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Game Front’s Early Access Evaluation Policy: Explained

The rise of “Early Access” — games released in unfinished states during their development, which players can purchase, play and leave feedback about as the game is completed — are appearing throughout the PC space and beyond at an alarming pace. When presented with a new trend such as Early Access, games journalists are presented with a conundrum: is it fair to review a game before it’s finished, even though it’s available for purchase?

At Game Front, we’ve though about the Early Access situation quite a bit, and we’ve decided that we need to set a policy of whether we can evaluate Early Access games, and how to do it. We’ve decided that evaluating these games is essential: They’re available, they’re popular, and our readers are purchasing and playing them. The purpose of a game review is not only to deliver criticism about a game, but to advise readers about whether a game is worth their investment of time and money. Since Early Access games are being sold on popular portals like Steam and the Humble Store, we believe it’s necessary that we evaluate those titles to help players avoid losing money or purchasing undeserving titles.

However, reviewing Early Access titles in our traditional way isn’t really fair, either to the games themselves or the people who made them. After all, the very definition of Early Access is “unfinished.” It’s not right to decry an Early Access title for features that are missing or bugs present when those features might be added in the future, or those bugs ironed out. We’re not talking about games that have been sold in broken states or with promises unfulfilled — they deserve to be reviewed in their finished states.

But since Early Access games still take players’ money — often the full price of the finished game, or even more — we’ve decided that they’re open to at least some form of scrutiny. With that in mind, we’ve developed our Early Access Evaluation Policy in order to help guide players toward Early Access games worth their money and away from those that aren’t.

Rather than full, formal reviews, Early Access games will be evaluated with player impressions from our staff members, who will spend the same amount of time with them as they would with a formal review, or more. Rather than our usual, scored method of evaluation, complete with listed pros and cons, we’ll instead assign Early Access games one of three “Verdicts”:

Verdict: Buy It

Our strongest recommendation, this is reserved for Early Access games that offer a strong value for your investment. The game might not be finished, it might be occasionally buggy, and it might be missing features, but what is available for purchase at the time of the evaluation is a complete-enough package that allows users to play the game for significant enjoyment. Like all evaluations and reviews, this is somewhat subjective, so you’ll want to read our writers’ impressions of the games closely, to make sure that issues that may not have burdened the game for them are acceptable to you. Overall, though, we feel secure in recommending a game with the Buy It verdict to our friends, and this verdict is reserved for games that are good enough as they are that if development stopped on them at the moment our evaluation was posted, they’d still be a worthy investment.

Verdict: Wait On It

The yellow light of our three-verdict review system. “Wait” verdicts suggest that a game has both major positives and major negatives. It’s clear that improvements are being made, and for many players, there might be significant fun to be had in these Early Access games. They’re also marred by issues that would be unacceptable in a full retail release, and which can seriously detract from the enjoyment of the game — things like major glitches, server-side errors, crashes and the like, which can bring the gaming experience to a crashing halt. “Wait” games might still be worth your money, and the decision to go in on them is, of course, up to you; but when you see a “Wait” verdict, we recommend you do just that, until the game is in a stronger, more finished state.

Verdict: Skip It

Whether a game is just too early in its development to be any good, is too covered in major issues to be really playable, or too far from what is promised by the vision to be recognizable as the same game, “Skip It” titles are just that: games we can’t recommend. These might be somewhat rare in the world of Early Access, but it’s very possible for a game to sound good on paper and seriously lack execution, even at its early stages. As with all Early Access titles, improvement is possible, but these are games that are bad enough, or rough enough, to create far more frustration than fun — and which we wouldn’t recommend someone spend their money on, at least for some time. “Skip It” games should be addressed with serious caution.

Long-Term Evaluation and Updates

The nature of Early Access means that games are always changing, but the number of games already available on Early Access and the dedication required to stay current with them means it’s impossible for Game Front’s staff to keep up with every update on every game. You’ll find a listing for “Version No.” on our Early Access evaluations — use those and the date of most recent publication as a barometer for how old an evaluation is, so you can take into account changes that have occurred since we last wrote about a game.

Of course, we’ll do our best to keep up with the most meaningful updates to Early Access games, especially those that will change our opinions of whether a game is a worthwhile investment to new players. We encourage you, the readers, to drop us tips and comments when something significant happens in an Early Access game that interests you; that will help us keep those changes on our radars and prioritize them, so we can better serve you.