Early access

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Early access, also known as early funding, alpha access, alpha founding, or paid alpha, is a funding model in the video game industry by which consumers can purchase and play a game in the various pre-release development cycles, such as pre-alpha, alpha, and/or beta, while the developer is able to use those funds to continue further development on the game. Those that pay to participate typically help to debug the game, provide feedback and suggestions, and may have access to special materials in the game. The early-access approach is a common way to obtain funding for indie games, and may also be used along with other funding mechanisms, including crowdfunding. Many crowdfunding projects promise to offer access to alpha and/or beta versions of the game as development progresses; however, unlike some of these projects which solicit funds but do not yet have a playable game, all early access games offer an immediately playable version of the unfinished game to players.

Contents

History

Traditionally, game publishers do not release unfinished versions of their products to the public, instead relying on in-house testing non-disclosure agreements. This prevents such versions from becoming the target of software piracy, and limits what information can potentially be shared with competitors. [1] As such, publishers will fund the full development of a game through its completion, but will be less willing to take risks on experimental titles. In some cases, publishers have found ways to allow players to win or buy into access into a game's beta state in a controlled environment. For example, an invitation to the beta version of the multiplayer portion of Halo 3 was bundled with the game Crackdown , contributing to the latter's strong sales. [2]

For indie games, which are typically distributed without a publisher, the source of funding for development is not as readily available. Many smaller indie companies use personal funds, while larger ones may get investments from other sources, and more recently crowdfunding programs such as Kickstarter or Patreon proven viable for both. Another difficulty for indie developers is the means of testing their games prior to release, lacking the resources of a publisher and not obtaining enough feedback prior to release. [1]

The concept of early access helps to alleviate both problems. Early access to a game is typically offered when the game is in a playable state but may not be feature-complete, or may still have several software bugs to be found. Often these games are considered at alpha or beta releases, and may be months or years from anticipated completion. Interested players are able to buy into the development of the game, gaining access to the software in the working state, and are encouraged to play and stress-test the software. Their feedback can help the developer tune the game's direction, art, and software mechanics in anticipation of a final release. Once the game is released, the player either continues to have access to the software or is rewarded with a means to obtain the final release of the title and other extras, such as sounds, their name in the game's credits, or other rewards. These players help fund the game to completion, but take a risk that the game may never reach a final release. [2] A further benefit can come from preliminary word-of-mouth of a game in an early access state. As players are typically not limited by confidentiality agreements to participate in early access, these players can provide reviews on social media, or play the game on streaming broadcasts, which subsequently can stimulate interest in the title.

One of the best-known early examples of this model is Minecraft . The game's development began in 2009 by Markus Persson initially for internet browsers that he developed alongside his full-time job. The alpha-version game proved popular enough that within the month of release, Persson added a means by which players could pay 10 euros (approximately US$15) to access the game, allowing him to continue its development. As sales of the game increased, he was able to quit his job about eight months later to work on the game full-time, founding Mojang to bring on a larger development team. Minecraft continued to offer early access throughout its development period, assuring those that bought into it would receive the final version for free, which happened in November 2011. Prior to this, nearly two million players had purchased into the alpha- and beta-stage releases, with over $33 million raised from these early sales. [3] Minecraft's success led to the early access approach becoming a popular way to publishing indie titles.

Approach

To help early access, some digital distribution storefronts have provided the sales and distribution mechanisms for developers to use to offer their titles under early access. While these stores take a small fraction of the sales for the service, they also handle complex issues with payments through credit card and services like PayPal, bandwidth for delivering software, redemption of keys for other digital storefronts, and promotion within the storefront. The digital storefront Desura launched an alpha-funding initiative in 2011 to help indie developers promote upcoming titles. [4] Valve added an early access to Steam in March 2013, allowing developers to take advantage of the Steam storefront and the Steamworks API. [5] The storefront GOG.com began an early access program, "Games in Development" similar to Steam's in January 2016, but staying true to their storefront's philosophy, maintaining digital rights management-free titles and providing more curation to vet the titles using the service. GOG further implemented a 14-day, no-questions-asked refund policy for early access titles, which removes some of the risk for the potential buyer. [6] [7] itch.io introduced its Refinery early-access program in May 2016, which allowed developers to choose from other early-access models, including limited-user alphas and by-invite-only betas. [8]

