What's wrong with Steam Early Access?
The latest bone of contention that has arisen between games journalists and developers has been surrouning early access games and how journalists have chosen to cover these 'works in progress'.
Some developers have been upset by journalists who have, quite rightly, treated coverage of games on Steam Early Access and other paid alpha and beta programmes as reviews due to the fact that studios are asking for money from gamers in order for them to play these unfinished products.
This in itself is a bit of a silly argument. These games are unfinished and probably should be getting the preview treatment but because developers are asking for money for these games journalists have every right to treat these games as reviews. I personally wouldn't but I would include a comment at the end of the article explaining whether I thought the game was worth the expenditure in its current state.
This, however, brings me on to a much wider and more pressing issue with Steam Early Access and other similar schemes. Is it right to charge money for early access to a product at all in the way many developers currently are?
Early access programmes stem from crowd-sourcing platforms like Kickstarter. Now crowd-sourcing is actually quite a good idea. Saying to customers, "Would you buy our game if we made it?" and then adding, "If you would then buy it now and we'll send it to you when it's finished."
This can help developers prove that their concept is actually worth making and then allowing them to make these ideas reality. Double Fine and Revolution have successfully funded the return of their own brands of point-and-click adventure gaming very successfully and both Elite: Dangerous and Star Citizen have proven that there is an insatiable thirst for good space combat games.
Early access draws on the crowd-sourcing idea and takes to to the next level. It offers gamers the chance to jump in and play games before they're finished for a fee which allows developers the chance both to test their games on a willing audience and fund development at the same time.
On the face of it this is also not a bad idea and plenty of studios have managed to do it successfully without leaving their fans totally ripped off or stuck with a game that will never be finished.
There are many ways to do this. Introversion, who have experience funding issues in the past despite proving that they can make excellent games, offer players the chance to buy their new game, Prison Architect, now and play it as they test out new features and take feedback on how to make the game better. And there are different price points starting at 30 USD which is around 20 GBP which gets you straight into the game after a download and a copy of the game to keep when it is finally finished.
30 USD or 20 GBP is not too bad a price point. Being less than the standard retail price of a PC game which is usually around 50 USD or 40 GBP and recognises that the game isn't finished and also rewards players for getting in on the action early.
In fact many of the games that feature on Steam Early Access are priced lower than they would be at release in recognition of their unfinished state and some even actively discourage players from buying the early access version unless they are completely committed to playing a broken game.
DayZ is one of the most popular proponents of this approach. It's priced at 19.99 GBP and it carries the following warning, "WARNING: THIS GAME IS EARLY ACCESS ALPHA. PLEASE DO NOT PURCHASE IT UNLESS YOU WANT TO ACTIVELY SUPPORT DEVELOPMENT OF THE GAME AND ARE PREPARED TO HANDLE WITH SERIOUS ISSUES AND POSSIBLE INTERRUPTIONS OF GAME FUNCTIONING."
Steam's Early Access FAQ also contains a warning stating that all games are in an unfinished state and may indeed never be finished. It reads. "It's up to the developer to determine when they are ready to 'release'. Some developers have a concrete deadline in mind, while others will get a better sense as the development of the game progresses. 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."
Here's where some problems begin to arise. Some games indeed may never be finished. It does happen. Developers run out of money or a project runs so long that the developers lose hope and finally interest in completing the project. It's fairly rare but it does happen. Still most of the time you're paying no more than around 20 GBP or 30 USD and often it's much less than that. Some developers even offer their Early Access games up in Steam Sales and sci-fi sandbox Starforge is currently 3.74 GBP (75 percent off) in Steam's Summer Sale.
Games not being finished is not that big a problem with the early access schemes. What is the biggest issue, certainly from my point of view, it those mercenary developers who take advantage of the process to charge more than they need to for their unfinished games.
Wasteland 2 is a good example to start with. It usually retails on Steam Early Access for 39.99 GBP although it's in the Steam Summer Sale with 15 percent off. InXile Entertainment raised over 2.9 million USD on Kickstarter to develop Wasteland 2. That's over 300 percent of their original 900,000 USD target. Kickstarter users could secure a DRM-free downloadable copy of the game on PC or Mac for the princely sum of 15 USD which is around 10 GBP. Why are they charging four times that for the same game on Steam Early Access?
