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