One of the first things I get asked by people who have just found out what I do is “So, do you get to play games before they come out?” To which my answer is “Yes, occasionally.” At which point they reply “Wow, that’s so cool.”
Is it though?
Okay, yes, it is exciting to go and see a game a few months or even a year before release, but this only holds so much value. Most importantly, the game isn’t finished yet, obviously. This means what you’re looking at doesn’t look as good as it’s supposed to, it’s riddled with bugs, and not all of the mechanics have been implemented. The reason why people are so excited to hear I get to play games early is because they saw an awesome flashy trailer a few months ago for the next big thing. Bear in mind that the trailer is usually just CG, and what I get to play early are parts of the game the developers are actually letting me see. God knows what’s hidden behind closed doors.
Steam’s Early Access system has opened up some of this experience to the public. You can play games on the programme that are nowhere near complete, and watch them grow as the developers add more and more stuff over the months. Sometimes you can even get involved in the feedback process. However, this is only available for a fee. Is any of this useful to anyone? To the developers, sure. To you?
I’m writing a book. I’ve finished chapters one, five, 17 and 23. I haven’t edited it yet, so there are typos all over the place. If you pay me some money, I’ll let you read what I’ve done, and you can point out the typos for me. Then you can read chapter nine when it’s done next month.
Sounds like a bad deal right? It helps me out as the author, because I’ve gotten paid already, and I’ll get some feedback about what I’m doing wrong, or right. As for you, all you’ve got are badly written snippets of story, which may or may not get better when the book actually comes out. This is what a lot of games on Early Access are doing, and it’s leaving a lot of players disappointed.
Some games spend so long in Early Access that you forget about them. One day an unseen patch will automatically download and the game will be done. The last time you played it was probably months ago, and since it wasn’t finished then, that’s the lasting impression you have of it. It might be a fantastic game in its finished form, but you’ll never play it. Disappointing for you, disappointing for the developer who spent all that time making it. I purchased Prison Architect about a year ago. I played it for a few hours and enjoyed my time with it, but it was missing all sorts of features. I get emails every now and then explaining what’s being added, but I haven’t seen any real PR for it since all the way back then. Will I go back to it when it’s released? Probably not.
It’s not a completely flawed system, though. Some games do it well, much like Prison Architect. They’re completely transparent with the design process, have a public update schedule, and stick to it regularly. Others reach their supposed ‘release date’, push a quick patch to the users and call it a day. The game is no longer in ‘Early Access’ technically, but it’s still broken. The Golf Club is a game with buckets of potential, but the full version of the game still feels like a prototype. I couldn’t finish a round without the graphics completely bugging out on me, and there aren’t really any game modes to keep you interested. Early Access needs better regulation to ensure that the players get what they pay for.
Kickstarter is a crowdfunding platform with some good rules in place to make sure you’re not wasting your money. However even that isn’t perfect, as we saw recently with the cancellation of Yogventures. The project was given over half a million dollars by hopeful fans of the Yogscast YouTube channel. All production has stopped on the game, and donors are yet to get their money back.
It’s not just putting money towards games early that’s a problem for you as the player either. Games are being announced at big trade shows like E3 as much as two or three years before they are set to release. Watch Dogs anyone? Tom Clancy's The Division? We’re shown a magnificent trailer, demonstrating how great the game is going to be when it finally comes out. Hype builds and builds, until it is completely impossible to live up to when release day finally rolls around.
Of course, by that time, revenue generated from pre-orders alone is usually enough to make a profit for the big titles. It doesn’t even matter if the game gets average or even poor reviews, it has probably already sold thousands of copies before anyone even reads them. Then, when they play it, people are disappointed because the game didn’t live up to expectation. How could it when several years of hype had lead them to expect perfection?
Time for a change then? Most certainly. Will it happen? Not likely. Early Access needs more rigid regulations to ensure that developers aren’t just getting paid-for bug testers. Games need to be announced closer to release so they aren’t crushed under all the expectation from the start. It’s not like it’ll be any less exciting when they come out. Something to think about at least. But not for too long, we’ve got Mass Effect 4 to look forward to.