Steam Early Access games – good or bad?

Feature Aaron Birch 1/27/2014 at 8:52AM

With the success of DayZ and Rust, and more titles jumping on the bandwagon, is the retail game release looking at an uncertain future?

There's no shortage of critics voicing their concerns with the ever-growing prevalence of DLC and day one patches. When DLC was first revealed as a thing, we all hoped it would mean substantial and good value extensions for our favourite games, extending the life of titles, and adding in more story, missions and other notable content.

Some games did manage this. Oblivion (not including horse armour, obviously), Fallout, Skyrim, GTA IV and Mass Effect all boasted some high quality DLC that was well worth the asking price, but as the years rolled by, it quickly became apparent that DLC wasn't going to be the next big thing we'd hoped. For every genuinely good piece of DLC released, there were bucket loads of paltry extra costumes, weapons and pointless additions, many of which were overpriced to the point of atrociousness.

Even DLC that could genuinely be desirable, such as extra maps for titles like Call of Duty, fell foul of the money-grabbing system, with a mere four maps costing almost half the price of the whole, original game. Bad enough regardless of your tenure in gaming, but a very bitter pill to swallow for veteran PC gamers accustomed to downloading thousands of new maps for precisely, zip. Yes, console gamers have arguably been shafted by the arrival of DLC, that's for sure. But is DLC only the tip of the iceberg?

You're probably well aware of a zombie apocalypse survival title called DayZ. Beginning life as a mod for Arma II, the game has since been reinvented as a standalone title, and a few weeks ago an early work-in-progress version was made available on Steam Early Access. Priced at $29.99, the game's early access came with plenty of caveats, and the developers were keen to point out that DayZ is, by no stretch of the imagination, finished. It's buggy, unoptimised and prone to crashes. It's an alpha, which is an even earlier state than the commonly available beta testing phases of other titles. Unlike beta testing, which is often a simple case of fine tuning and ironing out issues, alpha is far from a truly playable product much of the time.

DayZ Early Access is your chance to experience DayZ as it evolves throughout its development process. Be aware that our Early Access offer is a representation of our core pillars, and the framework we have created around them. It is a work in progress and therefore contains a variety of bugs. We strongly advise you not to buy and play the game at this stage unless you clearly understand what Early Access means and are interested in participating in the ongoing development cycle,” says the blurb on Steam.

It's hard to have any issues with this really. Bohemia Interactive is being upfront and candid about its title. It's not trying to pull the wool over our eyes, claiming the product is finished, and the company even warns off those who don't want to suffer through buggy, unfinished code. It's charging you $30 for an unfinished product, but there are no secrets.

Now, this is all well and good, and there's clearly a whole heap of players willing to power through issues and glitches in order to play the game ahead of its proper release, but not all early access games have this statement, and this isn't the end of the story

First of many

Just as Double Fine's Kickstarter project launched a slew of crowdfunding titles, so too has DayZ, kicking the tires and lighting the fires of paid-for early alpha access, not to mention open-world survival horror zombie apocalypse games. Rust, a game described by many as a hybrid of DayZ and Minecraft (which, of course, also released before it was 'finished'), is now also doing the rounds on Steam in early access form for $19.99. As with DayZ, this comes with a clear description of it being in a very early, and buggy stage. It's far from ready for prime time, but you can still buy it and give it a go, and that's what a whole lot of people have done. 7 Days to Die is another DayZ-style Early Access release, and one that's even more unfinished than either DayZ or Rust. And, despite this very early state, which is missing tons of features, it's still selling well for a whopping $34.99.

And it's not just the smaller developers and publishers that are using this as a viable release avenue. Recently Ubisoft also got in on the early access market, releasing Ghost Recon Online as an early access title in Canada. Yes, it's open beta, so is more developed than many Early Access titles, but does it need to be released in this way? Why not simply keep it at a normal open beta release? GRO is free-to-play, so you don't need to pay, but are real, early access retail titles incoming? Probably.

