Five years ago, in a world where nobody knew who Markus “Notch” Persson was, when the terms “Alpha”, “Beta”, and “Early-Access” were thrown around, it meant you either were going to be playing a demo or some variation of untested nonsense. At no point would anybody have ever used those terms in conjunction with a product that could be sold. Then a game called Minecraft dropped and something spread in this industry like a virus.
Indie games could no longer be viewed as simply completed projects. It took 20 months for Minecraft to come out of “Alpha” stage and into a “Beta”. In that time it had sold 1 million units. It wouldn’t be released into a completed form until 9 months later. Minecraft is by far the biggest indie success story in recent memory. Before Minecraft, you needed Xbox Live Arcade, Steam or some other market to really debut your indie to the world and it was world changing just to be on that.
During this same time a start up crowd funding project launched as Minecraft debuted on the market. A little website called Kickstarter began raising funds for projects that people couldn’t get off the ground through traditional publishing. People could present their ideas to the world and we could judge whether or not they were worth our time. This opened up the design process in ways none of us would have realized. We were now given a chance to follow the development of a project from beginning to end and see what really could come out of it.
Reward tiers were then tweaked to allow players early access looks to supporting the game. Since these donors have already shown they want this project to survive, it gives the designers an audience willing to keep with the game and test the good and the bad. Alphas, Betas, Demos, and Early Access were now being offered up as a means of convincing people to keep their dream project alive.
Kickstarter and Minecraft have changed the way that indie game development thinks things through for the better. No longer is an idea forced to languish for months or years inside a developer as they toil away to find the money to make the next big thing a reality. Now millions of new games at all phases of development can be shown off to the world and the consumer has the ability to own something they are excited about from the very beginning. Even the mighty Valve sat back and realized that there is a wave of untested talent coming from nowhere and it is almost foolish not to tap into it. Steam Greenlight and Steam’s Early-Access now highlighted these concepts on one of the largest markets in the world. This wasn’t just a fad.
It is unequivocally the best thing that has happened to the indie scene and I hate it.
At RTX earlier this year I had a chance to talk to Scott Thunelius of Darkforge Games about his game Nekro. Nekro was a Kickstarter success and eventually passed it’s Greenlight testing. When I spoke with Scott about those processes, he went on to talk about how eventually he would release the game as a beta. I raised an eyebrow and almost as if it were on queue, he went into clarification. He wanted his product to be playable all the way through. “There are a lot of Early Access games where I buy it and realize it’s like pre-alpha and I can do two things in it. It has a lot of potential, but I didn’t want to buy this yet.” Later an update went up on Nekro‘s Greenlight page exemplifying what they wanted for their game. “I want Nekro to set the standard for what a good [Early Access] game is.”
Scott’s opinion is one I’ve grown to think about more and more lately. Currently I find myself getting handed a growing number of Early Access games. I, as a reviewer, am now tasked with deciding whether or not this product you can buy is worth the time of day. Not only do I have to decide that, I have to analyze whether or not I think this developer has the potential to create something better. It is an extremely tricky place to find yourself in if you want to advise somebody on a product.
Sounding much like J. Jonah Jameson does, Twinfinite’s chief Yamilia Avendaño used to toss a saying around: “if they can sell it, we can review it.” That worked for a while. I reviewed games like Avalanche 2 with this sort of mindset and didn’t feel the least bit concerned about it. If you are going to put a product out there for the world to see, we’ll judge you accordingly. We won’t hype it like a preview saying it may or may not get there. We’ll put our stamp on what it is that we just played and that you can go buy.
This idea was fine up until I played 3089. Halfway through it, I chose to update the game to it’s most recent revision. This update vastly changed the graphical quality of the game. So this game that I’d spent some time with was now a very different looking beast. What exactly am I supposed to do with a game like this? I sent it out as a preview as I could in no way consider this a complete game if a developer can greatly change something from mode to mode.
Now I sit here with 3 games on my plate, 1 “Beta” and 2 “Early Access” and I have to face this idea that I have to write about an incomplete product. I’ll figure what to write in the mean time, but I have to say I’ve grown very tired of dealing with the guessing game of Early Access titles.
That’s not to say those indies out there should stop selling these things. Earning some much-needed revenue early on for your work? You’d be stupid not to snatch this opportunity if you could. Even as a consumer it’s a great idea to give added revenue to something you really want out of the games industry. How else will we get things like Minecraft or Kerbal Space Program? These are games that would have had no chance with major publishers.
I am just growing weary of playing or seeing these products that aren’t quite there and trying to explain if they’ll ever get to that sweet spot. I’m tired because I’ve played games that really aren’t there and shouldn’t be up yet on any service. They are bugged and they have gameplay components that are in dire need of getting flushed out. I’ve played games that have the words beta slapped on them that are updated with such inconsequential updates that I couldn’t tell you what direction they are hoping to take it.
I hate these “Early Access” games because they’ve tainted the idea of what I want a full game to be. Something a developer has stamped with their approval, and not something that they eventually have found a sweet spot on and can move off. I can’t tell you if that developer will give you something great for believing in them and so often now I find myself having to. We are living in a new age where you need to have faith, not only in the product, but in the competency of the people manipulating it.
As a person who is told to ask questions of a game’s merits, I can’t just rely on what I’ve played anymore. Any moment after I hit publish, this game has the potential to change into something radically different. I don’t like uncertainty in offering my recommendation for a paid product. Honestly, I f**king hate it.