The Humble Bundle group has created a Humble Store that also provides storefront and distribution methods for indie gamers that wish to sell early access to games, and for developers looking to get on Steam, offers the ability to provide Steam redemption keys once these titles are listed at the storefront, while also incorporating a method to allow players to pay or tip the developer in addition to the base cost. [9]

Video game console makers have also looked to the success of early access and have created their own similar programs for their consoles' users. Sony Computer Entertainment stated in July 2014 that they considering creating an early access program for independent PlayStation 4 developers following the Steam model, [10] and launched this approach in September 2015 with the game Dungeon Defenders II . [11] Microsoft similarly started the Xbox Game Preview program in June 2015 for those users involved with the dashboard preview of the Xbox One console with plans to expand it fully to all users on both Xbox One and Windows 10; the Xbox Game Preview program differs from other approaches as the early access titles include a free game demo at the current state of development to give players a chance to test the game before buying. This service was launched with the early access titles The Long Dark and Elite Dangerous . [12] Google offers a similar Early Access program for the Google Play store for Android devices, starting in mid-2016. [13]

Though most titles that use early access are from independent developers, some AAA developers have used an early access approach to augment their normal development cycles. Codemasters used Steam's Early Access to help develop Dirt Rally ; at a point where they had to make a go or no-go decision on whether to proceed with full development of a niche racing title, the company opted to use early access to offer a polished version of the game still in development to meter interest and gain feedback from players, correcting issues that players had had with previous titles in their series. After about a year, Codemasters was confident to proceed to complete the game and producing console versions of it with their publisher alongside the personal computer version. [14] [15] Ubisoft used early access to help complete Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Phantoms (previously named Ghost Recon Online) after the primary development work was complete, incorporating player response to fine-tune the final game. [16]

Early access is often tied in with other means of funding. Games that have used Kickstarter or other crowdfunding mechanisms often include early access to backers, and later allow those that did not participate in the funding to buy into that early access, which helps to provide additional funds for further expansion. The term may also be used in a derogatory way to describe games released to the public at large under the presumption they were completed games, but still required a high degree of patching or updates to resolve large numbers of software bugs or to add features missing at launch, even if this was not the intent of the developer or publisher. Full release games such as No Man's Sky , Mass Effect: Andromeda , and Sea of Thieves have been negatively labeled by critics as "early access" in this manner. [17] [18] [19] [20]

For games that expect to be released as free-to-play with in-game monetization, developers and publishers frequently offer a paid-for "founders" package that gives players early access to the game, including in-game currency, special equipment or other items that mark them as founders they can use after the game's full release, and other benefits; further, any progress made during this period is retained when the game leaves early access, giving such players a head start over newer players. This approach has been used for games such as Paragon , [21] Dauntless , [22] and Fortnite: Save the World . [23]

Steam Early Access

The "Steam Early Access" release service (run by Valve), makes use of proprietary Steam software for sales and distribution. [24] The program launched on March 20, 2013, and initially made 12 games available. [25] Before the games are released, the developers solicit feedback from Steam Early Access purchasers (who have contributed funds to the game's creation), to provide the needed input. [24] After its release, Valve planned to have titles taken from their Steam Greenlight program added to Steam Early Access, as well as adding titles which have already been accepted through Steam Greenlight. [26]

Notable games using early access

In addition to Minecraft, the following is a partial list of games that have been considered successful uses of the early access approach:

Current

Former

Failed games

There have been some notable examples of failures of the early access approach. The game Earth: Year 2066 was placed on Steam's early access with numerous promised features, but found by those that purchased the title that the game has numerous programming bugs making it unplayable, that it failed to approach its promises on the product page and used a number of assets from the commercial game engine. Many users, including Jim Sterling of The Escapist , [58] called out on both its developer Killing Day Studios for abusing the early access program and for Valve to remove the title for fraudulently representing gameplay. Valve subsequently removed the title and refunded money, noting that while developers using early access have the right to promote and set the pricing for their games, "Steam does require honesty from developers in the marketing of their games". [59]

