Early Access games are games that are released before an official publication date. This is to let players try the game out and also contribute to the funding process.
The purpose of an early access release is to offer access to the public to increase attention and hype, therefore pushing development even further. They are often indie games, which usually don’t have the budget of larger companies, but require extra funding to finalise production.
Why do games do early access?
Releasing unfinished products obviously carries a level of risk, such as content leaking with competitors, targeted piracy, or releasing a faulty product to angry customers. Publishers create a good level of security, as any employees and game testers will be required to sign non-disclosure agreements, and be part of a secure company. Most importantly, a production company will fund a game, as well as the development through to completion, in return for a substantial cut of the game’s profits.
But due to the amount of money being risked on these games, big production companies will not be willing to take the risk on smaller companies and projects. A game that cannot guarantee its success will be a tough pitch to a large company. Smaller companies may struggle to get the attention of a big publisher.
Therefore, an indie game has a few options to obtain funding:
- Personal funds
- Early access
An indie game can use all of these methods to obtain funding, but in the later stages of development, going into early access can be a fantastic way to launch a game to success, and it’s becoming increasingly common.
The above diagram demonstrates exactly the process most gaming titles will go through. After the initiation of the game, the game will enter a form of production known as alpha. This is the first stage of development which will involve testing and detailing. Once the game has finished this preliminary stage of production, it will enter beta.
Early access games can be either alpha or beta stage releases, with alpha releases obviously being more unfinished. It is not always revealed whether the game is in alpha or beta, and will often just release under the umbrella of early access.
Beta-stage games will often be much more polished and closer to a release date. There can also be closed beta and open beta options, with the former often being released to only a select few people.
Are Early Access games finished?
Early Access games are by definition unfinished, but the level that they are unfinished can vary. Some titles can be released in a very unfinished state, but some can be a fully functioning game that has even greater plans for the future.
Steam has an entire section dedicated to Early Access games which are updated and reviewed constantly. The transparency of Steam reviews is always a great indicator of a game’s quality, so you can check those to see if a game is in an acceptable state, plus the refundable nature of games on Steam means that people can support early access titles, but not feel stung if the game is not up to scratch, or unfinished.
Do you have to pay for Early Access games?
Normally, Early Access games are paid. Some are free, but this is a rare case as normally Early Access games need the funds to reach full production.
However, often Early Access games are sold at a discount to their full-price release, which will usually be cheaper than regular games.
How long do games stay in Early Access?
Again, this is hard to define exactly. Games will be in early access for as long as they are not published, and some games will never leave, sometimes failing or being cancelled.
Black Mesa was notoriously in early access for eight years, and was announced seven years prior to that, but was released to good reviews. This game was one of the first titles that brought attention to some potential pitfalls of early access games, and divided people on whether it was a good thing for games overall.
Project Zomboid is another very popular and successful title that has also been in early access since 2013, which at the time of writing has reached 10 years.
Is Early Access good for gaming?
This is highly controversial, and there have been many great and terrible examples. An Empirical Study of Early Access Games on the Steam Platform has estimated that “15% of the games on Steam use the early access model”, meaning that it is highly likely you will come across an early access game.
An early access title will generally mean a cheaper game, and with games such as Valheim being a smash hit example, they can make extremely good value games.
Early access games are also at the forefront of gaming, and will often be testing the boundaries, free of any constrictions of big production companies. If you’re interested in where gaming is heading, and want to support certain styles of game moving in a certain direction, then supporting early access titles is a great way to do this, plus a great way to discover some interesting developments.
Perhaps you even know of a specific project and game you want to support, and you know that in buying an early access title, the money will go directly to the developers working on the game.
It has been reported that after a year of being in early access, only 25% of projects have left the early access stage. This is a worrying statistic, as it implies that some games are released as early access but don’t have realistic expectations to leave that stage, or never intend to. Games can be released as sub-par, sold with the dream of being a finished product to get revenue, but abandon the project after a few years.
One notorious example was The Stomping Land, which was released to great acclaim and had a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign which raised $114,060 before venturing over to early access. Once released, the game was a total mess and resulted in the developers of the game disappearing, and the game being taken off Steam. There were no refunds.
What are the best Early Access games?
Despite the negative sentiment, and the bad examples, there has been a litany of games released using early access (some still currently in early access) that are successful and incredibly popular.
Here are some early access titles on Steam that have had rave reviews, and outshone many fully released games, all with hundreds of thousands of reviews to back them up.
- Valheim (95% positive)
- Satisfactory (97% positive)
- Phasmophobia (97% positive)
- Ready or Not (92% positive)
- BeamNG.drive (97% positive)
- Slime Rancher 2 (95% positive)
- Dinkum (95% positive)
At a crossroads
So in conclusion, it’s hard to determine whether an early access game will be good or not, as it’s been clearly determined by the list above that incredibly successful games can come from the process. But critics have the right to avoid early access titles, as a huge number have been abandoned and changed without listening to the fans. The incentive to release unfinished games is also a danger, as companies are being pushed through competition to release games as early as possible, and simply make promises of what the game will be in future. Proper testing of games is being silently swapped for public testing.
It seems to be that the best early access games need to have the core mechanics of the game sorted, and not the content or spectacle within it. If the game does not function correctly, or behave in a way that is advertised, this is a huge red flag, and will likely mean that the foundations of production are shaky at best.
As the gaming industry grows year after year, it is at a crossroads, and only time will tell whether early access games will be a benefit to the industry, or whether broken and unfinished games will soon become the norm.