Steam: Much ado about early access

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By Ryan Shepard

There is a lot of buzz surrounding Steam Early Access lately, and for good reason. Some of the top-selling (and most loved) games available on Steam right now are early access titles. In a lot of ways this is great news and refreshing, but at the same time, it raises a lot of potential concerns about the future and direction of both early access and games in general.

“What is early access?” a cave dweller might ask. Well, to put it simply, an early access game is one that is still heavily under development and months, maybe years, away from being published. The game is made available for sale as an early build for those who don’t want to wait and/or want to take part in the game’s development. Rust, DayZ, and Starbound are just a few examples.

Early access can be a great opportunity for indie developers. Similar to Kickstarter, it enables supporters to contribute funding for games in dire need of a cash-infusion with an added bonus over Kickstarter: a game they can play immediately! Even if the build provided is a shadow of the final product, it gives the contributor a taste of what’s to come, and makes them a key part of the game’s development as feedback and tips go towards the game’s completion. The program is a godsend for indie developers that have great concepts but lack the means to make them a reality. Besides just a monetary benefit, these developers gain the huge asset of a dedicated group of testers for their game.

With all good things there will be some caveats. Buying into an early access game can be a risky endeavor, especially when considering a retail price tag for an unfinished game–with the risk that it may never be finished. In a recent video, YouTube video game aficionado Boogie2988 spoke at length about both the strength and potential pitfalls of the early access model and urged gamers to realize, “You’re not purchasing a game, you’re investing in the idea of a game.” There will be a lot of promises about what this game will one day become, but what you actually get could potentially be critically short.

At the time of this writing, of the top 10 selling games on Steam, 4 are early access titles. DayZ holds the top spot, recently breaking over 1 million sales! On one hand, it’s extremely encouraging to see this much excitement for a game still in development and the unparalleled collaboration between the players of the game and its developers. But with Steam’s early access games program achieving such success, the money mongers are bound to storm the virtual marketplace astride their warhorses of false promises, and pray upon the kind, loving, ever-unjudging hearts of gamers. (Could you imagine?)

In no way is this intended to deter anyone from putting money into the early access program. Early access allows for some wonderful games that may not ever have seen the light of day find their way into the hands of gamers. It enables small indie developers to push out new and innovative concepts that help diversify games, and makes the player a more central part of the development process. I merely suggest that you proceed with caution, to quote Boogie once more, “As this becomes more and more accepted, as it becomes more and more popular, the chances of you making a poor investment and losing your money will increase exponentially.” Take the time to research games and their developers, make educated choices, and when it feels right, give the good ones a chance.

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