Another example is the Spacebase DF-9 ; while the development team from Double Fine had laid out plans for several features and gameplay improvements over time, Double Fine opted to end its full-time development, completing its early access and releasing a final product that while fully playable lacked many of the planned features; the company will continue to fix critical bugs with the game and will include support for user modifications via Steam's Workshop channel but will not create any new content for the game itself, disappointing many players of the game that were looking forwards to these planned features. Shortly after the release of 1.0 twelve employees were laid off including the programmer and project lead JP LeBreton. [60] Later on the Double Fine forums it was announced that there were no further plans for patches and there was no team assigned to the project [61] leaving Steam Workshop integration in limbo. Double Fine's Tim Schafer stated that they opted for this solution as while DF-9 represented their first experiment with the early access approach, they had reached a point where the amount of money earned from sales of the game in early access were not covering the production costs, and the timeline to reach the planned goals would have been several years down the road. [62]

Reception

Video game critics have generally developed policies to avoid doing final, scored reviews for games in early access, instead offering interim commentary on the game. Polygon states they feel that they should provide consumer commentary on any product that is being sold to consumers, but recognize that early access titles are still in-progress works and thus will handle these in a different manner than their normal product reviews. [63] Eurogamer , as part of an updated review policy, will only formally review retail versions of games after their release, though may give initial impressions of games still in early access development. [64]

Games still in early access have generally not been considered for the industry's top awards, since they have technically not yet been published yet and received in-depth critical reviews. However, the question of whether early access games can qualify for these awards was raised in 2017 when PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds was nominated for several awards including Game of the Year for The Game Awards; at the time, Battlegrounds was nearing its first non-early access release, but had yet to officially publish outside it. [65] [66] Gamasutra considered the concept of early access, particularly Steam's approach, as one of the five trends in 2013 that defined the direction that the video game industry was headed. [67]

The early access approach has been criticized by some; as noted by Ben Kurchera of Polygon stated that the early access model validates the use of unfinished games as a "valid business strategy". [68] While those that buy into the early access do get an incomplete game to play, test out, and provide input to the developers, these people also run the risk that the game will never be completed or may be a sub-par product. [69] A study using Steam's Early Access as of November 2014 found that only 25% of the titles submitted as early access had made it to a final release form. [70] Sergey Galyonkin, the creator of the Steam Spy tool to estimate sales of games through Steam profiles, identified that contrary to popular belief, early access titles only gain one major sales boost - when the game is first released in early access on Steam - as opposed to having a second sales boost once the game leaves early access. [71]

Another concern related to early access is how long the title spends in that state. Most successful titles that have used early access typical remained in early access for about one year before a full release. Some have stayed in an early access state for multiple years, such as Kerbal Space Program and DayZ, and others have remained in a perpetual early access state, like Star Citizen. Consumers do not necessarily have assurance of when the early access period will be done, or if it will ever be considered complete. [20]

Due to some early access failures, such as Spacebase DF-9, by 2014 early access has gained a negative connotation, as games do not have the quality assurances of complete titles, and in the case of Steam's Early Access, the lack of curating and testing by Steam to make sure the games are representative of the storefront's description. [72] Some players also worry about the "double dip" effect, in which a game may be promoted twice, first through its introduction on early access, and then on its subsequent full release. [72] In November 2014, Valve updated its early access rules for developers to address concerns that had been raised. Among these include the statement that games on early access should be in a playable alpha or beta state, there are clear expectations of what the final product of the game will be like, and that the developer intends to continue work on the game, and can be financial stable to ultimately release a finished product. [73] Since 2014, early access has regained more acceptance as developers better tailor projects for release in this manner, typically by creating sufficient foundation for game to have its planned an entertainment factor and technical stability, and using early access to gradually release additional content and observe and adjust to emergent ideas that come from the early access player base. [74]

Other games have been considered by commentators to have used the early access approach well in light of the above concerns, typically bringing near-finished products with frequent and continual content updates and direct interaction between developer and players to improve the product before its final release. Games with roguelike features appear well suited to take advantage of early access, allowing the developers to tweak the procedural generation systems with player feedback. Several titles that have used Steam's Early Access in such a manner include Invisible, Inc. , Nuclear Throne , Armello , Broforce , Prison Architect , Darkest Dungeon , Besiege , Infinifactory , Subnautica , and Ark: Survival Evolved . [75] [76] [77] This also helps in combination with early access games that gain popularity through streaming channels, as the developers not only get increased awareness of the game but can gain direct feedback from the streamer and their audience on game balance and improvement, such as reported by the developers for Hades , Slay the Spire , and Risk of Rain 2 . [78]