InXile's Wasteland 2 isn't the worst offender though. There are titles like Ubisoft's free-to-play Mighty Quest For Epic Loot and Ghost Recon: Phantoms which made their first appearances on Steam as paid-for Steam Early Access titles. Yes, you got some extra stuff, but to charge for beta access to a free-to-play title is just ridiculous especially what Ghost Recon: Phantoms had been running in free beta away from Steam under the guise of Ghost Recon Online for some time.
Elite: Dangerous is a highly sought-after project. Fans of Elite have been waiting since 1995 when Frontier released the third game in the Elite series, Frontier: First Encounters, for a proper sequel. First Encounters was pretty rotten as well and you really need to jump back to 1993 to play Frontier: Elite 2 to get the last decent game in the series. That's 21 years. Elite: Dangerous took to Kickstarter and managed to raise just over 1.5 million GBP which was a little bit over their target of 1.25 million GBP. They then took a leaf out of Star Citizen's book.
Star Citizen did run a Kickstarter campaign which raised just over 2.1 million USD but only because their own crowd-funding system on the game's website crashed under the weight of folks trying to fund the game. Star Citizen's popularity is down to the fact that it is helmed by Wing Commander creator Chris Roberts and is his first game in over 10 years. To date developer Cloud Imperium has raised over 47 million USD through crowd-funding and currently offers access to the alpha test of the dogfighting elements of Star Citzen for 5 USD on top of whatever backer package you've already chosen (minimum 30 USD). It must be noted that Star Citizen's pricing structure is not without it's problems but that's a discussion for another time.
Frontier decided to follow suit and set up their own online crowd-funding store for fans of Elite to pledge their loyalty and money to the return of the venerable space exploration and trading series. As it stands Elite: Dangerous has just exited the alpha test stage and is offering a 'premium' beta to fans. This beta costs 100 GBP. Just think about that for a moment...
The game isn't finished although the price does include a copy of the finished article and all of the DLC but still... 100 GBP. Pre-ordering the finished game costs 35 GBP and a 20 GBP donation on Kickstarter was enough to secure a single download of the full game.
Betas are tests. Developers use them to stretch their games and the server systems that power them to breaking point in order to see where the game needs shoring up. Usually this kind of testing is carried out by professional quality assurance teams who are experienced in thoroughly and systematically breaking games and suggesting how to fix the issues they find. Good QA is expensive, but, as we've seen with the Battlefield 4 debacle, it is a necessary part of game development and must be done right.
Early access games effectively co-opt those who buy into them as beta and even alpha testers. This means that not only are they providing free QA services, they are actually PAYING for this privilege. Now those games that charge less than the full retail release will be to early access gamers are saying, "Y'know, thanks for helping us finish this game, both by testing it and helping to fund it, so you get the game for less than full retail punters do."
It's also worth noting that the majority these dedicated early access players won't have the dedication and experience to play these games as hard and extensively and a professional QA tester and probably won't have the knowledge needed to suggest a solid solution to any issue they find.
Now, charging less than retail for a game and then making use of the players as improvised QA testers is one thing but charging retail as Wasteland 2 does or the ridiculous 100 GBP as Frontier does for Elite: Dangerous is outrageous. This is made worse when you consider that Cloud Imperium is charging just 5 USD for gamers who wany to participate in the alpha Star Citizen dogfighting module.
Early access programmes can be a force for good and for some games it has helped them get made. But, for other developers it seems to be a way to milk a fanbase that has already proven themselves loyal enough to try and help get the game funded in the first place. For projects like Elite: Dangerous and Wasteland 2 to charge as much as they do for early access is a kick in the teeth to their fans and it discredits a system which could be of benefit to indie developers who struggle to get funding. Finally, it also devalues the key part that good QA has to play in games development and undermines the sheer dedication and skills that such a job requires.