Early Access Could Encourage Developers to Exploit Players

After much discussion and a hyper-successful Arma II mod, a standalone version of the online multiplayer survival horror game DayZ has finally popped on Steam — as an Early Access title.

Atop the DayZ product page on Steam is a fairly massive disclaimer, warning players of the kind of experience they’re signing up for when they plunk down $30 for the game:

“WARNING: THIS GAME IS EARLY ACCESS ALPHA. PLEASE DO NOT PURCHASE IT UNLESS YOU WANT TO ACTIVELY SUPPORT DEVELOPMENT OF THE GAME AND ARE PREPARED TO HANDLE WITH SERIOUS ISSUES AND POSSIBLE INTERRUPTIONS OF GAME FUNCTIONING.”

The description goes on to explain where developer Dean Hall means to take the game as it moves further down the path toward completion, and according to reports, DayZ earned Hall and his Arma II-making employer, Bohemia Interactive, a cool $5 million in its first 24 hours available, which will ostensibly be used to finish the game (and part of which goes to Steam, of course).

DayZ is far from the first title on Steam Early Access, a program in which players purchase games before they’re completed and are able to play early, in-development builds, while also offering feedback and bug testing to developers. (You can read more about it on Steam’s Early Access FAQ.) Nor is DayZ the first to gain heavy attention and pull in a lot of money by selling players an unfinished game to be beta tested by players. But it is the latest in an interesting, if troubling, trend that Steam legitimizes with its Early Access program: one of selling unfinished games to players, giving them the apparent privilege to “actively support game development.” Not only do players assist in areas like quality assurance and beta testing, they pay for the privilege.

And not to leap to doom-saying conclusions, but one has to wonder what will happen to Early Access when a game inevitably fails to reach a state of completion, despite money taken from players with the promise of a game that will, one day, be released in a finished state.

The Trouble of Trust

Early Access, like the crowdfunding bubble that came before it, suggests that players give money to developers who are working on games those players want to buy, before that game fully exists. Like Kickstarter or Indiegogo, the idea is that you’re “investing,” or perhaps donating, money toward the game’s completion — often, the situation is more like a pre-order of the theoretical game, or at least a monetary vote of confidence in an idea. You pay now, and the money goes toward making the game. Early buyers receive something in return for their faith and the developer gets to make something it couldn’t otherwise.

Unlike crowdfunding, Early Access has the benefit of giving players something tangible to mess around with in exchange for their money, which is a big positive. But at the end of the day, the situation is more or less the same: Consumers are paying someone in hopes of a product being made by the end, with no guaranteed benefit to themselves.

The program lacks safeguards the same way Kickstarter and Indiegogo do. From a consumer’s standpoint, paying for Early Access is a serious gamble: it fundamentally assumes that a game is not done, and often Early Access is billed as a way to help fund development in progress.

So what happens if you pay for an Early Access game, but it still fails to raise enough money to reach completion? Well, you got what you paid for, and what you paid for was an incomplete game.

Join the Conversation   

* required field

By submitting a comment here you grant GameFront a perpetual license to reproduce your words and name/web site in attribution. Inappropriate or irrelevant comments will be removed at an admin's discretion.

12 Comments on Early Access Could Encourage Developers to Exploit Players

Aedelric

On December 23, 2013 at 11:56 am

Kickstarter is a complete risk, the only problem I have with Kickstarter is that they do not give fair warning to potential backers that they may never get a return. Steam Early Access is completely fair, you get a product right away when you hand over money, not the case with Kickstarter.

Steam makes it perfectly clear (In large bold lettering) you are supporting beta projects and that they may not be complete or fully functional. If someone is dumb enough to support a project that fails, it is their own fault because they have adequate warning before parting with money, if they had patience they could have waited for final release.

When it comes it quality of product I do not see indie Kickstarter/Early Access games being any less functional or buggy compared to the majority of larger releases from traditional publishers. If anything the last five or so years have shown a disturbing trend of bigger companies giving less and less support and taking less player feedback than ever, Bioware is a excellent current example of this.

Personally I find the risk is worthwhile, without these ways of funding indie game developers we would only ever be subjected to unimaginative and bug ridden titles from publishers like Ubisoft/EA/Sega.

Consumers are protected, we all have rights, just buy the completed game. If you want risk and wish to support your favorite developers, then fork out some cash during development. End of the day only an idiot supports someone they do not know or trust and idiots deserve what they get. Not sure what the point of this article was apart from demonstrating the excessive use of hyperbole.

lol

On December 23, 2013 at 12:04 pm

Exploiting would be not having the disclaimer.. lol

Phil Hornshaw

On December 23, 2013 at 12:35 pm

@Aedelric

But wait, how can someone who supports a game on Early Access then be “dumb” if it fails? How do you have any more information on Early Access than you do on Kickstarter, particularly before you play the game? You still have to give up your money sight-unseen — maybe you get to see a trailer — and that’s that. There’s still major risk and supporting the game is all faith and gamble. You can’t judge a player for putting their money on the wrong horse before the race even starts.

