Like many other endeavors created to bypass the necessity of publishers to get odd or niche games made for a customer base willing to spend the money on them, Steam’s Early Access program has shown itself to be a rather disconcerting mess.
Either exclusively or in part due to the lack of oversight Valve has decided to use with their ‘hands off’ approach to the handling their platform and the games released on it. A whopping 75% — 80% of all the games currently in Early Access seemingly won’t ever see a finished release.
In fact, many of the games currently in Early Access serve little more purpose than to be a quick cash grab for some two-bit hack of a developer who never intends on finishing their fucking game. Something something Digital Homicide.
Basically, the series of events play out as like this: You place a barely-functioning game into Early Access, promising all these nifty features and constant updates, and people (being the suckers that they tend to be, and I think we’ve all been one at this point to Valve) buy into it “hook, line, and sinker” only for the “developer” to run off with the money and give people a partially finished product in return.
The worst part about that particular part of the Early Access program this is that it is technically legal, at least in some countries. At least Kickstarter hand waves away the risks with their investment in dreams schtick. Valve’s hands off approach, and weak refund policy, leaves consumers with their proverbial dick in their hand when it comes to refunds on a game you may not realize will be incomplete still when you bought it two years ago.
Here in the US, there is a very strong emphasis on “Caveat Emptor” or “Let the buyer beware” — especially when it comes to digital sales of video games and movies. With the lack of any warranty or guarantee in video games, Valve has inadvertently, or perhaps intentionally, created a ecosystem that allows for their customer base to be swindled out of their hard earned money (not that they have a big reason to care, seeing as Valve gets a 30% cut of all sales made on the Steam platform).
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not as if every game to pop into Early Access is destined to be unfinished or shitty. In fact, some incredibly successful and popular games, such as ARMA 3, Don’t Starve, Kerbal Space Program, Prison Architect, Divinity: Original Sin, Wasteland 2, Ziggurat, Verdun, Xenonauts, and Starbound all got their start in Steam’s Early Access Program.
However, with there being only about 50 games to successfully come out of Early Access since the program started back in 2013, some not exactly releasing to rave reviews (Double Fine’s Space Base DF‑9 comes to mind), and the simple fact that there are dozens of games still in Early Access, many of which that do not regularly update, I think you can imagine why I tend to shy away from titles trying to be released in that fashion.
And all I’ve said so far still ignores another fundamental flaw of the Early Access program.
How exactly do you make a game in Early Access profitable?
The reason I ask this question is because most of the funds any developer receives while a game is in Early Access is meant to be used for development purposes, and while I might not know the most about the nitty gritty of how game development companies are ran, I can assume that if you use most the revenue earned from a game to develop said game, you really aren’t left with much afterwards.
I understand that some people will hold off until a game is out of Early Access to buy it, but if you look at a game like ARK: Survival Evolved, which has (at least at the time of writing) sold nearly 4 million copies, I cannot imagine too many more copies of the game are going to be sold once it has been fully released. And with a majority (if not the entirety) of the funds earned from the game having gone directly to development of the game (or funding their lawsuit settlement), the folks at Studio Wildcard aren’t exactly going to have the greatest amount of revenue to expand their offices, hire new people, or get things started for a new project once ARK is finished.
The single greatest issue with Early Access from the side of developers seems to be that if you get one game made in Early Access, unless the game becomes a smash hit after it comes out of Early Access, you’re going to be stuck making your next game in early access as well, since that might be the only way to actually get the funding you need. But again, that’s if the game you put into Early Access the first time actually gets finished at all, and the chances of that are statistically low.
Early Access (with the exception of a few great games from skilled developers) is bad for consumers, bad for developers, and bad for the industry at large because of the bullshit practices it has introduced to an industry already flooded with enough of those as it is.
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