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Early Access: Vital Development Tool or Cash Grab?

Updated: Dec 10, 2019

Early access games are a pretty bizarre concept if you really think about it. In what other form of entertainment would you be willing to pay for something that’s unfinished? Would you buy a book that hasn’t been edited and checked for typos? Pay for a movie before all the special effects are finished?

Ok, that last one might be kind of fun.

Granted, in most cases, early access resembles backing a game on kickstarter, just with a playable prototype available. It’s a pre-order on a game that’s still in production. The trouble is, payed early access can blur the lines between Alpha, Beta, and completed game. There’s always a chance that the game you played in Alpha will never be fully finished. Star Citizen, for example, has been in development for somewhere around 300 years. Day Z was in Alpha as long as most kindergarteners have been alive. These games have made so much money before going gold, they don’t have much motivation to do so.

The point being, if supporters of these games paid to fund a finished product, they still haven’t gotten what they ostensibly paid for. And while pre-purchasing Star Citizen ships is probably a safer investment than Bitcoin, there’s still no concrete guarantee it will ever actually launch, and you’re out however much cash you dropped on it.

So you’re saying all early access is a trap?

Not necessarily.  We’ve been over this, but games are crazy expensive to make, so if worst comes to worst, paid Betas and the like can be a vital source of funding. It can also be a cool way for players to provide funding to the devs making projects that are unusual or risky, allowing them to continue working.

And there have been instances of developers doing right by their early access supporters. Digital Extremes recently told their studio’s story to NoClip, and admitted the studio was close to bankruptcy when they decided to self-fund their high-quality F2P title Warframe. So to keep Warframe and Digital Extremes alive, they began selling a founder’s pack in the form of bonus content for fans. These packs provided Digital Extremes with a vital revenue stream, allowing them to polish their product without worrying about keeping the lights on.

Warframe is a great case study in paid early access done well. The additional funding allowed Digital Extremes to be certain the game they released was something they were proud of. Without the help of fans paying for those founders packs, the studio might have closed.

Still, these systems of monetization aren’t perfect. Early on, these founder’s packs provided an advantage, and players voiced their concern. Digital Extremes took that feedback and re-balanced those systems.

But say if another dev, less worried about fairness, decides to sell some rad OP rocket launchers for 20 bucks each, players could get ripped off just because they don’t have a ton of disposable income. So as consumer considering paying money for an early access game, you have to do a bit of research in order to make sure the developers you’re investing in are worthy of your cash.

Ugh, Homework? Seriously?

Look, I get it, having to Google stuff and read things is a drag, but it’s worth the work. Have these developers published games before, or are they just some rando working in their parents’ basement?  Are there publishers or external investors involved, or are the only accountable parties said randos in a basement? When there are multiple, experienced entities involved, more people can be held accountable if the game runs into problems like a skewed economy.

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