Video Games

July 18, 2014

Appleton: It's time to kill Early Access programs

If I buy a game, I want it to be finished. Maybe I'm old-fashioned.

If I buy a game, I want it to be finished. Maybe I'm old-fashioned.

That certainly seems to be the case given the growth of Early Access programs.

These programs allow customers to purchase games that still are in development. Players pay full price to play whatever the developer has finished, which could be a small area of an open-world game or just a handful of levels in a more traditional title. There are no minimum requirements for how far along the game must be before being available for Early Access purchase.

The idea behind this practice is that players get the joy of playing a game early while also assisting in its improvement by offering feedback and reporting bugs. Developers get the luxury of that feedback and extensive testing, as well as an influx of cash to finance the completion of the game.

The trend began about a year ago when Steam, Valve's digital retail and distribution service for PC, Mac, Linux and mobile gamers, fully accepted the idea. A few games, such as "Mount & Blade" and "Prison Architect," had success with this type of funding before Steam's program.

However, Steam perfected the model by providing an extremely accessible platform for both customers and developers.

Now, Sony is considering an Early Access program similar to Steam's for the PlayStation 4. I think this would be a huge mistake.

The problem is that this system can be taken advantage of rather easily. And some people, especially when millions of dollars are involved, always will take that easy money and run.

Steam's Early Access program offers no guarantee that the game will ever be finished. Warning labels let players know that they are in fact purchasing an unfinished game, and Steam added a section in its Frequently Asked Questions area last month that reads: "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."

This additional clarification came after an initial wave of gamers came calling for their money back after the games they had purchased died before completion. There was even some talk of reporting the program to the Federal Trade Commission for defrauding customers.

I don't think that's necessarily the case when it comes to service providers. Steam isn't trying to defraud its users; it simply made an alternative purchasing and development process available. The onus is on developers to behave responsibly.

The most successful Early Access titles to date have raised well beyond what their developers probably thought possible. Games like "Rust" and "DayZ" have made millions in the months since their release on Steam. But both of these games, and so many other successful Early Release titles, aren't done yet.

Why?

I don't really know why. It could be that development hit a snag somewhere. It could be that $10 million isn't actually enough to make an open-world zombie game using old game engines. Unfortunately, I think it's intentional.

There is no system in place to stop developers from dragging out this Early Access process as long as possible. There are some advantages to doing so.

The feedback and bug reporting that customers are asked to do in Early Access programs used to be something that developers had to pay for. Quality Assurance teams, more commonly known as game testers, would meticulously play through levels of a game and catalog its problems. All large publishers still use these teams, but that will change if Early Access spreads to the console market. Thousands of employees would be rendered obsolete.

And how exactly would this program work with a console game? Early Access console games almost certainly would have to be downloaded onto system hard drives. That means no disk. Players won't be able to take the game back, sell it at a later date or bring it over to a buddy's house. You can't return a download.

Now the manufacture of discs and boxes is rendered obsolete. Publishers will wonder why they should ever waste money delivering hard copies of games again if people are willing to spend $65 on an unfinished digital copy. Anyone working in those manufacturing plants is also out of a job.

A console Early Access program also will legitimize the alarming practice of releasing unfinished games. Many would argue that "Battlefield 4," a popular console shooter released last October, is still incomplete. Some features of that title never have worked properly. Multiple class-action lawsuits are currently filed against EA for this very reason.

If companies like EA can simply use an Early Access program to deliver an unfinished game to the massive console market, then what little recourse gamers had is now gone. Those lawsuits that seek repayment for a dishonest product are gone. The whole notion of what a finished game actually entails is gone.

To me, it's like buying a car without a windshield, seats or windows for full price and hoping the manufacturer will install those missing features at some point. It will run. It will take me places. But is it really a car?

 

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About Rory Appleton

Rory Appleton

@RoryDoesPhonics

A gaming guru, Rory Appleton tackles the hottest games and issues making news in the video game world. Email Rory at rappleton@fresnobee.com .

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