Early Access Relationship Status: “It’s Complicated”

Steam’s early access scheme is maybe not evil,  but has echoes of Hell’s ironic punishment department…

*demonic spectre appears*

“So you like games huh? Well have as many innovative and quirky games as you want…  But none of them are finished!! Muahahaha!”

*puff of purple smoke and it vanishes*

…  But I’m a sucker for it.

Everything starts off well; a new game appears,  maybe on steam greenlight, kickstarter, or as a random preview thrown into Twitter soup. The game looks good…  Erm…  It’s a cyberpunk dystopia, you are one of an army of clones based on the DNA of Richard Nixon gone rogue in search of a hidden Aztec city in order to change the past and prevent the corrupt government from taking power. It looks and sounds amazing, has innovate dialogue interactions, an all bagpipe soundtrack (digital download available if you pre-order), great combat mechanics and they’ve even got Woody Harrelson as the voice of Nixon. At this point I’m in, I’ve backed it,  pre-ordered, paid my cash and as a bonus a few months later it appears on early access.

This is where things start to unravel and this can be in one of several ways:

The Instant Disappoint

I fire up the game…  And hate it,  everything is wrong,  the combat system is all quick time events,  Woody Harrelson’s performance is lacklustre and the bagpipe soundtrack is currently only a five second track looping from the moment the game starts until you switch it off (that is unless it crashes in which case it will just go on and on until you reboot your computer).

… And the logical part of my brain is screaming “it’s early access,  they’ll make improvements”…  But my heart has already given up on it,  it’s dropped from my favourites (otherwise known as ‘to-play’) list and never touched or thought of again.  Likely uninstalled and largely forgotten. Of course for everyone else (especially the developer),  time moves on,  they make improvements, add content,  remove placeholder graphics and by the final release the game lives up to its potential.

Enthusiasm Fatigue

… at the other end of the scale…  “This game is amazing!!“, of course it’s only one level at the moment,  but cyberpunk Nixon is just the right level of cranky with teenage angst undertones,  combat is fluid yet tight and I could listen to those glorious bagpipes for days.

“Waaahhh! They’ve released version 0.002, it’s fixed some graphical glitches and the enemy’s hats fall off when you blast them with your mind powers, I’m going to play the whole thing again, afterall it’s only short at the moment”

“Waaahhh! They’ve released version 0.003 you no longer glitch through waste paper baskets and there is a new powerup that allows you to hack computers with your toes”

0.004, multicoloured pinstripe trousers…  0.005, a new gun…  0.006, tweaks to weapon damage… 0.028, underwater mechanics… 0.159, first distant glance of the Aztec temple…. 

Until the day that version 1.0 is released; this is the version that should be played, the developer has added all the cutscenes and finally revealed the plotline, but I’ve run out of ‘Waaahhh’ so the final game goes unplayed. All of my early enthusiasm used up and, even though I thought the game was great,  I didn’t experience the final product.

The Stealth ‘Open-Alpha’

I fire up the game, titles play, early access disclaimer, and I’m into the first room. It looks good, I walk around, interact with some objects on the desk, there’s a few cute one-liners which make me chuckle and I step into the corridor. I’m just approaching an obvious looking switch on the wall when I fall through the floor and have to restart the game. The same thing happens on the next attempt, and the next. I check the forums and file a bug report, but this goes on, version after version until you realise that the developer hasn’t used early access as a way to gauge player reaction, but as a cheap alternative to in-house alpha testing – not what I signed up for.  I’m disgruntled, discard it and likely… again…  never play the final version.

Perpetual Early Access

The year is literally 2030,  when the game is set, and there’s still no sign of a final release..

I have early access games in my library that I like and have great potential,  but they’ve been treading water in early access for years. Not quite abandoned by the developer, who releases tweaks and minor version updates every couple of months, but just never getting any closer to that end point; stuck in an early access purgatory.

…  And finally abandoned… 

Updates stop, the developer goes silent and cyberpunk Nixon will never be fully realised…

I know I’m being melodramatic, some developers use early access well.  They limit it to a few months, gather valuable player feedback, tweak the experience, and release a well-honed game at the end. The whole community can enjoy a great game, the early adopters know that they have helped provide the game designers with much needed feedback and everyone benefits. At the very least early access is a tightrope and as many developers have fallen into these traps as have made it across successfully; I’m still a willing participant in this intimate tango between creator and player and I’m hopeful that as time and experience grow we’ll have fewer stumbles.

4 thoughts on “Early Access Relationship Status: “It’s Complicated”

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