OPINION: The consequences of your love for Steam Early Access

There was a time when finishing a game before you released it was considered a prerequisite.

Of course, in this modern era of crowdfunding it’s quite common to charge for a game before you’ve even started making it. But the latest ‘thing’ seems to be making a bit of a game, then releasing it, then making it some more.

It’s a model that’s certainly proving very successful, even when the developers are actively advising people NOT to purchase their game.

And why the hell not, right? DayZ and Rust offer genuinely unique experiences that can’t currently be found elsewhere. Plus, both titles are available at a discount while they’re still in development and the ‘full’ version, when/if that ever arrives, is included in the purchase.

Maybe it’s just the cynic in me then, but I can’t help but worry that this could all simply point to a worrying time ahead for the mainstream industry, which is already sniffing around the Early Access market.

Not because the model endangers traditional publishing. Traditional publishing has seen off the threat of casual gaming, smartphone gaming, browser gaming and free-to-play gaming, It’s decreased in size as a result and might even have a little shrinkage left to go, of course, but the tremendous early success of PS4 and Xbox One proves that an appetite remains for full-price, triple-A games even if it’s a smaller slice of the pie than it once was.

What worries me is the message the public’s huge appetite for alpha early-access games sends to traditional publishers.

Gamers have for years whined about publishers daring to release ‘unfinished’ games that require patching on day one or shortly after. EA appears to be on the brink of being named America’s worst company for the third time for doing so. Of all the corporate ills and crimes being committed in America each day, the public genuinely believes that unreliable Battlefield 4 server access and a shonky online requirement in SimCity is the greatest affront to their capitalist rights.

And not, say, poisoning the water system or polluting the rainforests or funding police brutality in Papua New Guinea?

The argument, of course, is that gamers know what they are getting” when they buy into an Early Access game. And 15 on Rust is definitely very, very different to paying 50 for Battlefield 4 and a further 40 on a Season Pass only to find that you can’t play the bloody thing online anyway.

But the obvious conclusion to draw is that publishers can simply embrace the Early Access model for all of their games in the future, thus dodging the increasing brutal and furious internet forum bullets that are seemingly directed at almost every release that comes to market nowadays.

And let’s face it, history has shown that when a new model emerges – be it post-launch DLC or free-to-play or whatever – there is always a steady line of old school publishers waiting to milk it for every last penny, often at the expense of the gamer. ‘DLC’ that’s already on the disc, F2P energy systems, in-app purchases in 50 games – some publishers are quite happy to take a new model and run with it, often straight into the ground.

So when the time comes to release an online-heavy game and a publisher simply isn’t sure whether or not the servers will cope in the real world, why not slap an Early Access sticker on it to cover their arses? After all, we’ve seen that gamers are more than happy to chuck loads of money at in-development games for which there is no guarantee they will ever actually be finished.

How long until Early Access sections are added to Xbox Live and PSN, do you think?

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