See also

Related Research Articles

Double Fine American video game developer

Double Fine Productions, Inc. is an American first-party video game developer of Xbox Game Studios based in San Francisco, California. Founded in July 2000 by Tim Schafer shortly after his departure from LucasArts, Double Fine's first two games – Psychonauts and Brütal Legend – underperformed publishers' expectations despite critical praise. The future of the company was assured when Schafer turned to several in-house prototypes built during a two-week period known as "Amnesia Fortnight" to expand as smaller titles, all of which were licensed through publishers and met with commercial success. Schafer has since repeated these Amnesia Fortnights, using fan-voting mechanics, to help select and build smaller titles. Double Fine is also credited with driving interest in crowdfunding in video games, having been able to raise more than US$3 million for the development of Broken Age, at the time one of the largest projects funded by Kickstarter. The company has continued to build on their independent developer status and has promoted efforts to help other, smaller independent developers through its clout, including becoming a video game publisher for these titles. Double Fine has also been able to acquire rights to remaster some of the earlier LucasArts adventure games, including Grim Fandango, Day of the Tentacle, and Full Throttle. The Double Fine website is also host to seven webcomics, which are created by members of Double Fine's art team and are collectively referred to as the Double Fine Comics.

Epic Games American video game company

Epic Games, Inc. is an American video game and software developer and publisher based in Cary, North Carolina. The company was founded by Tim Sweeney as Potomac Computer Systems in 1991, originally located in his parents' house in Potomac, Maryland. Following his first commercial video game release, ZZT (1991), the company became Epic MegaGames, Inc. in early 1992 and brought on Mark Rein, who is the company's vice president to date. Moving their headquarters to Cary in 1999, the studio's name was simplified to Epic Games.

Steam (service) Video game digital distribution service

Steam is a video game digital distribution service by Valve. It was launched as a standalone software client in September 2003 as a way for Valve to provide automatic updates for their games, and expanded to include games from third-party publishers. Steam has also expanded into an online web-based and mobile digital storefront. Steam offers digital rights management (DRM), server hosting, video streaming, and social networking services. It also provides the user with installation and automatic updating of games, and community features such as friends lists and groups, cloud storage, and in-game voice and chat functionality.

Bohemia Interactive Czech video game development studio

Bohemia Interactive a.s. is a Czech video game developer and publisher based in Prague. The company focuses on creating military simulation games such as Operation Flashpoint: Cold War Crisis and the ARMA series. It is also known for having worked on a game conversion of the DayZ mod created for ARMA 2.

Kongregate American online gaming website

Kongregate is an American video game publisher and web gaming portal. The website features over 110,000 online games and 30+ mobile games available to the public, while also publishing games for PC and console. In 2010, it was purchased by Gamestop Corporation and was then acquired by Modern Times Group MT AB in 2017.

Indie game Class of video game, generally independently published

An independent video game or indie game is a video game typically created by individuals or smaller development teams without the financial and technical support of a large game publisher, in contrast to most "AAA" (triple-A) games. However, the "indie" term may apply to other scenarios where the development of the game has some measure of independence from a publisher even if a publisher helps fund and distribute a game, such as creative freedom. Because of their independence and freedom to develop, indie games often focus on innovation, experimental gameplay, and taking risks not usually afforded in AAA games, and may explore the medium to produce unique experiences in art games. Indie games tend to be sold through digital distribution channels rather than at retail due to lack of publisher support. The term is synonymous with that of independent music or independent film in those respective mediums.

Xbox Live Indie Games are video games created by individual developers or small teams of developers released on Microsoft's Xbox Live Marketplace for the Xbox 360. The games were developed using Microsoft XNA, and developed by one or more independent developers that are registered with App Hub. Unlike Xbox Live Arcade titles, these were generally only tested within the local creator community, had much lower costs of production, and generally were less expensive to purchase. The service was released to widespread use alongside the New Xbox Experience, and as of November 2014, over 3,300 games have been released on the service, many receiving media attention. All Indie Games currently require the user to be logged into their Xbox Live account to initiate the start-up of each game. Indie Games were not available in Australia, due to the requirement for all games to be rated by the Australian Classification Board, and the prohibitive expenses involved. The Xbox Live Indie Games program did not continue with the release of the Xbox One, and the marketplace for these games was shuttered in October 7, 2017.