And I think the argument that buggy games are released by big publishers doesn’t really excuse Early Access either. At least when a publisher or developer releases a finished game, it gets reviewed by journalists and critics, not to mention a million other bloggers and even just players. If you want info about the game before you buy, you can get it. So big publishers releasing bad games does nothing to excuse Early Access for potentially doing the same, and in the former situation, there’s a system set up to warn you — namely, sites like this, and other players posting their experiences.

I agree that Early Access has a lot of benefits, but it still allows Valve and developers to profit off your willingness to gamble with your money, when really, they should be gambling with theirs — since they’re the ones who are reaping all the benefits. I think you’re really doing a disservice to players by assuming anyone who gets taken by seeing a game on Valve’s game portal, reading the language of “supporting development” and wanting a good idea to be turned into a game is an “idiot.” That’s hyperbole to me, not the fact that some very real exploits exist here, like promising a ton of features that you can’t deliver. We’ve seen that happen on Kickstarter, what’s different about Early Access?

Foehunter82

On December 23, 2013 at 1:50 pm

@Phil: I think his argument stems more from a general “don’t trust anyone” mindset. While I disagree with calling paying customers/supporters idiots, I will agree that anyone who is contributing to Kickstarter or Early Access should be cautious and do some research before shelling out the money. I realize that in many cases, there’s not a lot of data out there to research to verify the validity of a given project, but any supporter should at least try. That said, no matter how well researched, supported, developed, etc., a project is, there is always a chance that a developer will fail to deliver on a product. As you said, Phil, there do need to be some protections in place. Sadly, anytime someone brings up consumer protections, they risk dragging the politically motivated into the argument.

I believe the current batch of lawsuits against Electronic Arts teaches us a couple of things. First, those that provide financial support to one or more projects tend to have greater control over said projects (which could bode good or bad for the future of Early Access/Kickstarter. More on that later.). Second, the average consumer (post-development consumers as it were), doesn’t seem to have a whole lot of say when it comes to a product, nevermind the fact that they just shelled out $60 on a pre-order, or $70-80 on a Collector’s Edition. This sort of thing needs to change across the board in the games industry. Post-development consumers should be able to take legal action after a failed game launch just as supporters/investors do.

Eventually, Kickstarter/Early Access developers could very well find themselves in legal trouble in the future, as well. This situation for them, however, could very well be more dire than for a traditional developer. Look at the Kickstarter programs that resulted in a “graphic novelist” shopping himself around to animation studios on his backers’ dime just so he could get his animation career going, all under the illusion that he was developing a graphic novel for his backers’ entertainment. Or, the various Kickstarter programs where “game developers” were given money well in excess of what they needed to complete a project, only to have released an incomplete game, or they made purchases with their backers’ money with no apparent end in sight for a project. It is only a matter of time before these Fauxstarters get dragged into court, only to have a judge rule that they owe money, or partial ownership of their projects, newly started companies, etc., goes to the backers. They will, in effect, have pre-emptively sold their companies by their own poor business decisions, and that, in turn, could have a further detrimental impact on Kickstarter/Early Access.

Phil Hornshaw

On December 23, 2013 at 1:54 pm

@Foehunter

You’re exactly where I’m at. I don’t WANT Early Access to fail, I want it to succeed. Same with Kickstarter. But I feel like leaving this wide-open doors to abuse means it’s only a matter of time before the whole system is strained by one or two jerks. The longview of the situation should be for Valve to look at how it can maintain Early Access so that it can make money off it for years, rather than letting it burn out when the inevitable jerk inevitably lets an Early Access project crumble after collecting players’ money. At least, that’s how I see it.

psycros

On December 23, 2013 at 3:10 pm

Completely understand where Phil is coming from. Risk management is particularly important when it comes to any new way of doing business or interacting with the consumer. History contains plenty of examples of enterprises that didn’t understand this simple truth.

Covarr

On December 23, 2013 at 4:08 pm

“Not only do players assist in areas like quality assurance and beta testing, they pay for the privilege.”

While I agree with virtually every point in this article, particularly regarding risk and trust, I don’t think this particular statement is entirely fair. Once the game is finished, they don’t have to pay again for the final thing. All they’re paying for is the game itself; the early access is an added bonus.