Both DayZ and Rust have proven to be very successful, amassing sales and making a ton of cash for their developers, and Steam contains many, many more Early Access games. This has clearly shown that releasing an unfinished game is a viable method for generating early cash to plough into development, and it's arguably a better alternative to crowdfunding for gamers, as your money gets you instant access to the title, instead of having to wait months or even years for the finished product. But it this really a good thing, and are the developers making more than a killing financially?

QA

I'm sure most gamers will be at least partially familiar with the development process of a title. From planning and design, the game goes through various stages of prototyping, demonstrations to get the interest of publishers and then several milestones of development, including alpha and beta. During these stages, the game is constantly tested and analysed by a quality assurance department that tests the code to destruction in order to catch any bugs and issues, inducing bad design decisions. Focus testing groups are also often used to ensure a title hits the right bases for the mass market.

All of this costs money. QA technicians are paid a salary, focus groups are costly to arrange, and in-house testing also takes up a lot of man hours, which you can only manage so much of with limited staff (especially if you're a smaller developer). If you have a relatively small headcount in the office, it can be hard to properly test a title, meaning that more time is needed post-launch for development of patches and the like.

If your game is a massive, open world title, like DayZ and Rust, then this is even more difficult, as testing a linear title is far easier than covering a massive world, and trying to account for the myriad of possibilities this world game presents to the player. What's needed is some way to increase testing time, and to minimise costs. Enter, early access.

In what is quite a clever and sneaky tactic (and one that some may say Microsoft has indulged in for years with Windows), early access releases are possibly the perfect way for a developer to both make money, and ensure a title is thoroughly tested. Players stump up some cash for access to the unfinished, early title, meaning that a developer and/or publisher gets early, instant sales long before a finished title arrives on he market, and the company creates a massive QA department that's far bigger than any it could feasibly employ, and it does so with minimal cost. Even better, when your testers are the people who want to play the game, you have a better chance that any issues are fixed and changes made are all relevant and required in order to make the game as good as it can be.

Again, even on the gamer's side of things, these are not really downsides, and as long as the state of the title is made clear before purchase, it's up to the individual player to choose to part with their cash to play the game and serve as a glorified QA tester. But is this how we really want game development to continue?

Retail RIP?

There was a time when, checking that my cynic hat and rose-tinted glasses are firmly in place, we'd part with our cash for finished games. These games didn't know anything about extra downloadable content, day-0 patches or the ability to arrive in unfinished form. In fact, putting out a game that was unfinished was tantamount to commercial suicide. Reviewers would attack the game for its bugs, unoptimised content and array of problems, and in the absence of patches (before consoles allowed this at least), a troubled game would be broken and worthless, sitting on the shelves like so much month-old sushi.

With the arrival of console gaming patches (something PC games have had for aeons), many would argue developers have become lazy. Knowing that the final product needn’t actually be final, and patches can always be released after the fact (or even before release in some recent examples), there's far less of a push to ensure a game is in as perfect a state as possible on release (just look at Battlefield 4). This means games can be released earlier, and publishers love this, especially when they're tied to a deadline, such as a movie tie-in. Surely, the pinnacle of this loose development could be early access.

This release model means that there could be even less of a focus on eliminating bugs and problems before a game hits the market, meaning we could become accustomed to playing buggy, unfinished games, which is hardly ideal, and doesn't paint a good picture of the industry, especially as its worked so long to be taken seriously by the mainstream.

It's also debatable that putting such an amount of control over the course of a game in the hands of any end users with some spare cash is a good idea. Early access gives anyone who buys the game a say, and this is one of the selling points of this approach. Yes, as avid gamers we all know what we like, but we're all different, with different tastes and expectations. The phrase 'too many cooks' springs to mind, and there's a chance that some games that may have turned out to be good in a traditional development cycle, could turn sour with so many different opinions being thrown around like confetti.

Take DayZ, for example. The game has become notorious for harbouring some of what have been called the worst examples of gamers, who brutalise their fellow players, steal from them and even humiliate them, forcing them to fight to the death. It could be argued that this is the point of a game set in an apocalypse where you have to look after you and your own, but by all reports, there's very little in the way of humility, and hardly any friendly encounters in the game. So, it's only going to appeal to a certain kind of player. If you relish the chance to survive in a world so mean and unforgiving, DayZ is for you. If not, do you avoid it, or put up with the grief and help shape it?

