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Gaming loves a trend. Everyone knows that. We’ve had cartoon-mascot platformers, 2D fighters, online shooters, plastic guitars, etc. There are enough to do a whole TV show about them, and Richard Blackwood would appear more than once. So no one wants that.

The latest trend, though, is a little bit more insidious than those fads from innocent days of yore. People, for reasons that I can barely fathom, are prepared - excited even - to part ways with cash for video games that are not finished. And in some cases, that don’t even exist.

In the past 12 months or so, Steam has seen the curious suffix ‘early access’ attaching itself to new releases; words that suggest that players are getting a treat, a special inside look at a title they shouldn’t be allowed to have yet. Of course, all it actually means is developers are now selling unfinished games. Happily and honestly. And the public is delighted, it would appear. Let’s take a look at the most prevalent examples; DayZ and Rust. Similar in many ways, but both (particularly in the case of DayZ) far from their final form, and in DayZ’s case still in a pre-alpha state. Yet they cost £19.99 and £14.99 respectively.

Day Z’s creator, though, Dean Hall, has been more than frank about the state of his phenomenally popular survival sim, actively encouraging people not to buy it, such was its propensity for falling apart at the seams. That didn’t stop the public, though. It has already sold over a million copies.

Still, there’s something disconcerting about this notion of paying for games that aren’t complete. I’ve no doubt that Hall will be using much of DayZ’s current revenue to prop up development and improve DayZ to a state that’ll be unrecognizable from where it is now, but can other developers be trusted to do the same?

There’s no contract in buying an early access product. It’s a leap of faith. And while you do at least get something tangible, unlike a Kickstarter (a noble cause that’s scarily ripe for misuse), you are essentially chucking money into the wild. Now, far be it from me to tell anyone what to do with their money. Throw it at the sun for all I care – it’s the consumer’s choice. It just creates a weird dissonance within me.

On the one hand it’s great to feel like you’re contributing to someone’s passion project, helping out as a project you want to see succeed lurches towards its final milestones. Yet on the other hand, I know what a lot of business people are like. And if they can see a way of chucking out an unfinished mess and charging for it, they’re going to do that. Just look at all the Kickstarters that haven’t lived up to their promise. There are nasty people out there.

It’s hard to take a real stance when you can see both sides of the argument, and who could say early access is bad when players are clearly having revelatory experiences on stuff like Rust, DayZ, Sir You Are Being Hunted and more. It just goes back to those trends, though. Do we really want to say it’s OK to pay money for unfinished goods? Is that a message to send out there? Is it already too late?

Fear-mongering is useless, of course, and wholly reductive. As with any topic that treads water in the grey areas, it’s often just a case of perception. Our perception of a finished game is, traditionally, one that appears in a box, on a disc, on a shelf. Anything before that isn’t complete, basically.

But the internal milestones that get that title onto a shelf are entirely arbitrary. There’s no doctrine, no predetermined and agreed rules – yes there are certification processes on consoles - but just because Ubisoft or Activision say a project is in alpha, beta or gold, it doesn’t actually mean anything. It’s just perception. Now digital distribution, and Steam specifically, is the store shelf for PC gaming, those old rules don’t need to apply any more. Is a buggy, choppy State Of Decay 'complete' when a buggy, choppy DayZ isn’t? They’re both going to receive patches and support.

Rust screenshot

In some ways, at least the early access tag lets you know what you’re getting definitely isn’t finished. That’s more than you can say about some games in 2014 (are you listening, Battlefield 4?)

The solution, then, isn’t one of hard and fast rules or bold statements declaring the relative right or wrong of early access and its kin. The market will dictate the success of such initiatives – it dictates the success of all things – and if players want to receive their experiences like this then that is what will happen.

It’s time, for players to take more responsibility. The old model allowed us, the punter, to be lazy – to accept what we were given and complain into the abyss if it wasn’t up to scratch. Now the lines are blurred; this is how consumerism is modernising in a digital age and the onus is back on the buyer to make sure he or she is getting what they want.

In practical terms, we can’t expect every developer and publisher to attach such an honest letter as Dean Hall’s to his or her early access release. We need to be savvy and take advantage of the communication tools at our disposal in order to be more discerning. And if we do that, the market will weed out the crap Early Access stuff anyway, and any developer who does let its public down will have to be named and shamed in the most public fashion possible.

Regardless of where you might stand on this new and thorny subject, early access isn’t going away. In a gaming culture where trends dictate economics, this is one of the most dangerous ones we’ve seen. So it’s time to start taking responsibility and reminding the developers, publishers and even the big Portal-ly retailer who really works for who.

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User Comments

monica2000's Avatar


Just read a cool article about dayZ
Posted 01:57 on 15 February 2014
Bretty's Avatar


The thing that worries me is simple and it is not even so much to do with the buyers… but more to do with the devs themselves.

