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Opinion – The Confusing And Frustrating Landscape Of Early Access

by Andrew Reiner on Sep 04, 2017 at 01:00 PM

I don’t want this opinion to come across like an old man waving a stern finger at something he doesn’t fully understand, but frankly, that’s exactly what it is. Although I'm not THAT old yet, I've been around long enough to see video games evolve from pixels to whatever they are today. I have a feeling most people are equally as agitated by the current landscape of games as I am. Console games used to be “plug and play.” You’d insert a cartridge into a console, hit the power button, and be questing for the Master Sword or smashing bricks to find magical mushrooms within seconds.

Every console game that you purchased back then worked this way. Sure, some required accessories like a light gun or power glove no one knew how to use, but the act of playing a game, and more importantly understanding what you purchased, was as simple as buying it and playing it.

Over the span of the next three decades of gaming, a fog crept in, eventually obscuring the fundamental definition of what a purchasable game is. When I ventured into Epic Games’ Fortnite, which is sold as a boxed good at retail stores but is considered a “closed beta,” I realized I no longer knew exactly what I am throwing my money at. What the hell is a closed beta?

Alphas, betas, open and closed versions of both of these things, early access, founder’s editions, backer’s editions, day-zero editions, and the murky waters tied to free-to-play are just some of the things I’ve been confused by recently.

Each game developer treats all of these release points differently. In terms of how complete a game is, an open beta for one game could be considered an alpha state for another. Trying to wrap your brain around exactly what a developer is offering is frustrating, often requiring a significant amount of time dedicated to fact-finding and diving into forums to hear what the developers and community are saying.

When an alpha or beta is a free trial, there isn’t much harm done, other than the developer running the risk of a consumer not liking the game and avoiding a purchase later down the road. A multitude of problems arise when a price tag is attached to these things, which is happening more and more.

What exactly are we buying into? Will our progress carry over to the main game? Are we just paying to be guinea pigs that are poked and prodded, all in the hopes of the dev team extracting enough data to make a better game for release? Is the developer upfront in letting us know exactly what role we are playing in its game?

Developers aren’t even communicating when a game may be unfinished or prone to huge changes. The front of the Fortnite retail box doesn’t have any early access indicators on it. The back of the box lists a section for “early access” items to use in game. Nowhere on the box does it say the game is a closed beta. I don’t think Epic is trying to mislead consumers. I understand the game will eventually move beyond the closed beta window, thus rendering the description on the boxed good outdated.

People have been playing (and paying into) Studio Wildcard's Ark: Survival Evolved since 2015. After two years of development, the game was officially launched on August 29. To christen this event, the dev team planned on wiping all of the PvP servers so everyone would start on untouched ground. This decision obviously created a tyrannosaurs rex-like roar of disapproval from people who had logged hundreds of hours into the game up until this point. Studio Wildcard wisely decided not to wipe the data, but it left longtime players in a somewhat strange spot, since they had already consumed most of the game.

Ark moving out of early access to official release brought a number of interesting additions, such as an orchestral score, a final boss, an expansion map built by the modding community, and two new creatures: a phoenix, and, get this, an otter. Studio Wildcard also added a story line, but this new lore is better experienced by newcomers who haven’t gone through most of the content or seen most of the dinosaurs along the way.

Ark made it to release, but not all paid early access games are so lucky. United Front Games announced Smash + Grab in August 2016, and released it in the following month under Steam’s Early Access program for $19.99. People paid good money to check out Smash + Grab, but soon found they could no longer play the game when it was pulled from Steam in October. A month was all the time they had with it.

For consumers who aren’t hip to the lingo of alphas and betas, they may not know these games are actively in development, and the quality may not be up to what they consider the norm. You will more than likely run into glitches, exploits, and game-ending bugs in Early Access games. People who have stuck with DayZ since 2013 have seen all the ups and downs of game development. The Steam listing features roughly 28 pages of change logs that outline just how early this game was when it launched and where it’s at now (still in Early Access).

I’ve jokingly said that if we shut down the internet, all of these problems will disappear. Developers would be forced back to the archaic ways of launching FINISHED games. Heaven forbid that become the norm again, right? As it stands now, I feel unease every time I consider venturing into an unfinished game. This is coming from someone who stays on top of video game news every day, and is (hopefully) informed of all of the big beats and trends shaping the future of this interactive medium. I can’t fathom how confusing pre-release games must be for people who don’t read news, and only buy a handful of games a year at stores like Target or in digital marketplaces.

Early access gaming has become the Wild West of video games where everything and anything goes. Should the reins be pulled back on what developers can do? No. We’ve seen success story after success story come out of early access games. Some of these games are made better through extensive community feedback and interaction, like PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG), which is the year’s biggest game and a potential game of the year candidate.

Would PUBG have gotten off of the ground if early access didn’t exist? I highly doubt it. That game has made over $100 million in Early Access with over eight million people playing. As of this writing it still only has one map. One.

Can anything be done about this Early Access mess? Yes, but the video game industry would have to come together to create uniform solutions.

A number of systems could be put in place to alleviate some of the confusion and questionable business practices we’re seeing. Digital store landing pages should double as journals where developers outline the current state of the game. This is something we see on Steam – update notes coupled with easily accessible consumer feedback. We aren’t seeing this kind of information for most early access games on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. Consumers are mostly going in blind.

Another easy solution (that would be impossible to achieve) is a universal naming system for each type of early access game. Again, every game is different, as is the road to “going gold,” but there has to be a better way than alpha, pre-alpha, open alpha, closed alpha, closed pre-alpha, and open pre-alpha with the founders key. That lingo may make sense to developers, but for most people (even those plugged into gaming), it's confusing. I would love to know the number of people who didn’t play a game just because they didn’t know what that terminology meant.

This opinion may come across as a rant, but it needs to be said, especially since I can’t go to a digital store these days and not question what I may be buying into. I'm not liking how games or content are rolled out these days. The waters are muddy, developers. We need some form of clarity. Having gamers hover over the “purchase” button with an eyebrow raised is not a good thing.