Early Access Could Encourage Developers to Exploit Players

Protection is Needed

There are more than 100 games on Steam Early Access as of this writing, and thinking of examples like DayZ, Planetary Annihilation and others, it’s easy to dismiss concerns of potential abuse. In cases like these, developers seem to be on the up-and-up, and projects don’t appear to be in danger of being stalled or abandoned — all of which is fine.

And Early Access does have many upsides. It’s a system that provides developers with player feedback, rather than the information provided by anecdotes and ham-fisted focus testing. It puts the people who love games in close proximity to the people who make them. And more than anything, it allows passionate people on both sides of the equation to help bring into the world games and ideas that might not — and in many cases, could not — exist otherwise.

But to believe that every single developer in every single case will work for the sheer love of video games is, at the least, extremely naive. There are developers like Markus “Notch” Persson out there, who arguably started this whole Early Access thing and did it perfectly with Minecraft. There are also are developers who have proven they are willing and able to sell unfinished, broken or low-quality titles to players without blinking. And Early Access offers no protection against the latter to the players whose money and trust make up the backbone of this utopian endeavor.

It seems only a matter of time until Early Access sees a project stumble the way many on Kickstarter have, with a potentially similar result. The flood of big Kickstarter projects seems to have abated significantly, with less news surrounding that space as fewer players tune in or drop their cash.

Valve, developers and the Early Access phenomenon can avoid that situation by putting in place systems that look out for the consumer. Elimination of all risk isn’t strictly necessary — it may even be impossible — but Valve could hold developers to a proclaimed level of completeness or a specific deadline window in exchange for the ability to accept money from Early Access, for example. Steam has a no-refund policy for the games it sells, but at least partial assurance to players that developers are responsible for the things they say they’ll do, in some form or fashion, will go a long way to protecting players, as well as to protecting Early Access as a system.

Without some way of protecting consumers from being bilked by developers, either deliberately or by circumstance, the same thing is likely to happen with Early Access that is happening with Kickstarter. Today, players with the most excitement for the potential of these promised games are assuming all the risk. When that risk finally doesn’t pay off, the excitement of those players will cool significantly — and the various benefits of the system, like a more engaged community, a look at how games are developed and the ability of developers and players to work together to shape games, are likely to chill along with it.

Valve did not respond to requests for information for this editorial.


Read more of Phil Hornshaw’s work here, and follow him and Game Front on Twitter: @philhornshaw and @gamefrontcom.

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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.