Early Access Could Encourage Developers to Exploit Players
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.