Early access games aren’t the end of the world

It seems like I can’t hop on the Humble Store or Steam without seeing a new game being pitched to me. I say “pitched” because I’m not being proffered fully-realized and functional games–rather, I’m being asked to be an investor in the product. In return, I get to beta (or alpha) test these games before they’re even released. Yay! Ignoring for a minute that at the age of ten this would have sounded like the dream situation, this trend is horrifically jarring to me. I reckon it is to anybody who grew up in the 90s and early 2000s.

When I was a kid, you waited and waited and waited for a game to be released. During its long development time (unless you’re Oddword: Abe’s Exoddus) the developers paid (GASP!) testers to endlessly play their games in an attempt to break and exploit them. Games like Final Fantasy 7, with hours and hours of gameplay, would ship to you fully polished and flawless*. We didn’t have early access, and we were grateful!

I had a problematic obsession with throwing barrels on alligators when I was little. I had anger issues.

I had a problematic obsession with throwing barrels on alligators when I was little. I had anger issues.

Don’t look for an asterisk at the end of the page. There’s no annotation. The truth of the matter is, even with extensive testing, games still shipped with bugs. Some were better than others, but there was always something broken. If you were playing a console game, you were basically boned (fact: Basically Boned is the name of an 80s tribute band I’m working on) when it came to fixes–if you were a PC gamer, you’d get a few patches eventually.

I used to think that this was the perfect way to make a game–in fact, I thought this as recently as last Saturday. And then I started to think. And then I started to think some more. And then I remembered SimCity. And then I remembered Diablo III. And then I remember everything about Skyrim.

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Looking at recent AAA Game developers in recent history, it’s difficult to not be left with the impression that they’re not devoting a ton of time to fixing bugs prior to release. With the advent of new technologies that have made it much easier to fix bugs post-release, it kind of seems like “pay-to-beta” is kind of what we’re doing anyway. It’s almost like some cigar-wielding exec said aloud, “Hey, let’s cut the ‘tester’ budget, release a game that’s barely limping forward, use our customers as unwilling crowd-source beta testers, and fix the stuff when they whine. I mean, what can they really do to stop us?”

While I don’t necessarily like the idea of having to pay for a game before it’s finished, I have to commend independent developers (who generally lack the huge financial backers of the AAA industry) for being upfront about it. Nobody’s forcing me to buy these games that are open for “early release,” and as long as the people paying for them are convinced that it’s a legitimate way to support an indie developer rather than encourage a blind and ruthless moneygrabbing expedition, good on them. Plus, who knows, maybe we’ll get another Minecraft out of it.

And if I have to choose between games that blackmail you into paying them through microtransactions and buying a game that looks interesting before it’s released, I can guarantee you that I’m going to pick the latter.

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