Take a look at the best sellers list on Steam. Notice anything interesting? Some of the top games are what’s known as “early access” games. Steam's latest experiment – running for about a year – has clearly had an impact on gaming, but does this model truly produce better games or this a dangerous precedent for the future of game development?
the feedback illusion
Early Access games ostensibly allow games to be developed with the community’s involvement. These games are sold early on in the development process so that players’ feedback becomes an integral component. As the game is updated, players can literally see the development take place. Looking at the numbers, it’s easy to call this program a success. But what impacts will this have on the quality of games?
One of the “early access” challenges posed by game developers is the difficulty in clearly describing the state of the game so that potential purchasers are not disappointed by receiving an uncompleted product. In other words, game developers worry that players won't understand the game will be filled with bugs and holes while in development.
However, based on my own anecdotal experience (as well as talking with friends), I’ve found that early access games seem to actually have the opposite effect. By purchasing a game fully aware that the product is not complete, players tend to lower their standards and be more accepting of bugs and missing features. Hey, I can walk through walls, but its ok, the game isn't finished yet.
Certainly, players also experience a novel feeling of “being part of the development process”. Let's be real here - you know who is really part of the development process? How about the guy that codes this up, the guy that draws the graphics, the guy that writes the story. Those are guys on the front line. The tag line of being part of the development seems a bit of a stretch, even an illusion to boost sales.
But let's suppose for the sake of arguement that the developers truly value players feedback and incorporate it into their development. Logistically, how does the developer intend to deal with player feedback? Certainly with the popularity of these games there must be numerous comments constantly barraging the developers. How do they decided which comments are worthwhile? Maybe just a majority vote on issues?
the gmail problem
This incremental development also has what I like to call the "Gmail" problem. For the longest time, Gmail remained in beta before finally being stripped of the beta name. Despite having a solid feature set and a stable code base, there was no good reason to move it out of beta. What benefit does making a release official provide? I fear that something similar will take place with these early access games. When do developers choose to cut the cord and release a game? Well, according to the Steam philosophy, never:
"We like to think of games and game development as services that grow and evolve with the involvement of the customers and the community" - Steam
In other words, why release a game when we can continually make it better? Well, here are few thoughts. First, how do you go about planning a game that doesn't have an end goal? This game could start out as a racing simulator and end up with flying spaceships! To be fair, perhaps certain genres are better setup for this style. Something along the lines of the Sims would probably fit this style well since the game emphasis is on content. But consider a finely tuned strategy game such as Civilization. Incremental updates, even seemingly subtle updates, could drastically change the game. There is a fine art to designing a complete game where all the pieces fit together to deliver an immersive experience. It seems that offerring a game as a service may rob games of this finished state.
blurring the line of delivery
Before Steam, when games were actually bought in stores and came in cardboard boxes, there was no mistaking whether a game was completed. Once that disk shipped, that game had better run correctly. A few games had downloadable patches, but there was no guarantee that players would actually download them. Then along came Steam, which let players instantly download games, but more importantly, automatically kept games up to date. While certainly a step forward in gaming, it allowed game developers to be a little more lax in the QA department. Instead of thoroughly testing games before shipping, a game could be released knowing that any bugs could be fixed later.
Now, with early access games, any pretense of a completed game is deliberately discarded, and instead thrived upon. As mentioned prevously, the game becomes a service that is constatnly updated. The very promise of constant updates can be seen either as continually expanding the game or, (more likely?) continuous fixes to a game that was never finished.
hold your steam wallets!
Of course, I am certainly not against players giving input to a game. Historically, this beta period was released to a select group of people prior to a release. They were usually given the beta for free and compensated with a free full version or other digital goods. Now, the beta period has been monetized. And players have happily given in, perhaps selling themselves short by purchasing a product that has not yet proven itself to be worth the money. After all, what incentive does a developer have to complete a game when it’s already on the best seller list before launch? Maybe that game launch date isn't as critical. Heck, this is a service - why do we even have a launch date?
If it wasn't obvious until this point, I'm a bit skeptical of Steam's new early access process. It seems that early access is a marketing scheme to pry money from players before a game has even finished, along with no promise to even finish the game. The idea of making a game a service also threatens the finely tuned balance of games. And when did we become so gullible to hand over hard-earned cash the moment we see a picture of a future game, as evidenced by the popularity of these games? The early access tag is built on shaky promises, but requires faith from the players up front in the form of cold, hard cash. Here's an idea: Hold your money, force the developers to finish their product before you decide to purchase it. To all those who support the early access games: Have fun plalying Day-Z - I'll wait until the game is finished.