There are a lot of issues regarding Steam that many have gripes with, from their front page listings to their Greenlight program. Among them, I see Early Access being the most deplorable as a consumer. I think it goes against the tenets of consumer rights and sensible business, despite understanding why it exists. It’s great for indie developers continue their efforts while ensuring their game’s place in Steam, but perhaps there are better ways that won’t screw over customers.
Super Bunnyhop on Early Access
Watch this video first and take time to reflect on the points presented (especially that comment on 4:26).
Early Access in Other Things
Let’s take food that’s still being cooked. There are some that you’d want to taste in its incomplete form like chocolate chip cookie dough, while some should be completed all the way through like anything with raw meat (except sushi and carpaccio perhaps). More or less, unless you like the feel of porcelain on your butt cheeks, then you’d want to eat something that’s carefully and sufficiently prepared.
If you’re served a steak in a restaurant that’s more undercooked than what you ordered, you’ll most likely call out the manager to complain. There would be screaming matches about salmonella and e.coli, and lawyers may get called. If Early Access is implemented in other things, it just wouldn’t fly.
Imagine early access books, wherein you get to look at the writers’ first drafts. It would result in serious deterrents to the writers and those books will be left unfinished. Therefore, it doesn’t work for literature either, or any other art medium for that matter.
Just about every other field out there are not compatible with the Early Access model. You can’t live in an unfinished house, you can’t get a passing grade with an unfinished paper, you can’t get paid with unfinished work, and so on. Maybe you can listen to early access music, but they’re never as good as fully produced tracks (unless you’re a hipster scene kid).
Only in video games do you see unfinished products being made ready “enough” for consumers to take in, and we’re seeing those who abuse the system, whether intentionally or inadvertently, which ruins it for other developers who could really use it.
If there are a list of things that discredit caveat emptor in the gaming market, then this goes on top of it (along with corporate reviews).
The Developers’ Side
The point of Early Access is being able to get funding in advance so a project can be finished, and being able to beta test and garner support for the game at the same time is a good side effect. This seems to be a good idea by Valve to be the benevolent authority yet again, giving the small fish a good place to swim and be all they can be.
Same thing goes with Greenlight, wherein the people get to choose on whether a game gets to be on Steam or not. These are ways for more indie developers to realize their dream of putting out a game that people would buy. Those who have watched Indie Game: The Movie should have an idea on how that works.
While they’re good on paper, they did opened the floodgates while seemingly lowering standards, paving the way for titles that have since drawn controversy for being faulty and inferior products, such as Dark Matter, WarZ, Towns, and so on. While it can be said that games are broken and unfinished tend to be released anyway, it has been happening at an increasing frequency, and there’s little to no source of information for consumers to know if something is worth buying other than community reviews.
That and all the other stuff we’ve seen from Kickstarter and Indiegogo, both good and bad, suggest that it’s definitely not perfect and we are now seemingly headed for something like 1983. Is this oversaturation, and are we headed for a crash again?
My Thoughts on Early Access Games
My personal policy in buying games is to never buy Early Access or pre-order anything, even if I want the bonuses. The principle of making my money count is greater than any desire for swag, and I’m not just saying this to be a self-righteous douche.
As a Chinese, I was taught by my own mother to NEVER pay for anything that’s not finished. It doesn’t matter how solid the promise seems; only pay for it when it’s actually done. If not, then at least be able to watch it be finished right then and there. Mama hammers that into my head every chance she gets, even to this day.
That may or may not be what you’re getting from an Early Access game, depending on your level of involvement with the game and how open and consistent the developers are. In the case of Towns, the devs bailed due to burnout, which should be a crime since they already got money from customers.
It feels like an investment scam, wherein you are coaxed to give money in the hopes of getting a larger return. I’m not hoping that I can somehow get a return on investment; I want to be damn sure about it. This isn’t supposed to be complicated, but merely a sound mindset for consumers to get their money’s worth.
The existence of sites like Metacritic and game review sites is supposed to help customers decide if a game is good or not, but only Polygon is even bothering with reviewing Early Access games with final scores. We could use a bit more help at this point, or Steam could actually come up with ideas to either overhaul or take it off entirely.
Steam letting the buyer beware seems lazy and a bit irresponsible, just to get across the gist of it. Buying (or renting) games used to be akin to gambling before the Internet came about, and it’s sad to be brought back to that sorry state. We can get enticed by all the trailers and screenshots, yet there’s still no sure indication if that game is ever going to turn out alright, even if there’s a big chance that it will.
The only saving grace now seems to be forums like Reddit and NeoGAF (4chan doesn’t count), and you have to be good at filtering the information to sift the good stuff off the trolls and toxic non-sense. There’s also downloading torrents to try them out (some Early Access games get cracked and seeded) and see if they’re must-buys or not, but that’s certainly one hell of a grey area (and I don’t wish to advocate piracy on this site).
There could also be efforts for more consumer-oriented curation and critique online, which isn’t exactly a large-scale solution. I threw in my hat and write reviews as well as my abilities and foresight can allow me (as I try to do in one of my jobs), but it’s far from easy.