Should we pay to play games be­fore they're done?

Hyper - - CONTENTS - >> Andrew MAc­niven is the al­pha and omega, the be­gin­ning and the end

Early Ac­cess

In the past few years, gamers have been pre­sented with an in­creas­ing num­ber of “early ac­cess” ti­tles. Play­ers are of­fered the chance to get on board at the ground floor of a game’s de­vel­op­ment, with the prom­ise of a fin­ished prod­uct ar­riv­ing at some later date.

The ad­van­tages of the early ac­cess model are po­ten­tially nu­mer­ous for both de­vel­op­ers and play­ers alike. De­vel­op­ers get much-needed feed­back and re­ceive a mon­e­tary boost, while play­ers are able to in­flu­ence the game as it grows and get the chance to glimpse the cre­ative process at work.

The “al­pha-fund­ing” prin­ci­ple is ideal for al­low­ing small, in­de­pen­dent de­vel­op­ment teams to take chances on new and in­ter­est­ing ideas that might be over­looked by the well-es­tab­lished stu­dios. But at its worst, “paid-al­pha” can feel ex­ploita­tive; play­ers do not want to feel like glo­ri­fied game testers pay­ing for the priv­i­lege.

The in­cred­i­ble suc­cess story of Minecraft pro­vided the tem­plate for how early ac­cess could work suc­cess­fully. Minecraft’s cre­ator Markus “Notch” Persson was able to de­velop the game in his spare time, re­leas­ing it upon the In­ter­net as a work-in-progress.

As the game found an in­creas­ingly ap­pre­cia­tive au­di­ence, Persson charged a small fee for al­pha ac­cess. Within months, Minecraft was turn­ing a profit. Persson was able to quit his job and work on his cre­ation full-time. Us­ing the funds from early ac­cess sub­scrip­tions, he hired oth­ers to join Minecraft’s de­vel­op­ment team.

Minecraft showed what early ac­cess could be. Al­pha-fund­ing had helped re­alise the cre­ative vi­sion of an in­de­pen­dent de­vel­oper. If Persson had pos­sessed the first germ of an idea, it was the money, feed­back and cre­ative in­put from a legion of in­volved sup­port­ers that al­lowed the game to grow and flour­ish. In this sense, Minecraft was an early ex­am­ple of a truly crowd­sourced ti­tle.

With­out the mon­e­tary con­tri­bu­tions from a re­cep­tive com­mu­nity, Minecraft may never have be­come the global phe­nom­e­non it is to­day. Per­haps Persson would have seen his game come to fruition even­tu­ally, but only af­ter a much more pro­tracted and cash-strapped de­vel­op­ment cy­cle. The al­pha-fund­ing process was for­malised with the launch of Steam’s Early Ac­cess plat­form in March of 2013. The num­ber of games on of­fer has grown ex­po­nen­tially from an ini­tial of­fer­ing of 12 ti­tles to 173 at last count. Along with Green­light – which al­lows the Steam com­mu­nity to ap­prove new ti­tles for sale – and crowd­fund­ing web­sites like Kick­starter, Early Ac­cess has helped fos­ter an in­die revo­lu­tion in PC gam­ing. It has ar­guably never been eas­ier for in­de­pen­dent de­vel­op­ers to get a project up and run­ning, and Early Ac­cess is just an­other stage on the de­vel­op­ment road, an­other leg-up for the budding game cre­ator.

A cur­sory glance at the top-sell­ing ti­tles on Steam will re­veal a slew of early ac­cess games bat­tling for supremacy. DayZ, Rust and Star­bound are con­sis­tently pop­u­lar, while the likes of Prison Ar­chi­tect and Ker­bal Space Pro­gram have re­vived beloved gen­res or re­leased in­ter­est­ing new game­play con­cepts upon an ea­ger pub­lic.

It would be trite then, to claim that there is no ap­petite for early ac­cess games. The over­rid­ing ques­tion for most play­ers will be: is it worth pay­ing money for an un­fin­ished prod­uct? That is a risk/re­ward equa­tion that each in­di­vid­ual gamer will have to weigh up; to pur­chase or not to pur­chase? Some will be ex­cited at the prospect of see­ing a game grow be­fore their eyes. Oth­ers do not want to draw back the cre­ative cur­tain, happy to wait for the fin­ished ar­ti­cle. For those that do in­vest, com­mu­ni­ca­tion on the part of the de­vel­op­ers is key. Some games are in a con­tin­u­ous state of de­vel­op­ment. Some may never be fin­ished; Dwarf Fortress cre­ator Tarn Adams has called the game his life’s work. But gamers do not pos­sess lim­it­less pa­tience; an on­go­ing di­a­logue be­tween cre­ators and com­mu­nity can help soothe con­cerns over trou­ble­some bugs or ever-length­en­ing re­lease timescales. Most of all, play­ers do not want to feel ex­ploited. Galac­tic Civ­i­liza­tions III is now avail­able in al­pha. In­ter­ested play­ers can part with $100 for a game that the de­vel­op­ers ad­mit is “un­fin­ished”, with “se­verely limited” con­tent. Nor is the game, in their words, “ac­tu­ally, well, fun yet.” The Founder’s Elite Edi­tion seems to be more of a char­i­ta­ble con­tri­bu­tion than a worth­while in­vest­ment (be­yond vague prom­ises of fu­ture DLC).

The free-to-play model has been cor­rupted by un­scrupu­lous oper­a­tors seek­ing to rake in rivers of gold through in­tru­sive mi­cro­trans­ac­tions. In the same man­ner, de­vel­op­ers can pro­voke a com­mu­nity back­lash if their early ac­cess of­fer­ings are per­ceived to be mo­ti­vated by greed.

Pub­lish­ers draw the ire of play­ers if a ti­tle is re­leased in an un­playable state – who can for­get the rocky launch of SimCity, or the bro­ken mess that was The War Z (now re­branded In­fes­ta­tion: Sur­vivor Sto­ries). Gamers may be more for­giv­ing of ti­tles that are still in al­pha, yet de­vel­op­ers know that they nev­er­the­less carry a weight of re­spon­si­bil­ity – af­ter all, in­vestors have parted with real money. DayZ cre­ator Dean Hall has even dis­cour­aged po­ten­tial pur­chasers from buy­ing his game un­less they are will­ing to ac­cept a bug-rid­den ex­pe­ri­ence. The early ac­cess model has al­lowed in­de­pen­dent ti­tles to flour­ish in re­cent years. No longer are the big pub­lish­ers the sole gate­keep­ers of the in­dus­try. A de­vel­oper with the right idea is the­o­ret­i­cally limited only by his or her own talent. And gamers ben­e­fit by get­ting the games they want.

The point of early ac­cess is surely to prop up small, in­de­pen­dent de­vel­op­ment teams, al­low­ing them to sus­tain a project via reg­u­lar mon­e­tary in­come. The model should not be ex­ploited by es­tab­lished, well-re­sourced stu­dios who can do their test­ing in-house.

Early ac­cess is still in its in­fancy, yet it looks cer­tain to re­main a per­ma­nent fix­ture in the games in­dus­try. Like the free-toplay model, early ac­cess has the po­ten­tial to be used for good or evil. To avoid player frus­tra­tion and to re­tain their trust, de­vel­op­ers must use this new tool wisely.

is it worth pay­ing money for an un­fin­ished prod­uct?

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