Early Access came to Steam in 2013, with promises of directly involving the Steam community in the development of unfinished games. At the time, it sounded like a dream come true: Gamers would get to support their favorite diamonds in the rough, and developers would get meaningful feedback direct from the source. Everybody wins!
Early Access gave the ultra popular mod DayZ a place to pitch its tent, and within hours, it was the top selling game on steam. Regardless of what anyone thinks about DayZ, it showed the potential of Early Access in a really exciting way. It was also significant because it brought an entirely new genre to the fore - 'The Survival Game'. As I understand them, survival games are basically immersion simulators. They offer to spawn the player in a sprawling, often barren landscape to fend for his or her self. Most of them incorporate some kind of crafting system, and include rudimentary PVE and/or PVP combat. The main appeal here is the sandbox nature of these games and the idea that you can live a second life in a world overrun by [Dinosaurs, Zombies, Crazed Forest Dwellers, insert AI threat here]. There is nothing inherently wrong with this concept, and on paper, it should make for some pretty exciting games.
Except they're all being released on Early Access. And most of them suck.
The WarZ, or its re-branded incarnation - Infestation: Survivor Stories, is one of the worst offenders. Broken physics, buggy animations, a predatory micro-transaction system...the list goes on. 'WarZ/ISS' technically launched prior to the announcement of Early Access (a move its lead, Sergei Titov, shamelessly admitted was to try and beat DayZ onto Steam). Sadly, this cynical attitude may have paid off. At the very least, WarZ/ISS enjoyed a much greater degree of player attention than such a derivative cash grab ever deserved. Mr.Titov wasn't the only one who saw DayZ's success and got excited. It's as if light bulbs appeared over the head of every aspiring indie developer in the world, and inside this light bulb was a dollar sign, and the words 'Crafting, Survival, Open World'. 7 days to die, Rust, The Forest, Life is Feudal, H1Z1, theHunter, The Stomping Land, Beasts of Prey, Miscreated, Stranded Deep... There's a new one every month. The quality of these games varies greatly, as does their average customer review score, price, and theme. But they are all open world survival games which popped up one after another in the wake of DayZ, and like DayZ, they all topped the bestseller charts at one point or another. Coincidence? Possibly. Hype exploitation? Probably.
It hasn't all been roses for them, of course. Several among those were so blatantly buggy and broken that they were pulled off the storefront by Valve. Notably, 7 days to die was found to be using stolen art assets, and The Stomping Land's lead developer made a series of grandiose promises and then disappeared with a sizable chunk of cash, leaving the game in an obviously incomplete state. Even among the highest quality of these Early Access survival contenders, there have been questions raised about whether the developers will ever actually get around to implementing the ambitious features they have promised. And therein lies the problem: buying Early Access games is like betting on a horse. It may place first, or it may not even leave the gate.
"It's as if light bulbs appeared over the head of every aspiring indie developer in the world, and inside this light bulb was a dollar sign, and the words 'Crafting, Survival, Open World'"
Early Access games do have a disclaimer on their store page which states, in no uncertain terms that you are buying an unfinished product that is likely to change. The problem with this caveat is that many gamers will see it as a challenge, rather than a deterrent. The idea that you can buy into something before it's big and have a hand in shaping it, trumps any of our reservations about the potential quality (or lack thereof) of the game we're buying. I'm of the opinion that Valve knows that. At the very least, the developers of Early Access games do. In recent months the language has become even more explicit, to the effect of "YOU ARE BUYING A BROKEN GAME!!!1", and yet, dire warnings aside, these games still manage to smash the top sellers charts over and over. It's reverse psychology at its finest.
There have been a few cases of Early Access done right. Divinity: Original Sin arrived on Early Access in more than playable shape, and with a clear vision for the future. It spent its Early Access duration working out some kinks and finally released to great acclaim from both players and press. Insurgency was another Early Access success story which bided its time in Early Access and slowly improved by listening to its community. But here's the thing - these games are the exception, not the rule. To date, only 25% of games that enter Early Access actually find their way to a 'full' release.
Early Access can give developers a chance to fine tune their work without the pressure of a full release, which enables certain games to flourish. But that only works if the developers went into Early Access prepared to begin with. Many developers are taking the position that Early Access is a 'shield' which protects them from criticism, and allows them to toss broken alpha builds onto the store front with hefty price tags attached. As a developer who spent more than 4 years on each of the games I worked on before trying to sell them (disclaimer: I am the creator of Depth and Killing Floor), that really rubs me the wrong way. It's a lazy, short sighted attitude which asks gamers to gamble on a game concept, rather than the game itself. Even more frustrating is that it encourages copycat behavior among developers who would rather mimic the current fad, than commit to an original long-term IP. If your Early Access prototype flops? no harm no foul, right? Ditch it, and move on to the next 'big thing'.
"Many developers are taking the position that Early Access is a 'shield' which protects them from criticism, and allows them to toss broken alpha builds onto the store front with hefty price tags attached"
A much better system would be to have potential Early Access developers submit their latest build for play testing by Valve QA and base the approval on that, rather than a by the numbers process of matching a game's storefront information against a set of basic requirements. Playtesting would reveal some useful information. For example - Can your game run for 30 minutes without crashing? Do your characters animate? Is there some semblance of gameplay? Does the build in any way resemble the promises you made on your storefront? If not - no Early Access for you. In fact, no Steam release at all, is what I say. But this is all just wishful thinking - Valve has made no secret of their move away from curating the Steam store, and the steady influx of garbage through Early Access is just one symptom of that.
"If your Early Access prototype flops? no harm no foul, right? Ditch it, and move on to the next 'big thing'"
Early Access is a great idea, but in principle it has allowed a lot of lazy and greedy developers to get a bite of the apple that they are in no way entitled to. Developing a good game takes years of blood, sweat and tears. If you wouldn't pay the asking price for what you are releasing on Steam, then don't ask anyone else to. Oh, and if you find yourself trying to come up with a concept for your next game, and the pitch is "It's Like DayZ, but ...". Just don't. Stop what you're doing, take a few minutes, and go back to the drawing board.
You can do better.