Discussion Mondays: Early Access Games at Retail

With as much controversy as “Early Access” type games are causing these days, one thing I’ve never thought to consider is how the discussion would change or intensify if these titles were sold at retail. Currently, they’re available digitally on Steam but if they were sold in stores, how would that affect your viewpoint?

For those who aren’t really PC players or are unaware, Early Access games are essentially titles that the developer is releasing to the general public early. You, as the consumer, pay full/normal price to gain access to the game with the general understanding that the game isn’t finished but the developer will continue to create, shape, and eventually complete the title. Well, that’s the hope anyway as we have seen some games do get taken down or outright abandoned which means that you’re out of the money you spent on it. On paper it’s a win-win as you get to play the game you’re interested in and the developer gets money they typically wouldn’t have so soon.

I came across a post over on Game Informer yesterday about Planetary Annihilation, a Kickstarted “Early Access” PC game being sold at retail. The game’s currently in a Gamma state which Uber says is somewhere between beta and retail ready, but is targeting a full release later this year. It’s also a development state that I’ve never heard prior to that article. In case you were curious, yes, there is a big label on the box stating that the game is an “Early Access Edition” without further context on the front. Hopefully there’s something on the back explaining it a bit better lest someone assume that it’s a special edition of a finished game.

I honestly don’t know how I feel about this as a trend going forward. I’ve purchased one Early Access title before (Mercenary Kings if you were wondering), but it’s not something I’d do unless I was 100% sure of the developer. I like to think I’m pretty up to date on trends and releases in the gaming world but for a lot of common people who enter retail based shops, they’re more than likely not terribly familiar with everything that may be going on. Who’s to say some mom walks into this place looking for a cool game to get their child? That “Early Access Edition” isn’t going to mean much to them, at least in terms of it being unfinished, so there’s potential that it may deceive a lot of consumers when they discover later that day that the game seems to be unfinished. The need for communication and information has never been higher in situations like this. Buyer beware and all of that.

While I don’t feel that Uber Entertainment will disappoint and fail to finish the game, their experiment will more than likely open the door for other companies who may not be as trust worthy or capable. This very well could be a slippery slope especially now when you take a system that was firmly rooted in a gaming educated environment like Steam and release it into one that has much less knowledge of these practices. There’s little doubt that this new way of doing things will spark a fierce debate among supporters and detractors.

So what do you think? Is bringing Early Access to big retail chains the way to go? Is this something that’s more dangerous than it’s worth? Let me know in the comments below, I’m curious to hear what you think.

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9 Responses to Discussion Mondays: Early Access Games at Retail

  1. C. T. Murphy says:

    I think we’re only the verge of redefining ‘shippable product’, for better and for worse. I blame games like Minecraft and Terraria that proved releasing a basic game and then expanding it was a viable market approach. Not to mention a huge upswing toward all-digital ownership and rapid update cycles, which make this sort of release method viable in the first place.

    I don’t hate it. I get the game earlier and I might have more say over its direction. It doesn’t interface well with the typical zeitgeist that supports the multiplayer aspects of these titles, however. By the time Planetary Annihilation is a final product, many people will have played it, mastered it, or moved on. I think that’s a big issue. Final Fantasy XI suffered tremendously since it released to Asian audiences first and then opened up those servers to North Americans later. Half of your community (language barriers aside) had a significant head start on the other.

    I am not opposed to retail releases, though the idea of buying a PC game in a box at a store is more quaint than a rotary phone. My big concern is trustworthiness (which you elude to) and whether or not a developer can follow through with the support they often promise. Terraria is a great example since they took off a year+ from supporting it (though the game had grown a lot since its release before that).

    In a world where games are never truly finished, when are they finished enough? Banished is a great game, but it’s so bare that an ‘early release plus additional content’ cycle could’ve made it into something really special. Console games drop all-at-once and then you are forced to pay for more, which, for many games, does little to keep their communities active over a long period when the initial game wasn’t compelling enough to keep it on your shelf past the first month.

    Down the line, I think more and more games will resemble MMOs. You’ll get a full base with a promised follow up cycle. Additional content, if warranted, might be treated as an expansion or DLC. Failure to deliver a proper follow through on your game past its launch will become a serious faux pas and might hurt your company’s future offerings.

    It’ll be okay if central authorities like Steam, Sony, and Microsoft can protect consumers from unfairly marketed, buggy titles with zero follow-up support that prey upon gamers like many Kickstarters likely would if they could get enough initial funding to falsely sell a prototype!

    • Really well said Murf!

      Agree on the MMO approach where you start with a core base and then build upon it over time. With that model, at least the core game is functional off the bat.

      I also forgot about the fact that in essence, you’re buying a PC game at retail. Chance of that these days are more slim obviously.

  2. Hatm0nster says:

    Murphy makes a good point when he asks “when are they finished enough?”. Many developers already rely on post-release patches to shore up bugs that get through testing, so we can’t (and for that matter never could) call a finished product bug-free. On one hand I’d say that a full boxed-release is going a bit too far for something that is still considered unfinished. I can understand people wanting to play games earlier and developers wanting to get their product out the door and soon as they can, but should we really be so excited to spend time and money on something that isn’t done yet? Take the recent Destiny Alpha for example: would you have paid full-price for the game in that state? I loved it and I wouldn’t. Not being able to go anywhere and/or have little more than the bare features available doesn’t seem worth it.

    Then there’s Murph’s other point: the community. How many players who go into an early access game are going to stick around for the final product once it’s finished? And if they do, for how long? I’m of the opinion that while early-access buyers/players are good for a game in the short term, they’ll actually be damaging in the long-term. The people buying are those who are most excited to see a game, and the most likely to try to get their friends to play and thus form that all-essential starting community needed to attract more players. Giving them that unfinished product too early would allow them to enjoy the game, but by the time it’s finished and most of their gaming friends would have been willing to buy, many of those early-access players would have already moved on since they already got what they wanted out of it.

    In the end, I don’t have an answer for early access either. Paying to be a play-tester sounds odd to me, and it seems like all it’ll do is ruin the full game for those who buy in. Not everyone can be MineCraft, which worked because it was already the game that Mojang wanted it to be when it first was made available to play, and because it was something we hadn’t seen before.

    …this is a difficult question to be sure.

    • Yeah, that’s a great point about the community aspect as well.

      Sometimes curiosity gets the better of you. So you get the early access game, play it, satisfy that curiosity and suddenly that urge to play it is gone. Maybe it’s what you wanted, maybe it isn’t but either way, by the time the game comes out, the interest is gone since you’ve already played it.

      I could totally see that happening to me.

      Seems like the main thing you guys are bringing up is if you’re going early access is to have the base core of the game complete so you can build upon that. A lesson some early access devs should take note of.

      • Hatm0nster says:

        Yeah, if the base game is at least done, then that’s enough justification to spend some money I suppose. It still doesn’t negate the other issues though unfortunately. Some will just never buy early access, so they remain.

  3. Hatm0nster says:

    Reblogged this on United We Game and commented:
    Do any of us really know how to treat the “Early Access” trend that’s been very rapidly gaining popularity on digital platforms. Is it good? Is it bad? It’s hard to say. This week GamerCrash took on this difficult question, one made even more so due there now being a boxed released for an “Early Access” (aka unfinished) game called “Planetary Annihilation”. Read on for more details and to throw your own thoughts into the discussion!

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