GOG.com Digital video game distribution platform

GOG.com is a digital distribution platform for video games and films. It is operated by GOG sp. z o.o., a wholly owned subsidiary of CD Projekt based in Warsaw, Poland. GOG.com delivers DRM-free video games through its digital platform for Microsoft Windows, macOS and Linux. In March 2012, it began selling more recent titles such as Alan Wake, Assassin's Creed and the Metro Redux series, among many others.

Humble Bundle, Inc. is a digital storefront for video games, which grew out of its original offering of Humble Bundles, collections of games sold at a price determined by the purchaser and with a portion of the price going towards charity and the rest split between the game developers. Humble Bundle continues to offer these limited-time bundles, but have expanded to include a greater and more persistent storefront. The Humble Bundle concept was initially run by Wolfire Games in 2010, but by its second bundle, the Humble Bundle company was spun out to manage the promotion, payments, and distribution of the bundles. In October 2017, the company was acquired by Ziff Davis through its IGN Entertainment subsidiary, though operates as a separate subsidiary.

<i>DayZ</i> (video game)

DayZ is a survival video game developed and published by Bohemia Interactive. It is the standalone successor of the mod of the same name for the game ARMA 2. Following a five-year long early access period for Windows, the game was officially released in December 2018, and was released for the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 in 2019.

Steam Machine (hardware platform) Line of gaming PCs operating SteamOS

Steam Machine was a line of prebuilt gaming computers designed to operate Valve's SteamOS through the Steam client. Several computer vendors were engaged with Valve to develop their own versions of Steam Machines for retail, offering additional options atop Valve's requirements such as dual-booting options with Microsoft Windows and the ability to upgrade the computer.

Steam Controller Game controller by Valve

The Steam Controller is a game controller developed by Valve for use with personal computers running Steam on Windows, macOS, Linux, smartphones or SteamOS. The controller was designed not only for games developed for controller users, but also for games traditionally played with keyboard and mouse controls so that they can be played through the controller. It was released in November 2015 to support Valve's Steam Machine and discontinued in November 2019.

<i>Wreckfest</i> 2017 video game

Wreckfest is a racing video game developed by Bugbear Entertainment and published by THQ Nordic. Wreckfest is described as the spiritual successor to the FlatOut series and a cross between FlatOut, Destruction Derby and cult 1989 PC racer Street Rod. A notable feature of the game engine is the use of soft-body damage modelling, which enables location-based damage that affects the driving dynamics of vehicles in a realistic fashion. After a four-year long early access phase, the Microsoft Windows version was released in June 2018, with PlayStation 4 and Xbox One versions released on August 27, 2019 after multiple delays.

Infinifactory is a puzzle video game developed and published by Zachtronics, initially released on Microsoft Windows, OS X, and Linux on June 30, 2015. The game was later released on PlayStation 4 in December 2015. In the game, the player takes the role of a human abducted by aliens and forced to construct assembly lines to create certain objects for apparently-nefarious purposes. The game combines elements of Zachtronics' previous SpaceChem and Infiniminer, with the assembly lines being built from blocks in a three-dimensional space.

Steam Spy is a website created by Sergey Galyonkin and launched in April 2015. The site uses an application programming interface (API) to the Steam software distribution service that is owned by Valve to estimate the number of sales of software titles offered on the service. Estimates are made based on the API polling user profiles from Steam to determine what software titles they own and using statistics to estimate overall sales. Software developers have reported that Galyonkin's algorithms can provide sales numbers that are accurate to within 10%, though Galyonkin cautions against using his estimates in financial projections and other business-critical decisions. Due to changes in Steam's privacy features in April 2018, Galyonkin had anticipated he would need to shut down the service due to the inability to estimate accurate numbers from other sources, but later that month revealed a new algorithm using publicly available data, which, while having a larger number of outliers, he still believes has reasonable accuracy for use.

<i>The Culling</i> (video game) 2017 first-person action game

The Culling is a first-person action battle royale game developed and published by American studio Xaviant. Following an early access beta phase, the game was released for Linux, Microsoft Windows, and Xbox One on October 5, 2017.

<i>PlayerUnknowns Battlegrounds</i> 2017 video game

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Battle royale game Video game genre with the last-man-standing gameplay

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<i>Torchlight III</i>

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Epic Games Store Digital video game storefront

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