This dilemma could be a good thing. DayZ is a game designed to be played a certain way, where survival of the fittest is the way of life. However, what if the game eventually changes due to feedback? What if, after months of early play, Bohemia has enough complaints and suggestions that it takes steps to reduce this man-on-man brutality? It'll then appeal to one group more, but those who liked it previously would lose what they considered a core part of the game.

If Dark Souls was released in an early alpha state, would it have been the same, difficult game it was when it was released, or would plentiful feedback attacking its difficulty have succeed in removing some of its teeth? Would Ninja Gaiden have been a truly challenging AAA title, or would it have been dumbed down like its sequels? It's obviously unfair to say either way, but the question is there to be asked.

Even when BioWare capitulated to fan feedback, the expanded ending to Mass Effect 3 still wasn’t enough for many, and this is understandable as there's simply no way to please everyone, it's impossible. You just have to do your very best, and make the best product you can.

Game developers and designers are in their profession for a reason, it's what they're good at, and have trained for. Yes, this doesn't guarantee good games, and we've all seen releases we thought we could do better, but at the end of the day, the professionals do a good job, a lot of the time. Trying to appease everyone is what's lead to a lot of triple-A titles becoming so bloated, easy and bereft of originality. Committees approve only what they know will sell, and few risks are taken.

Opening up a title early to the public could swing this trend either way. It could finally inject some originality and quality into games from a user point of view, or they could end up being pushed and pulled between gamers so much that they lose their original vision, bastardised beyond all recognition.

Crash, bang, wallet

Early access also features another troubling side-effect. Although very rare, game and application crashed can cause damage to a PC. Files can become corrupt, hard drive sectors damaged and other issues can be caused. It's unlikely, sure, but it's possible. So, if you play more and more early access alphas that are known to crash, you're upping this chance every time.

The practice of early access is currently PC-only, but what when it inevitably makes the jump to console? Consoles are nowhere near as stable and bug-free as they used to be. We all know about the Xbox 360's red ring of death, and both the Xbox One and PS4 have already manifested issues. My trusty PS3 still has a gigabyte of corrupted data I can't remove due to a crash (and believe me, I've tried), so early access titles could cause all sorts of havoc. Again, this will always be a rarity, but surely its tempting fate to run unoptimised and untested code?

Technical issues aside, what about good, old fashioned boredom? If you spend the money to play an early access game, and you play it to death, what do you do when and if you get bored of it? Sure, there are many hardcore fans who will stay around for the duration, but there'll always be a large number who tire of a game and move on, long before its finished. Essentially, these people have paid for an unfinished game, and have lost out on the actual, final release. It's all up to the individual gamer, of course, but it's a trend that could become more and more prevalent, and that could lead to changes in gaming as a whole.

From a game developer point of view, what happens if, by the time the game is finished and released in its final form your player base is gone? Your servers are bereft of players, and the community is too small to sustain a title. Getting money early on is great, but if you end up with only a fraction of players you'd usually have with a traditional release, is it worth it?

Mainstream, triple-A titles are always under fire for being unoriginal, easy and short, and in a way, this is because of the general gaming public. Market research has shown that a good deal of gamers never actually finish games, tiring of them before they reach the end. They ditch one title and move on to another that takes their interest, and the process repeats. It seems as though gamers who stick with games to the bitter end are becoming thin on the ground.

Games like Call of Duty, however, which feature shorter playtimes, are often completed (single player, of course), meaning that people see everything the developer has worked on for so many months. Early access, on the other hand, could be the opposite. Players may well tire before the game is even finished, and large portions of gameplay could go to waste. If this happens, games could become shorter and shorter, reacting to the average playtime of the masses, as many already have.

This may seem like a bit of a stretch, but if you ask yourself seriously, will you still be playing DayZ well into next year when Bohemia has said it may be ready? I'm willing to bet a lot of people would honestly answer no, especially after putting up with so many issues, and as more and more similar titles are released.

