Gaming

How Long Should Early Access Really Last?

ScreenCritics Wolf talks about his experience with Early Access on Steam – and why he thinks it’s being openly abused by rouge developers.

 After recently acquiring The Forest, I was surprised to learn it had been released almost three years prior. To say I was bemused at just how long the game had been sat in Early Access would be an understatement, I’d heard next to nothing about it during that time. Perhaps more perplexing, the game is all but finished. It has a beginning, middle and ending that, while not amazing, was by all qualifications a fairly good way to end this delightful little survival horror. It’s not perfect but learning that the game was sitting in Early Access made me wonder just what on earth they were doing with the game at this stage to justify that tag.

Sadly this isn’t the only game that’s sat in this bizarre situation. Looking at other games in the section on Steam which are classed as Early Access, a pattern quickly emerges. A number of games have been in the section for well beyond a reasonable period of early access. For most of these developers, it appears the ‘Early Access’  tag is merely a way to keep a game from releasing so that the company can make money while building something at a snail’s pace.

I’m not throwing this accusation at the developers of The Forest, they clearly communicate when each update is going to arrive. Heck, their website has a countdown timer to let you know when the next update is due. But it got me thinking about the state of Early Access and how the term has become a somewhat convenient byword for slow development cycles.

Probably the worst offender though is DayZ, a game that seems destined to remain trapped in Early Access for eternity. What was once the “must see” experience in gaming has descended so far down the tree that it’s kicking up dirt. That mods success spurred the developers behind it to rush off and make their own standalone game .  With a huge YouTube following and the groundwork laid – it surely should have been a simple case of adapting an already brilliant mod into the its own bear? Yet three years and three months later, we still have an Early Access title that is now all but despised by the community that once supported it. So angry are some fans and so bitter at being made to wait that they’ve sworn off ever supporting the developers again.

It makes me wonder – why do developers do this to themselves? Why squander that potential and all that success by hiding behind the ‘Early Access’ tag – pointing towards it when angry gamers circle; demanding answers that never come. When DayZ released I, like many others, was engrossed. It was easy to be suckered in by the promises and the hype. The endless Youtube videos, the massive map and the unique demands of trying to survive against not just Zombies but also fellow players Bandits. It was a true fight to survive as food was scarce and weapons sparce. We as a community were excited for the future.

Yet now no one wants any part of it. The community soon turned on its creators citing how good the mod was, we all started to drift away from the game certain we could find something better. Perhaps most awkwardly, things got better when they introduced  the Role Play servers (I was involved in Friendly in Cherno’s Flash mob Server). They brought a bit of fun back to a game that we were certain was dead. But that’s the problem. After years of miscommunication and poor management of time, many fans just simply didn’t care. The damage was already done, the game was dying and updates on optimisation and vehicles wasn’t enough to salvage this once potentially great game.

Every week more and more Early Access games hit the Steam Store. Figures suggest upwards of 50% never actually leave that status – most get abandoned and left for dead. Early Access can be a precious lifeline to game developers that don’t possess the warchest that AAA-developers have access too – but there’s simply too many developers abusing the system. Making promises and taking money, then shutting up shop as confused gamers ask how things are going. I’ve been stung several times by this and let me tell you; it sucks.

Early Access in recent years is becoming a platform for failure. It’s drowning out genuine talent and turning into a cash grab by greedy developers who promise the earth and deliver nothing. Maybe these developers should be forced onto other platforms, if it forces them to actually deliver workable promises and realistic goals. If DayZ’s developers had been held to account like this, perhaps they’d have been forced to make the game they promised. Or maybe they never would have been given the chance to rip gamers off.

I know I won’t be revisiting that section of Steam anytime soon.

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