If you had told a bright-eyed, young me that games in the future would be developed as we play them, I would’ve looked at you with enough silent contempt to rival Konami’s PR staff. Gaming has evolved within business practices that initially seemed shady at best, but have now become so pervasive they’re accepted without much thought.
The consumer backlash towards DLC has largely faded, save for a few egregious offenders. Season passes have snuck their way into release windows, and pre-orders don’t tend to garner negative attention unless there’s some sort of gimmick involved (looking at you, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided). Although, none of these practices seem to rival the leap of faith that is Early Access.
Let’s be clear: I’m not trying to diminish the positive effects Early Access and similar pay models have on indie games and the industry as a whole. Take a look at Don’t Starve or Minecraft for the obvious examples. There’s no denying they're a great way for gamers to support specific projects tailored to their tastes, as well as, garner some much needed attention for indie projects, which require the buzz generated from Early Access in order to further development. If you’re satisfied with the amount of content and stability currently being offered by an incomplete game, then there shouldn’t be much holding back from your purchase. However, these positives rarely justify the glaring red flags still inherent in the Early Access model. In any instance of an early pay model, the consumer is banking on an idea rather than a finished product. Even more troublesome, in Steam’s case, developers that choose to take the Early Access route aren’t legally obligated to actually finish their product.
Some games are stuck in Early Access development for so long that the initial hype and success surrounding them degrades into raw cynicism. If the games fail to release during the height of their popularity, they run the risk of being forgotten for the newest Early Access darling. Titles like DayZ and Ark: Survival Evolved found acclaim through the platform, but after years of being in Early Access’ grey zone, they now both sit with mixed reviews overall. Many Steam users point to the same reasoning when writing their reviews. For the money they’ve spent, they expect a finished product within a development time that they deem appropriate. In Ark’s case, it’s released on consoles despite still being considered unfinished on Steam, while the DayZ standalone has been on Early Access since its inception back in 2013. One user points out his disdain with the latter , writing in their user review, “DayZ is the reason I no longer trust Early Access games.” Another user states the situation bluntly in theirs, writing “I wish you could refund a game that has been in early access for too long.”
The primary objective of a review (from reputable outlets and users alike) is to inform consumers of what is and what isn’t worth spending their hard-earned money on. As products become mainstream, it’s imperative that reviews follow shortly after (or preferably before the product launches) in an effort to inform the public, and keep them savvy with their purchases. The main caveat with Early Access in its current form is that it’s severely lacking in the professional review category, leaving consumers to fend for themselves. The user review system can provide some gamers a glimpse at the info they need in order to make a solid purchase, but the larger outlets still shy away from publishing large reviews for unfinished games. The reluctancy makes sense. Why write anything conclusive on an unfinished title, when an update tomorrow could completely invalidate your criticisms? Yet, reviewers can’t let these fears overshadow the importance of in-depth criticism for any product that’s reached the spotlight – not only for protecting the public, but also for providing necessary feedback to game creators.
Now, it’s usually difficult to isolate exactly at what point a concept becomes mainstream. In terms of games, and more specifically, Early Access titles, I’d say mainstream recognition doesn’t go much further than being showcased at E3. This year, Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds gripped its time slot in Microsoft’s conference with pride, and held a stage show akin to any other Triple-A game despite still being only available through Early Access. Battlegrounds debuted on PC back in March, and currently stands tall at the top of Steam’s Top Sellers page, which means that even though the game has been for sale and in the public eye for almost half a year, major outlets still seem to shy away from giving the title a score, or fleshed out review. Most treat the game as any other Early Access title, providing little more than first impressions and a ‘yes or no’ suggestion. Battlegrounds has effectively dodged the danger of review scores spelling its doom. The game still has no Metacritic score as a result.
So with nothing but a vague idea of the quality of a game and some minor recommendations, how can a gamer cut through the PR talk on the store page, and decide whether or not a purchase is for them? Some gamers simply want to support projects that at the moment require some cash infusion, but some consumer guidelines would be helpful. An easy rule to follow is this: Gamers should be prepared to pay for Early Access titles only if they’re satisfied with the amount of content and polish available at the time of purchase.
Many gamers are gauging their expectations on a hypothetical finished product that may never come to fruition. If gamers simply took a step back to consider what they’re really paying for, we wouldn’t see nearly the level of prolonged buyer’s remorse as we do now. In addition, if high profile reviews for Early Access titles were available, this too would go a long way to correct the issue.
The situation remains that Early Access is still a gamble to most gamers. The monetary stakes are higher than ever, and though more prominent reviews would be beneficial, it’s ultimately the obligation of each individual gamer to understand the risks involved in supporting Early Access titles. Whether or not they want to roll the dice is up to them.