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.