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Opinion – Microsoft’s Game Preview Program Is Poorly Implemented And Requires Consumer Education

by Mike Futter on Jun 23, 2015 at 08:05 AM

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It was only a matter of time before the concept of paying for unfinished games made its way to consoles. At Gamescom last year, Sony announced DayZ is coming to PlayStation 4, sounding the warning bell. At E3 2015, Microsoft took the plunge as well.

The Xbox One team announced “Game Preview,” which is just another term for what Steam calls “Early Access.” Developers can offer up incomplete games with no guarantee that they’ll ever be finished, collect money, and send users off with buggy, non-final code.

While Early Access has certainly had its stumbles on Steam, with two major revisions to the guidelines and language, moving into the console space creates a set of problems. The idea behind console platforms is that things are supposed to just work.

You buy a game, you put it in the drive, and you’re all set. That's the benefit of living in the walled garden created by console platform holders. You won’t need to configure settings, and if the game crashes or freezes your machine, it’s more than likely the developer’s problem. Of course, in the age of patches and updates, that foundation is starting to show cracks.

Game Preview changes that core understanding turning the cracks into full blown fractures, and the fine print currently in place doesn’t alleviate the concerns. There are fundamental differences between PC and console audiences. Consoles have a lower financial barrier to entry. The usership is generally younger and drifts farther from the “core” than PC players. While those younger gamers might be technologically savvy, they are often reliant on parents for purchases.

This is where things get tricky. Without an education campaign targeted at both end users and their guardians, Game Preview has the potential for public relations disaster. A 60-minute trial isn’t the answer either. That’s a glorified demo that, in the case of some games like Elite Dangerous, is barely enough to scratch the surface.

Game Preview titles show up in the Xbox Store along with fully released games. A banner appears above the art with the words "Game Preview," but without education, that term doesn't actually mean anything.

I’ve seen Early Access used well on Steam. Titles like Darkest Dungeon and Armello didn’t arrive on the program until they were stable and full of content (though early enough that feedback could be taken into account).

It’s unclear right now exactly what the purpose of Microsoft’s program is. There’s no baked-in mechanism to provide feedback through the Xbox One, as players are directed to the websites to comment on a game (unlike Steam, which has its own forums for providing feedback, too). There's no language about refunds if the game falls apart, rather the warning seems to insulate Microsoft and the developer from those who might have buyer's remorse later on.

While there is a brief explanation that the Game Preview titles are incomplete and may never be completed, this doesn’t go far enough. Clicking on the “Purchase” option should reiterate that language and require users to check a box acknowledging that the title in question is unfinished.

I’m not opposed to an Early Access system on consoles, but I do think that platform holders and developers need to go above and beyond for transparency.  Right now, it’s hard not to look at this option as a cash grab for interested developers. Until there is education, a specific set of goals laid out clearly for how feedback will be collected and used, and greater protections in place for end-users, Microsoft and its partners aren’t going far enough.

Whether Early Access has a place on consoles is no longer a worthwhile discussion. The practice is in place, and it’s unlikely to go away. The focus must now be on proper education and transparency that provides users with everything they should know about just what “Game Preview” actually means.

I understand the excitement of a simultaneous announcement and release like this, but Microsoft failed to lay the groundwork to prepare the user base for a completely new class of product appearing in the Xbox Games Store. Console consumers have a right to expect more information about a program like this before it appears online.