How Consoles Can Get Early Access Right
In the past few days, we’ve heard from representatives of both Sony and Microsoft that the companies are mulling over the idea of implementing Early Access-like programs on their respective consoles.
There’s nothing but promises from developers that a game will ever be finished.
Despite all the problems that Early Access has on Valve’s Steam platform, bringing it to consoles could fix a lot of the problems with the program.
If you’re somehow unaware of what Early Access is for PC games on Steam, here’s a quick rundown: Valve allows developers to join a program that allows them to sell their games to consumers before those games are actually completed, and the consumers get to play those games as they’re being made. The idea is that you pay upfront for the game in full, then play and, in most cases, provide feedback through the development process that can help shape the game. Developers then continue to work on the game until they bring it to a completed state, and Early Access customers get to try every build along the way, ending with the finished product.
As the program exists on Steam, however, there are no guarantees for consumers about what they’ll receive, beyond receiving the game in whatever state of completion it’s in on the day they purchase it. There’s nothing but promises from developers that a game will ever be finished, tested fully for bugs, include all promised features, and so on. We’ve documented these problems before.
While purchasing games early on PC, whether through crowdfunding or by other means, can be risky because the environment is decentralized, console platforms are typically more curated environments, since they’re governed by their respective corporations.
Early Access failures kill confidence and push away consumers.
With developers already accustomed to this type of oversight, that curation is a great chance for Sony and Microsoft to improve on the Early Access program template Steam is offering. But why would the two console giants even want to improve Early Access? If it’s such an easy way to make money as it stands right now, why wouldn’t they just roll it out and start counting the earnings?
That’s a good question, and the answer is actually fairly simple: platform integrity. Early Access failures kill confidence and push away consumers, resulting in less interest in the program, and possibly even less interest in the platform. Valve’s approach, which is basically to throw the program out there and make changes in a haphazard, “as-needed” way, won’t work for Sony and Microsoft, simply because of the competition they represent to each other.
If either Sony or Microsoft sets up a program that lets customers get screwed, or even gives the impression that they’re screwing people over, it’s going to hurt. Not only will gamers be upset, but even the non-gaming parents of underage gamers will likely get involved, and that’s a scenario that’s a huge loser for both companies.
Whoever pulls off the best Early Access program on console stands to gain a lot from it. Not only will that company be in place to garner more interest from consumers, but it can also get more interest from developers who want access to those consumers. The curation infrastructure is already in place. All it will take is tweaking Early Access to fit into it.
Those tweaks won’t be minor — they’ll be big changes from what we’ve seen from Steam so far. Here are five major changes I think would have to be made to make console Early Access viable, almost all directed at protecting consumers: