Early Access, also known as alphafunding, has become a common occurrence in the realm of PC gaming as of late, with digital distribution sites like Steam and Humble offering developers and publishers alike a chance to release alpha or beta versions of their current projects to consumers for a fee.
For the most part, buying in to a game’s Early Access model allows you to play the game in its current state, while providing invaluable feedback to the developer in the process. In a sense, it helps shape the game to be more of what the fans want to see. On the other end of the spectrum however, others look at it as paying to be a glorified bug tester. Why pay for an unfinished product, right?
One thing to consider is that hiring beta testers costs money, which is one thing that a large majority of independent game developers don’t have. Without the proper funding, many games are made out of pocket on the slim chance that it’ll be a big seller and the developer can at least break even. With that in mind, you may find it morally justified to financially assist the developer of a project that you have a genuine interest in. It’s no different than backing a game on Kickstarter, but at least with Early Access you have an immediate project to play and gauge your future interest in.
But what about the cost? Should Early Access games be cheaper than their eventual full retail release? Buying in to an Early Access project generally gives the consumer the finished product, should it actually succeed in its development cycle and reach retail status. But can we ever get over paying full price for an unfinished game that’s relying on its consumer base to provide feedback, especially considering there’s always a chance the game will never get finished?
Lots of PC games offer access to an alpha or beta, but until Early Access became a thing, it was usually offered for free. Steam currently has 239 games in Early Access, offering consumers a glimpse at their projects, but sometimes at a cost. Of course, not every game in Early Access has a cost, like Robocraft, Magicka: Wizard Wars, or Heroes & Generals, for instance.
But what are the risks of buying in to an unfinished game? From the Steam Early Access FAQ, “You should be aware that some teams will be unable to ‘finish’ their game. So you should only buy an Early Access game if you are excited about playing it in its current state.“, basically warning consumers that there is always a chance their game of choice will never, ever see the light of day.
Alphafunding isn’t a new concept though. Back in 2009, Minecraft creator Markus Persson offered early access to the game for $15, using the funds to continue development on the project that would eventually become a massive success story. Even prior to Minecraft, Mount & Blade developers Armağan and İpek Yavuz used alphafunding to open their own independent development studio, TaleWorlds Entertainment. This lead to Mount & Blade finally seeing a retail release in 2008, with enough success to spawn a sequel and standalone expansion. Other Early Access success stories include DayZ, Spacebase DF-9, Kerbal Space Program, and Prison Architect, which went on to raise over $8 million with its alphafunding.
Like anything else in the game industry, if it’s done right, it’s a great idea. There are tons of Early Access games out there that really embrace the model and keep in constant communication with their consumers in order to debug or give them what they want out of their game. Games like Tango Fiesta, Nuclear Throne, and Black Ice update constantly, and there is always someone active on the Steam forums to communicate with consumers, keeping you updated on what’s on the horizon, and taking note of what bugs players are experiencing to keep things polished.
Personally, I’ve had mostly great experiences with Early Access titles, namely Tango Fiesta and Black Ice. All of my questions and concerns were almost immediately answered by someone on their team, and the folks from Spilt Milk Studios basically live on Twitter to chat about Tango Fiesta updates and bug-fixes every single day. None of my messages have gone unanswered, and recently we submitted a list of bugs we experienced during our What’s Your Tag? live stream last weekend, to which they responded to within 24 hours and addressed our concerns. The folks at SuperDuperGC are the same way with Black Ice, constantly using fan feedback to apply balance tweaks to weapons and items, adjust XP gains, and are always there to interact with their community on Twitter or their official Steam forums.
Sure, Early Access games are unfinished, but if the developers are always interested in improving their products and taking fan feedback to heart, I have to reason to be against it. Of course, I have yet to get burned on any of my purchases, but as it stands right now, I’m all for it. I’m glad my feedback as a consumer is important to the developer because, like you, I want to play a game that I enjoy playing.
Do you buy in to Early Access? Let us know in the comments, and feel free to go in to detail about your experiences. We want to know how consumers are approaching this alphafunding model now that it’s a part of the industry, whether we like it or not.
