The worry about Early Access games

Let me preface this by saying I don’t want to come off as a worrywart, spoilsport, this-essay-deals-in-absolutes sort of guy. I’m not. It’s not. This is just a collection of thoughts, loosely organized from a conversation with Dominic and a rant in the general direction of Cassie.

I want to start with a brief history of how games are made and sold. This is shortened from previous rants because you have the internet open exactly now and can find more about this than I can probably tell you succinctly. Also because I don’t want to fact-check any of this because the importance of it is not the absolutes, but the perception of the industry (to a point). So take this with a small grain of salt. Or three.

Back when the Nintendo was making game carts for the Super Nintendo, as a first example, they released a game and then it was done. Game development over. Maybe if you were really, really good and sold a shitload of copies, you very quietly released a new cart with a few subtle changes and perhaps a bugfix or two later in the game’s lifecycle. Maybe. Being a video game tester was so completely out of the public conscious that it was almost legendary.

Sometime in the 90’s the PC game industry started to take off. I’ll use Age of Empires II as my example because that was a decent chunk of my childhood. If you wanted to play Age when it came out, you went to the game store and you bought the CD (which came with a sexy folding booklet) and played the game, and you could play online too. At some point, they released a patch to the game, which fixed the broken-ass Teutons and changed some other things, and you could either download the patch and apply it on your local machine (if you even knew about it!), or I think it was briefly available on CD separately. (If not for this game, then for others.) Then they released the Conquerors expansion, which included the patched game CD and the new Conquerors CD, which also changed some more things. So there are three different versions of the game kicking around now, and it is entirely likely a player has not heard of at least one of the variants.

This is a problem, ultimately. The separation between Conquerors and regular Age is fine, but the bugfixes and patches should be available to everyone, because they improve the experience and make the game better, yeah? And it was hard to do that.

Fast-forward to a game called Half-Life 2, which, when launched, had to be redeemed on Steam in order to play. Valve saw this problem, too, and wanted to fix it, slowly. There were several patches for Half-Life released over the years, each of which improved the game or fixed bugs or what-have-you, but it’s important to understand two things:

  1. The game could have been considered “complete” on release, by older standards as well as updated standards. The remaining bugs did not detract from the game and everything that was meant to be present, was.
  2. By putting the game on Steam, that meant that 95% of your playerbase, perhaps even more, were all playing the new, patched version of the game almost immediately after it was released.

Patches on Steam are automatic, if your Steam is on and your internet connection is valid. So everyone who’s not playing some game in offline mode is fully up-to-date, all of the time. This improves the experience! No longer do I have to hear about such a patch, download and read the installation instructions and install the patch and hope that tens or hundreds or thousands of other players have done the same.

Let me jump forward to 2007, when Team Fortress 2 was released as part of the Orange Box. This was a fun little class-based shooter game, long in the careful development and balance. It was released with 9 classes, each having about 3 weapons, and 6 maps. And it was fun! It worked well on release (for the most part: some of us still remember the needle-boosting bug that let Engineers build in the skybox) and was a complete game.

But that wasn’t enough, and the game has evolved quite a lot in the six years since then. It’s added a lot of weapons, each of which changed the gameplay in some way, as well as a shitton of new hats and more official and unofficial maps. Playing as the game has evolved this far has been a hell of a ride, and TF2 is still my most favorite online multiplayer game, bar none. But, again, it is important to note that the game was considered complete on release.

An argument that sometimes gets thrown around is: when is a game considered “done”? Is it the release date? Is it the game after all the bugfixes have been applied? Is it when all the DLC is out? Is it the GOTY edition? What’s done? I want to use another example, Skyrim, as an example.

Skyrim on release, like most other Elder Scrolls titles, had some bugs, some of which were gamebreaking and could waste shitloads of time invested in a character (unless you played on PC and were super careful with your console commands). The four DLCs released did two things: gave the player more, unique options (customizing a house, crossbows, traveling to Morrowind, to name three) and gave the player generally better options at the start of the game, just because that’s how the DLC tends to work to entice you to buy it.

To me, the complete Skyrim is the Legendary Edition I bought, which included all the DLC and most of the major problems fixed already. Because of the type of game at work here, and the limited development schedule (everything looks limited compared to TF2’s nine-year development!), not everything could be solved, and now everything works fine and it’s fine. But this isn’t the launch game!

So what is an Early Access game? It’s comparable to an “alpha” or “beta” game, whichever term you want, where a game is playable but the community acts as testers, showing support for an uncompleted game with their wallets. Most Early Access games are perfectly playable, but aren’t finished. The developers are trying to gauge interest by releasing essentially a fancy tech demo, or they are actively working on a project and require more money to justify their expenses, or the game relies largely on human interaction (like Rust and DayZ) and is much better tested with humans interacting.

Which ends up being great for everyone involved. The players who like such-and-such developer, or like such-and-such genre of game, were more than likely going to purchase the game anyway (or would have at least considered it) and can now play it even sooner. The players who like “testing” (used very loosely) as well as being the “first” on the scene and enjoy playing games as they change and mature can now jump on that train before the game is even released, unlike before. And the developers, who are either looking for more money to continue development, a gauge of interest, or just attention (think Minecraft in particular, or even Rust) can do so. So everybody wins, right?

Well, maybe not. The worry is that a game like Rust, which is a fairly bare-bones game but still a unique experience, has already developed bitter players who like the game as it is. Just surfing around on a couple Rust threads tells me that plenty of players are content with getting a group of ten or so, going on to a random server, quickly helping each other get the best weapons/armor, and destroying everyone else around. Which, I mean, cool, the game lets you do that, fine.

But say that the guns are seen as too powerful. Or there opens up a much much larger variety of ways that lower players can defend themselves / fight back against the players with guns and armor. And the game changes, changes from “get the best items, destroy things” to a “find creative solutions for defense, traps-in-my-house-building” game. Plenty of the old players won’t be happy.  Clearly the first version wasn’t the final version. Things have changed.

And if it wasn’t done the first time, well, why bother? Because it was fun in the interim? Valid. Because it required beta-testing to change the scope of the game? Valid. Because interest in the game was needed, either through word-of-mouth or monetary sales? Valid. But what if those changes don’t get added, because of player backlash? Who’s right? Both paths can be valid.

All this just makes a man like myself, who likes very much to purchase a complete, working, package with the vision of the original developers intact, worry very much about the validity of many an Early Access game.