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.