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Early access is still a relatively new concept in games, enabled by better internet connections and the ability to update games continually. Steam’s Early Access launched in 2013, which began the rush of early access titles that entrenched the concept.
Steam & Early access
These weren’t the first games to use the early access model, however. Games like Kerbal Space Program and Minecraft were launched in non-1.0 states on PC before, but Steam’s adoption made it a significant part of the industry. Typically favored by indie developers, early access is an excellent way of generating revenue while developing, as well as bringing in players to get feedback, report bugs, create a community, etc.The perception of early access has changed a lot since these original titles. For many, games like KSP provided evidence that early access worked: it allowed them to keep developing the game, provided holistic marketing (in that players were posting about the game online), and shaped the game into something the players wanted. These early successes provided legitimacy for the model, but this perception changed through 2015-2017.
As Steam’s Early Access push became more popular, cracks began to form in players’ perceptions. Players complained about the proliferation of early access titles hitting the market, especially when players didn’t realize the game was launching in early access. Some of those games were inarguably disappointing as they released with less content than expected, or with lots of bugs. On the other side of this, it did often seem that some players didn’t fully appreciate what early access could mean due to it being a rather vague term. Some early access games launched in semi-ready states, while others would launch with barebones content. Even now, there is no standard for how much content or polish an early access game has, so it takes more in-depth research from players. Combining all of this with the uncertainty around if the game would ever reach a 1.0 release, players became understandably fatigued.
Steam sales then exacerbated that early-access fatigue.
The Impact of Early access
During this time, Steam sales were built around daily deals and flash sales, meaning the front-page deals would change every day. Many players remarked that on most days, over half of the games on the front page were early access games, and players, simply, got sick of the uncertainty. They didn’t want to buy a game, even on sale, that would possibly never reach a full release.
In Q3 2013, 36% of games released on Steam were early access. By Q4 2015, that number had risen to a staggering 89%. A notable element of this statistic was that more full-releases were happening too; there were just so many early access games coming out which offset the balance. These releases rose from only thirteen per quarter to over one-hundred and fifty between 2013 and year-end 2015.
Perhaps it was a gold-rush of early access releases that caused the issue, as the “early access problem” feels like it’s balanced itself out in the last couple of years. Generally, there at least seems to be less early access releases and far fewer instances of games that release in EA, get a couple of patches, and are then abandoned.
Early Access in 2020
Looking at early access in 2020, it feels that the industry has found its footing with the model. Two games that exemplify the early access model in 2020 are Risk of Rain 2 and the upcoming Baldur’s Gate 3.
Risk of Rain 2 released in a very-stable state in early 2019 with online features already implemented. This meant that players got the core experience they were looking for while enjoying the notably different experience from the first game. Since then, they’ve had a clear roadmap that they’ve stuck to, and players have enjoyed the extra characters, levels, and gameplay that updates have brought.
Although unreleased, Baldur’s Gate 3 will likely follow a similar model to Larian’s previous game Divinity Original Sin 2. Early access in these titles is often nearly feature-complete but limited to the first areas of the game. For a big RPG like Baldur’s Gate 3, these early areas can constitute many hours of gameplay. Although many players will wait for the full release, it can’t be argued that this type of early access model isn’t clear and defined for players.
Decoding Early Access
It’s not always clear skies and smooth sailing though, there are plenty of examples of early access games that have never fully reached 1.0, even after years of development. This lack of progress might look like lazy developers to a player, but it’s likely due to too much work for too small a team or simply too low a budget. It’s hard to say whether these games would have reached 1.0 outside of early access, but it’s clear that continually disappointing players won’t just sink a game, it can sink a studio.
Early access can also rise from the ashes, going from a poor initial response to positive reviews once fully released. No Man’s Sky is an interesting example of early access issues. Although not officially called early access, it launched with far less content than players expected, and it was understandably poorly received. Now, a few years after release, it’s got the content it was missing, delighting players and publications alike, whilst also bringing in a whole new set of players. It’s become the game it was always meant to be, and the gaming community is always happy to see that.
Ultimately, early access has gone through its own “early access” where players had to deal with model-specific issues. As with many early access titles, we’ve made it to the other side, which was mostly worth holding out for. When early access is well-utilized, it can provide a direct feedback loop from player to developer and help shape the game into something perfect for its player base. But, if early access is taken advantage of, players are taken advantage of too.