Phil Hornshaw

On December 23, 2013 at 4:11 pm

@Covarr

Right, that’s true, at least in theory. And it’s also true that you don’t have to participate in helping test things — although I would imagine, especially with online games, that data is collected from everyone playing.

rickshaw

On December 23, 2013 at 5:01 pm

Excellent Review ;)
Early Access is going to snowball just like a normal crash, the system WILL break.
Early Access doesn’t help gaming its only a monetary loophole gain.
Early Access creates gamers problem, you get access, you play it, as it being slowly developed you go the reverse to what the developer is doing, you end up not playing it anymore.
Early Access stops the engines of enjoyment that you had when you bought a finished game.
Early Access is achieving the destruction of game play, its losing control of what was playing great fun and excitement playing a finished game.
Lastly Early Access has an effect on retail outlets closing as its no longer a finished game that is being sold.

Foehunter82

On December 24, 2013 at 6:45 pm

@rickshaw: You seem to be operating under the assumption that traditional developers always released solid gold. The past ten years have proven otherwise, especially the past four or five years. Traditional developers no longer seek to release a quality, relatively bugless product. They just want to throw a known name on the box, remix an old game, and tack on multiplayer support. Call of Duty: Ghosts and Battlefield 4 have shown us that this old way of doing business isn’t working any more.

Kickstarter/Early Access doesn’t remove my enjoyment of a game. Both systems do not guarantee success or failure. They do not guarantee enjoyment of the final product, which, I remind you, was never guaranteed with the traditional development system. However, they seem, at least in theory, to provide paying customers with a means to have more say in the development of a given game. The traditional developers have gotten to where they do not do this anymore. They would rather homogenize and maintain their successful franchises as a safe way to make money, with very little experimentation to the “safe” formula. The end result being subpar releases, angry customers, angrier investors, and this sort of thing will eventually end in the collapse of traditional developers.

Right now, I believe the games industry is in the middle of a bubble. It will eventually burst, and when it does, we’re likely going to see the end of most, if not all, of the big developers as we know them. When that happens, the games industry is going to need independent developers. Many of these independent developers are going to come from Kickstarter, Early Access, and other similar crowdsourcing systems. In order for this to work, then, Valve and the others are going to have to figure out some way to bolster trust in their given systems, otherwise, independent developers are going to have a hard time getting new projects out there.

R.J.

On December 31, 2013 at 1:46 pm

Yeah, I mostly share Phil’s outlook on this, just like with Kickstarter. I love the concept of supporting projects that wouldn’t otherwise get funding from overly cautious, bigger sources of money like the big publishers, but it still worries me how little control and/or protection those contributing actually get. Early access is a bit better since you do get something as soon as you pay up, but it’s not a huge change in my eyes. I like the idea of getting to go hands-on and give feedback, but I’m not terribly fond of the idea of paying to be a bug tester. Like Phil said, test versions normally are given out for free, so you’re only out your time. Now, you’re asked for both your time and money. Even though you do get something up front, it’s still sold on the premise that your money will eventually result in a finished product, which may or may not arrive and may or may not be what you intended to fund. Even though the publishers also take risks when they back projects, at least they have the ability to hold devs accountable when a project goes on well past its deadline or well past its budget. It’s worrisome that things like Foehunter mentioned will almost certainly have to go into a lawsuit before we see more stringent safeguards on things like this. Like I said, I love the concept, but I hate that the risks lie almost entirely with backers, while the rewards lie almost entirely with the devs.

Titanium Dragon

On March 30, 2014 at 12:52 am

I think the real thing to do is to simply start reviewing early access games. The job of reviewers, after all, is to advise people whether or not they should purchase a product.

As at that point the people are offering a product in exchange for money – a tangible good, in the form of a game – I think that rating the game is entirely fair. After all, it is being sold at that point, like a very buggy game that the developer promises-they-swear to patch and make better. Would that be a viable excuse at launch?

If not, then why are you saying that this is any different? It is exactly the same.

I think if this was done, it would discourage them from doing this… as it should. Something like Minecraft, even incomplete, gave people the tools to do cool thing with. So people bought it.

If something isn’t doing that, then it is entirely right that game review websites point this out and help consumers make informed decisions, which is the entire purpose of reviews.

I think that this will mostly resolve the issue – if you go early access, people will review your game, and that might mean that you will get a low review score. Many MMOs in “beta” which accept money from people are being reviewed by various review sites, and I think the same should apply to early access games.

If you offer a product in exchange for cash, expect to be criticized if that product doesn’t hold up.

Honestly, I have LESS problem with Kickstarter than I do with Early Access. With Kickstarter, you get zero immediate gratification, so you KNOW what you’re doing. With Early Access, you’re having people who don’t understand getting involved in the process, because you are actually giving them the game (albeit in incomplete form) in exchange for money.

That’s not to say that Early Access is reprehensible, but that if you are accepting money in exchange for stuff, you should be prepared for criticism.