The devs probably have a strong idea of what they want to do. They release their game on early access and some people don't like some elements… fair enough then they'll take them out.

However in some cases this could end up seeing games completely changed from what they initially wanted, or projects stretched too thin due to goals being met to make it multi platform.

The consumer is the one giving money but consumers most the time want what they know. There is a chance that the games could end up little more than nostalgic throwbacks to the past or current trends… For "nostalgic throwbacks" I point to Broken Age.

"Hey, I used to make good games… but I haven't really made a good one for a complete generation of video games… give me loads of money to bring back a genre that never really died, people just grew bored of."

Broken Age appears to be fun but I worry yet again it was something watered down due to it appearing on numerous platforms and wanting to be too much like games of the past.
Posted 08:43 on 27 January 2014
alphafour's Avatar


I understand the sentiment of this article but at the same I do the like idea of getting a better price if you buy the game while it's in its alpha/beta state.

I don't think it will ever work with the big blockbuster AAA games because those are made (often) by listed companies who are legally bound to generate profitability for their shareholders and any manager suggesting this kind of business model would rightly be laughed out of the board room. Those companies want to recoup their investment costs as quickly as possible.

When it comes to these more obscure, unknown games though, I think there is a place for it. If somebody says "right I have this really cool idea for a game and I'm about 50% done... it's playable now but I concede that it still has many bugs. I'll do you a deal, you pay me £10 and you can play the game now, and help me to find bugs in the game. When the game finally reaches retail, you'll receive a free access key and won't have to pay anymore than the £10 you already paid."

THIS is what I would love to see more of for the tiny games. When you have a game being distributed via the internet and no physical logistics are involved, there's not even any harm in selling the game for £5 at the very early stage to get some momentum and then gradually raise the price as times goes on and the game becomes more complete.

To cut a long story short, as long as the price clearly reflects that you're buying into a nowhere-near-finished game and that you don't need to pay any extra once you bought in at an early stage - this could be a great way for indie developers to finance their games without having to take out 10 mortgages.
Posted 22:00 on 26 January 2014


i feel like i trust traditional devs and publishers more than kickstarters and such just because they know they need their end product o be great if they want to make money. An incentive. Being paid upfront for an alpha means no guarantee of it actually being finished, and even by that time you may be bored or frustrated by it.
Not saying publishers are all trustworthy, but when they are revealed not to be, they usually lose a lot of money in the process. There is no way to keep kickstarted devs in check. People will buy the hype even if it's buggy and incomplete hype. A friend of min bought DayZ because he's been waiting forever for it and just wants it.
I just don't get why consumers get roped in by the marketing of early access all the time.
Posted 08:29 on 26 January 2014
mrgarrettscott's Avatar


This is one trend I have no intention of following. I will never pay a cent for a product that I know is unfinished. As long as Early Access is attached to the game or whatever any other publisher decides to call it, they can be sure that I won't offer my money.
Posted 01:51 on 26 January 2014
DaveSimonH's Avatar


That experience, and my wrists sore from all the clicking, is enough to put me off ever again kickstarting or buying a game in alpha/beta build stages.
Posted 00:32 on 26 January 2014


I dunno, I think the last sentence of the penultimate paragraph makes this a bit of a moot point. If it turns out that more and more developers are using this to take advantage of consumers, it'll very quickly die on its arse. If we get to a point where consumers stop trusting in the devs, they'll have to provide more and more proof of their intention either to the point where the consumer is happy, or the point where... well... there isn't any point.

Additionally, if early access games are crap without any word from the dev, that creates bad press for the game. This is bound to negatively impact sales of the game when it's finished - if they haven't already the developers will figure this out eventually.

The success of these types of campaign will dictate their future. It's panning out for a few at the moment, but it's still very early days. Yes, the future may be all doom & gloom, but I wouldn't worry just yet.
Posted 00:03 on 26 January 2014
Curt580's Avatar


This article is 100% accurate, and has been needed for a looong time. People are easily suckered in when a game promises to be this epic title that is next to impossible to actually make.
Posted 22:45 on 25 January 2014
WhatISayGoes's Avatar


I 100% agree, I will NEVER EVER EVER EVER buy an unfinished product, I am pissed enough when I buy a game and have to wait a few weeks or months to be able to play it as it was intended, COUGH COUGH SKYRIM, COUGH BATTLEFIELD 4.
To pay money for a beta is to me, unthinkable.
It just shows that consumers are as dumb as the marketing and pr people think they are. (the average consumer anyhow).
Posted 22:00 on 25 January 2014

Game Stats

Release Date: 16/12/2013
Developer: Bohemia Interactive Studio
Publisher: Bohemia Interactive Studio
Genre: Survival Horror
Rating: TBC
Site Rank: 476 1
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