Early Access Could Encourage Developers to Exploit Players
That’s a risk consumers must accept to participate in Early Access, but the larger problem is the legitimization of a system that allows, and even encourages, developers to accept money for incomplete, potentially risky products. That’s probably not a problem for DayZ, since it has earned a lot of money and has Bohemia Interactive behind it, which means the risk to players is relatively low. But there’s also no accountability for a game between either players and developers or developers and Steam — if a game is never finished, players who trusted the developer of that game are out of luck.
Normally, a developer makes a game and sells it in exchange for money. With Early Access, the developer already has the money in-hand, and so much of the monetary drive to continue working on the game evaporates. What’s left is making games on the honor system, but it’s fully conceivable for a developer to take the money and stop work altogether. Developers are also encouraged to promise big things for their games to make them more enticing to Early Access buyers, even if those promises are unrealistic or impossible.
Early Access also has a troubling problem of rendering useless the ability of journalists, Let’s Players, bloggers and everyday players to share opinions of a game. At Game Front, we don’t believe we can accurately or fairly review an Early Access title, since it’s unfinished, which means we’re mostly forced to ignore them altogether. That means we can’t do what we would normally do for finished games: evaluate them and either recommend them to players, or warn players off before they waste their money. The same is true for any other source of trusted opinions in helping players to decide which games to buy.
There’s little or no protection against lemons with Early Access — only what developers show off and the gamble players are left to make.
On the Steam FAQ page for Early Access, Valve proclaims of Early Access, “This is the way games should be made.” To a point, that’s hard to argue. A world in which game developers and players work side-by-side to create the very games both sides would like sounds like a Utopian paradise. It’s not without its problems, though.
For one, all the issues listed above are made more problematic by the constant insistence that players are “helping” game developers, either monetarily or with their time and feedback, but like crowdfunding, it’s still a very one-sided relationship. Developers are still, ultimately, creating a product aimed at making them money. Players, in turn, are paying for the privilege of working to assist them.
How developers go about leveraging this feeling of community interaction can also be worrisome. Many developers offer Early Access at a discount, which, like crowdfunding, at least puts value on players’ willingness to sign up early, to play an unfinished game, and to take a risk on the developers themselves. Others, such as Planetary Annihilation, charge for the privilege — the game’s Early Access accounts went for half again as much as the retail price of the game, $90 rather than $60.
It’s an issue when developers want to plead for help from players while also charging players for the privilege of helping. Beta tests in years past were offered for free, but today developers are reaping both the benefits of those tests, as well as capitalizing on players’ goodwill or their desire to be on the cutting edge of a game’s lifespan and development. Early Access recruits players into doing a job a developer would otherwise need hired QA help (or at the very least, volunteer help) to achieve. Early Access not only eliminates that cost, it turns it into profit.
In all these areas, from the encouragement of over-promising, to the leveraging of gamer excitement and willingness to be charitable, to the use of paying players to improve a product to be sold at market, the ability of developers to take advantage of players is very apparent.