One of the biggest changes to the gaming industry has been Steam’s early access program. It’s allowed would be developers to start raising funds for their games via selling what amounts to a beta version. Customers can basically buy into a vision for a game, similar to Kickstarter, but play the game in it’s current state. And it’s been massively popular, with over 700 games currently in Early Access. But is it all good? Like Kickstarter, there’s success stories and failures alike.
The recently released Grim Dawn is a good example of how to do things right. From the beginning of their Early Access campaign, the developers communicated effectively with their players. They listened to what worked well and what didn’t. As a result, the game that they released has garnered rave reviews. And now it looks like there’s another competitor to Diablo and Path of Exile for hack and slash action RPGs. They added wrinkles to the typical ARPG formula to add character customization and content that might not have ever been possible without Early Access.
A number of other titles still in Early Access continue to grow their player base despite selling a beta version. ARK: Survival Evolved and Rust are two of the most popular examples. Both of these multiplayer survival games currently sit at the top of Steam Charts. Players have embraced Early Access and the developers reward players with frequent updates and improvements. Starbound is another ambitious indie title that’s been exceedingly helped by Early Access. Offering players a mix of a creative sandbox with 2D open world (or open universe in this case) exploration, Starbound has found a large audience. Who knows how the game would fair without Early Access. And there’s tons of similar success stories.
But then there are the failures. The games that make people regret their purchase. The ones that leave players crying “thieves!” Dungeon Dashers is an example of a game that once held promise for the dungeon crawler crowd. The initial Early Access release was reviewed well base on a strong, core set of features. It started with promise, but since then the developer has abandoned it completely. Now gamers who supported this vision are out $9.99 with a shell of a game to show for it. Sadly, the game is still being sold.
The Stomping Land was one such failure that bombed so hard it was pulled from Steam completely. The game had a much higher profile than Dungeon Dashers and even a Kickstarter campaign that raised over $100,000. The last update for that Kickstarter campaign was in May 2014. A few months later, the epic disaster that was Early Access was the last sign of life for the game. Money was wasted on multiple fronts for a game that amounts to vaporware.
How should these successes and failures affect everyone involved? Steam, developers, customers. It’s relevant to all parties, but fortunately the successes outweigh the failures. Ultimately, developers have a responsibility to their paying customers when selling an Early Access title. They are promising to deliver a finished product at some reasonable point in time. Steam has a responsibility to facilitate this relationship in a fair manner. And customers must be patient as game development takes a long time.
Bad games will be released, regardless of Early Access or not. And that is fairly part of the risk of buying into an incomplete game. The only action that is unacceptable is inaction. When developers cease to produce the game or even more onto other projects completely, they fail to upload their part of the bargain. Steam could and should offer refunds for titles that halt development. There’s a balance in paying developers in a timely manner and keeping the customers as safe as possible. I don’t know that appropriate timeline, but it seems reasonable to hold funds longer for Early Access titles. Additionally, customers should be clearly made aware of the last update made for an Early Access title.
Early Access is always going to have its share of dishonest developers, but we have to remember they’re in the minority. Steam has a responsibility to protect their customers as best as possible. In doing so, they’ll grow the integrity of the program and allow the success stories to shine even brighter.