Bradley Keene is the Executive Editor here at What’s Your Tag?, generally handling reviews, public relations, and our social media communications. He’s an aspiring video game journalist, Baltimore native, and on again/off again WoW player that favors roguelikes, horror games, and point-and-click adventures. His favorite console is the Dreamcast, favorite game is the original Metroid, and he could watch The Goonies for the rest of his life. Contact him by e-mail at the address above, or follow his insanity on Twitter.
I’m in two minds about Alpha Funding models. Like a lot of people I know I threw my £20 into the ring for the DayZ Standalone early access, and I’ve reported my share of bugs and issues etc. I like doing it, I like playing the game. For me it has a nicer feel than the Arma 2 mod that spawned it.
But here is the rub. When people buy into the early access they seem to get this attitude of entitlement. That because of their support, the game should be the way THEY want it to be, and not the way the developers do. You know the people I’m talking about here. They’re the ones on the forums and subreddits for the games posting topics like “OMG this mechanic is so retarded, even though everyone else doesn’t mind it I demand that the developers remove it blah blah blah” and then proceed to waffle on in a wall of text about how their subjective opinion is FACT and that they are the god of gaming.
Then they add a TL:DR that is twice as long as their rant, and I get no potato at the end 😦
It’s a double edged sword. The developers get testers and a cash injection, and also a good indication of how big their potential market may be. Whilst they also get bombarded by twitch-tard know it alls who can’t be chewed to make games themselves but will wax lyrical about how their ideas and concepts for a game are SOOOOOO much better than the people making it.
I can’t add a potato to this comment. I humbly apologise.
Oh yes, I know exactly who you’re talking about. Armchair gave devs, basically. The developer should still be fully entitled to their own vision of the game, but if the majority would like things done differently, it should be up to the developer themselves to decide if they should approach it or not.
It’s one thing to post bugs and suggestions, like certain weapons being severely overpowered, or borderline unusable, but another to pretend that you speak for everyone else and go on some tirade using internet speak to get your point across in a condescending tone.
Like so many other business models, I support Early Access in theory, but it has frequently been abused more recently by charlatan developers who only plan to make a quick buck and have no real intention of ever truly finishing the game. I think a huge part of the onus for this is on Steam, though; they should have checks in place that are far more rigorous than the ‘buyer beware’ clause they throw up on all the Early Access pages.
That being said, any developer who is serious about using Early Access as a revenue generator should understand there is a bare minimum they should be providing before charging money, even if it is an alpha build. I have seen games in EA, outside of the blatant rip-off ones, that are literally just a huge empty map with nothing but a few stock models from Unity that have zero to no interaction for the player.
The worst thing is that some of the games I have seen in that state, do look like they could have potential, but they are absolutely nowhere near the stage of even an alpha build, so charging money for them should be out of the question. After all, how is an alpha tester expected to give feedback about a game that has absolutely no gameplay in it? Unless ‘maybe add some game to the game’ can be considered a valid criticism.
Honestly, I feel like it’s fast becoming the indie equivalent of the insidious patch culture that’s spread throughout Triple-A production, in recent years; where it’s easier for studios to release hideously broken games and then wait for customers to complain when shit doesn’t work at all, so now we’re essentially paying £40/$60 for the privilege of being QA testers for the developers. Only, in the case of Early Access we’re occasionally paying for literally nothing and then Steam does absolutely nothing to stop the corrupt developers who censor any and all criticism against them and refuse to admit when they’ve stolen assets from other sources.
I do agree that digital distribution sites that offer Early Access should put some sort of limitations down on developers or publishers who wish to use it. Just putting a “buyer beware” warning on the page doesn’t make me feel reassured as a consumer, and it does feel like its a free pass for a developer to put out a half-assed game where they just intend to make a quick buck before riding off in to the sunset.
Since Early Access is still a relatively new thing, I’m sure standards will change over time.. or at least hope they will. I like the altruistic nature of what it’s supposed to be on paper.
Yeah, absolutely, I think it’s definitely important to remember this is still a relatively new business model for gaming, I just think that it shouldn’t be we, as consumers, who are put at risk for the purposes of the experiment.
Personally, at the moment, I would only consider going Early Access on a game from a developer who I already had a lot of faith in, from previous projects; it’s just too risky taking a £15 non-refundable punt on something that could turn out to be a con.
A reliable developer or publisher is a good starting point when making your decision. I’m with you all the way though, we shouldn’t be the guinea pigs here. I’ve had mostly positive experiences, but I can easily so how getting burned once would turn me away from the entire program.
It is great that early access programs get smaller developers much needed testing help, something they otherwise can’t afford. It also gets them some capital to help keep development going. That is all good for the developers, but from the consumer side, you are being asked to pay to be a tester. This is not a position I am in favor of. Offer me a free alpha or beta and I’m in.
There are other items that don’t sit well with me either. Pricing is still an issue that is unsettling since you could end up paying the retail price of a game that isn’t even finished. You can balance that against getting the actual game upon it’s release but I would caution against it since it may never be released or may turn out to be a game you don’t want. What disturbs me more is how long games can linger in early access status. I hate to think that there should be time limits on how long a game can be in early access but some games just don’t seem to want to leave this status.
In the end, it is up to each person to decide and thus far I have chosen not to partake in any early access games.
I think another problem with getting the buyers to be your playtesters is that they don’t necessarily know what to look for, in terms of errors. I don’t mean the ‘entitled’ people who just ask for stuff they want, but more that a professional QA tester knows what their role is and how to force a game to its limits and properly catalogue the results. It’s a monotonous, thankless task which is why people are generally paid to undertake it.
Just getting people who just want to play a game to do this for you means you are far less likely to get quality, consistent feedback and has a far higher chance of resulting in a lower quality product; and the fact you’re asking them to pay you for access means you’re also far more likely to get as many unobjective complaints as you are constructive criticism.
If I were a developer, I would worry about getting no feed back at all or getting useless feedback like “this game is broken”. Obviously this goes with your point of getting people that are not professional testers and may not have the proper expectations.
Pricing is definitely a valid concern, as you pointed out. To me though, $10-$15 really isn’t that bad for a game that I think looks interesting or has received mostly positive reviews from its player base. I guess I feel that’s a safe price range as I’ve paid the same for full releases that ended up being rather disappointing in the end (Strike Suit Zero: Director’s Cut was $20, Powerstar Golf was $20, both of which I completely loathed).
I do feel that developers and publishers should have to meet certain expectations, but if the Early Access program is put in place to assist them financially with continuous funding, there really is no way to force them in to completing a game by a certain deadline. If the funds aren’t there, the funds aren’t there. But they should be required to at least commit to finishing the game at some point, or at minimum offering frequent weekly/bi-weekly updates, or be forced to offer refunds at the request of the consumer.
That is why I hate to say there should be a time limit. Some developers just work differently or have different constraints.
I doubt Steam has the staff or time to police developers into keeping projects on track but there has to be some responsibility back to Steam, I would think.
Just to give a solid example of developers working with deadlines, the developers of Lichdom: Battlemage have this right on their Steam page:
How long will this game be in Early Access?
“Lichdom: Battlemage will be released as a full game on August 26th, 2014. Xaviant’s team of experienced developers has met all of its Early Access milestones, so you can count on us to deliver on our launch date.
Here is our schedule of releases and pricing:
Pre-Alpha 1 / March 19 / Discount Price: -50% Discount – DELIVERED
Pre-Alpha 2 / April 28 / Discount Price: -50% Discount – DELIVERED
Alpha / June 16 / Discount Price: -40% Discount -DELIVERED
Beta / July 21 / Discount Price: -25% Discount – DELIVERED
Launch / August 26 / Full Price”
If each developer or publisher was required to set committed goals like this, offering refunds or partial refunds should they not be met, it may be a step in the right direction.
The early access system is great as it allows developers to beta test on a huge scale. More than they could probably afford with thier own budgets however if you purchase an early access game and in doing so helping the developer you should be given a chance to buy the finished game when launched at a discount as it shows appreciation for our support.