product because gamers just don’t seem to be interested. Likewise, if an Early Access sells incredibly well, some developers may realize that they have already made the bulk of their sales on an unfinished product, so why keep spending money to make a finished product?

    I agree that indie devs are often waaaaay too ambitious (I’m looking at you, Hello Games), and I think that their over ambitiousness is one of the biggest problems with indie devs. Tim Schafer is probably the best example of this, but many indie devs constantly promise us the world when the reality is that the most they can offer us is a small suburb.

  2. many indie devs constantly promise us the world when the reality is that the most they can offer us is a small suburb.
    I’d be happy with a single house, as long as it is well made.

    Generally speaking, Early Access rewards developers who have not yet learned how to balance the disparate parts of making a game. I do not mean only the simple technical capabilities of implementing features, but also the competence to judge when it is appropriate to add/remove features, what is reasonable for one’s development team to produce, what sort of promises can justly be made, et cetera.

    This may sound curmudgeonly, but I think the industry is better off if developers who cannot sort out these basics of development are consequently denied the funds to bring their ideas–however noble or beautiful–to fruition. For, the simple reality is that even with the funds, lacking the competence necessary, they will be unable to produce on their promises.

    Developers that can balance the expectations of their userbase, the promises they can fulfil, the features they want to implement, the correction of bugs, and so on–they will do well enough *without* Early Access. And, in fact, they would be better off if Early Access didn’t exist at all–not only for them, but for everybody–since Early Access crowds the market, conflating competent developers with the vast hordes of the incompetent.

    One of the important skills that a successful developer must accomplish is persuading people, and the media, that their game deserves a look-in. Not every game in development does. In fact, most do not. Most developers are incompetent. This isn’t me being mean, it is a simple fact. Everyone wants to be a game developer. Few have the skills to pull it off.

    Unfortunately, Early Access puts those developers on a level with those who haven’t got those skills. And to make matters worse, journalists become complicit. Instead of exercising criticality to call attention to what is worth presenting to their readership, journalists are becoming nothing more than PR mouthpieces, promoting everything that comes across the desk, regardless of quality. This upsets the balance entirely: deprived of critical journalists whose job it is to sift through the rubble, and presented with the levelling field of Greenlight and Early Access, consumers end up supporting games which are no-hopers, whilst the few excellent titles are deprived of much of the attention and funding they not only need, but deserve.

    Simply put, competent developers will have the skills necessary to make it possible for them to develop a game without Early Access. So, why support developers that don’t have those skills? This is a business, not a fun fair. It is not the job of consumers to subsidise incompetent developers on the basis that it’s ‘nice’ so to do.

  3. So much what Lusi said. So many are under the false impression that money is all some developers need to get their ideas to happen, but while it can be a major roadblock, it is far from the largest in most cases.

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