Of course, as long as you get some fun out of the game, then there's no real problem, right? No, not really. As I said, everyone has different tastes, and there are plenty who will get hours and hours of gleeful satisfaction out of playing an early access title. This issue is how many titles begin to use this approach, and if unfinished game releases become the norm. As I also stated earlier, Ubisoft has already shown interest in this method, and it's one of the biggest publishers in the world. What if EA and Activision follow suit? If you want to stand a chance at the next Call of Duty, learning the maps before anyone else, you could end up having to put up with a buggy early release, otherwise you'll be in for trouble waiting for the final game.

The right way

Early access games may not be a major issue at the moment, but the success of DayZ and Rust will most certainly spawn a whole shed load of followers, more so than they already have, and in a few months we'll likely have unfinished paid-for alphas coming out of our ears. This may excite you, or it may worry you. If you're in the latter frame of mind, is there anything that could be done to make the whole thing more palatable? Sure, there's always a way.

Firstly, and this is one of the most important bits, don't make titles open to all and sundry. One of the reasons closed betas work is that users are controlled and selected carefully. They're fans of the game, of the genre and have agreed to actively partake in the testing, rather than just playing the game for kicks. This kind of feedback is valuable, and the odds are most of your testers are balanced players, offering a good selection of player types, instead of an unbalanced portion of players, as with DayZ and Rust's infamously mean bullies.

Second, don’t charge full price for an unfinished game. It may be decent of developers and publishers to blatantly state the unfinished nature of the game, not hiding the issues, but $30 for an in-progress, unfinished title? Really? At the very least, drop that to half. These people are willing to plough through the game's myriad of problems and bugs in order to help your development, give them a break. You can always ask for another $10-15 for the boxed copy when it arrives.

Thirdly, teams need to be very clear on what they want from potential players/testers. We know the game isn't finished, but what's missing? What kind of things are you working on now, what can we expect to be added? It's okay being all jovial, saying, “Some things work, some things don't. We haven't totally decided where the game is headed - so things will change,” as stated by the Rust Steam page. This is a pointless bit of information, as there's no reason we should trust the developers, and certainly no solid direction for the game to go in. What if you pay your money, and the game changes so drastically, you no longer like it?

Finally, I'd argue that there needs to be a definite minimal level of functionality in place before a game is released as early access, and a set, upfront description of what you'll get. The controls should be sorted, the core mechanics should work and there should be a fully playable, and completable experience. Bugs, missing features and other glitches, fine, but at least deliver a title that meets some form of minimum requirement if you're going to charge for the privilege. There should also be a time limit on the early access, with each game having to be sewn up and 'complete' by a certain date. Now, I'm not involved in such development, and this may well be the case as far as I know, but from what I've seen so far, if this is a rule, it's not being adhered to.

Right or wrong?

Many have asked this question in forums up and down the Internet - is it wrong for Steam to sell unfinished alpha titles? There are arguments for both camps, but on balance I'd ave to say no, no it's not, at least from a gamer's point of view. Legally? Well, that's a grey area.

Early access titles are always billed as such (even if the developers don't always make it clear), and most of the time you know you're buying an unfinished product. If you buy these titles, you know what you're getting, and you agree to put up with the issues you may encounter. Some would say that this isn't good enough, and quote various legalities, but at the end of the day, as the nature of the titles is usually stated before hand, players aren't getting a game that's unexpectedly broken, and so no misleading marketing is present. Buyer beware is pretty much the rule of thumb with early access.

However, I do worry about the eventual growth of the method, and as more unfinished titles that become available, there are more and more reasons for big names to get involved, and the thought of big name releases taking this route is unsettling. I've mentioned it already, but take EA and DICE's Battlefield 4. It was a full, commercial release, and it was almost as broken as any of the early access titles on Steam. It received plenty of criticism and bad feedback for this, and quite rightly so, but what if it'd been released as early access? This could simply be brushed off with no need for clarification, and EA would still get all your money. It's a worrying thought, and although early access may greatly help smaller, indie developers, big name studios don't need this approach, they have the resources to produce and release complete, and polished games.

It's clear that there are plenty of good, and potentially bad angles to early access releases, but what, as the gamers in the wild, do you think? Is early access gaming a good thing, or does its presence herald a big, fat alarm bell for quality releases? Help yourself to the comments below...

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