The problem with eternal Early Access

PC Gamer recently had a good article about Survival games (ARK, Rust, etc) almost never making it out of Steam’s Early Access, whether or not that was the correct use of the system, and if overall that’s a problem.

The initial reaction I had, and I’m sure most have, is that of course a game staying in EA forever is bad, especially if they also open up a cash shop or start charging for DLC. But what is EA really for games like ARK or Rust? (For more focused games, EA is most certainly for finishing your game prior to being done). How is EA different than a ‘released’ MMO? In an MMO we accept that the game isn’t ‘done’, and we also accept that sometimes systems get abandoned or the game’s direction changes. How is that different from EA really?

If ARK had called itself an MMO and ‘released’ 2 years ago, other than associating terms with the game, what would be different? As a player, you bought a game with a lot of content, some bugs, and devs that had more plans to continue updating the game. As they provided free updates in MMO ARK’s buy-2-play model, they also announced and released some optional payed DLC. Would there have been an uproar about this? Of course not, because that’s common and accepted in games like GW2, or The Secret World.

The perception problem for games like ARK is they really aren’t MMOs in the traditional sense of the term, yet from a developer standpoint, they work best when updated in a similar manner. ARK was fully playable and enjoyable 2 years ago, and was worth the price back then. Since that time its expanded greatly, but still isn’t fully ‘finished’ in terms of polish. That sounds a lot like most MMOs, doesn’t it?

And I don’t think ARK or games like it would have been better or more enjoyable if the devs had stopped adding features or expanding and just focused on polishing for an official release, as that would have taken a lot of time and returned little for the players. Yes bugs are annoying, but ARK has been very very playable for a long time, so we aren’t talking terrible stuff here, but rather minor annoyances in most cases, and the stuff that is really bad usually does get fixed. Again, how many MMOs can we say the exact same thing?

I think the best fix for this would be for Steam to change how EA works, perhaps limit how long a game can remain in that status, or add a new status for games that expect to be a work-in-progress for a long time (1yr+?). In part, EA is to let players know a game isn’t finished yet, but games like MMOs and survival games that aren’t abandoned are never done, so the EA tag is accurate, but misleading. The problem isn’t with the model, but with the label.

About SynCaine

Former hardcore raider turned casual gamer.
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11 Responses to The problem with eternal Early Access

  1. Bhagpuss says:

    It’s a language issue. (Everything is, pretty much).

    To avoid the perception that there’s something wrong with still being in “Early Access” after, let’s say, a year they should announce an end to the “Early Access” phase and confirm they are now in the “Ongoing Development” phase. Nothing actually changes – or rather everything goes on changing – but suddenly any suspicion that anyone’s being ripped off disappears.

    Because, yes, everything online these days behaves like MMOs always did – but we can’t call everything MMOs.

  2. I think early access does/should have a distinct meaning beyond “we’re still writing code for the game.” Even the above suggestion about flagging something as “ongoing development” seems silly to me. Lots of games go live and get updates and DLC over time and don’t feel the need to declare some special status. As noted, MMORPGs have been pretty mainstream for nearly 20 years at this point without feeling the need to declare themselves in some special state of being.

    Minecraft is always my good example for what early access should mean. The game is always getting updates. But for a while the core of the game was under development. At some point they felt it was ready for prime time, called it 1.0, and dropped the early access label. Done and done and people seem to be able to handle the ongoing changing state of the game.

    Games sitting for ages in early access while collecting money, or promoting the game like it is done, is just a bullshit dodge to deflect any criticism about quality.

    But here is my SynCaine selling point: Daybreak is doing this with both flavors of H1Z1. Do you think behaving like Daybreak is a good thing?

    • SynCaine says:

      The H1Z1 point: You mean they are both released but still getting updated? Not following that point as I haven’t followed H1Z1 for a while.

      • Sorry, I meant that the other way around, that Daybreak is totally abusing the whole Early Access thing with H1Z1:King of the Kill with ads and sales and cash tournaments and incenting Twitch streams and so on, to the point that I think they must have discovered some sort of tax dodge associated with EA.

        I know that in enterprise software time spent developing software for a customer can be written off for tax purposes under specific circumstances, but once the customer accepts it then any work on fixes of updates are not. I wonder if Daybreak is trying something like that.

        Anyway, the point was supposed to be “Don’t Do What Daybreak Does.”

        • SynCaine says:

          Well, “Don’t be Daybreak” is always good advice, yes. That would be real sneaking of them though if the tax thing is true, would love to have someone with tax code knowledge expand on that.

  3. jacob4408 says:

    Early Access means the game is buggy, possibly unplayable, and does not have the advertised/promised feature set either at an acceptable level or maybe not at all. It is much different than a completed game still receiving content from the authors. If a game can’t ever get out of Early Access then it is a failure.

    • SynCaine says:

      Nothing should be in EA if its unplayable, and that’s on Valve to control. As for bugs, how many did the full release of Civ VI have (and still has)? How many other full release examples can we list that had far more bugs than some EA games? So I don’t think that’s a great metric either.

  4. The development model of these games is that of an MMO, but the delivered product is not in keeping with the ambition level of an MMO, nor is their stated end-goal.

    If they actually were MMOs it would be a whole nother thing.

    DayZ comes closest to this ambition by providing persistent characters, but is marred by tons of shards on top of this.

  5. Isey says:

    I started writing a response here and it became 3 paragraphs. I’ll make a blog post instead and link back :)

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