The idea of early access makes my head hurt.
It's not that I don't understand the idea of selling games before they're complete, but because there's so many issues surrounding the concept and how it's done that I struggle to wrap my head around it.
Thanks to the youth of the concept, there's still a lot to consider about how it should work.
My view is, if early access is to be a 'good thing' for both the people making the games and those consuming them, a standard needs to be created.
I believe early access, paid betas, whatever they should be called, should be about creating and cultivating value in early access through a limited audience, instead of encouraging the sale of broken products, which is what early access has a high potential to become.
To me, Vlambeer's Nuclear Throne is the platonic ideal of what an early access game should be. It's a well-formed game even at this state that, through regular updates, creates a unique sensation that what the player is experiencing now might not be the same the next time they play because it is updated frequently.
This sensation comes at a cost: the game is $12.99, and not going on sale until it's completed. Vlambeer has also been extremely transparent, with Twitch streams of development, detailed update logs, and paying attention to player feedback.
It's not just a way to sell an unfinished game, but to get value from the peoople who play it, while letting those who are interested in the concept dig in early. So, there's an exclusivity to it: it's only on PC platforms (Windows, with Mac and Linux released recently), with Sony platforms currently locked out.
Ultimately, what this early access release succeeds at is cultivating a sensation of exclusivity and premium value for those who buy in, and that's what early access games need to focus on.
A question of value
It starts with the price: some developers prefer to sell early access games at or below what the final price would be. I believe this is a flawed decision. Selling at a premium adds value to the game and a layer of exclusivity, that it's something not everyone has.
Would it make sense for a Kickstarter to offer beta access for less money than the price of the game when it launches proper?
People have to make a material decision whether they want it now at the premium cost, or if they want for the finalised product at its 'actual' value. I believe it helps cultivate long-term buzz through this exclusivity. Those who buy in early may be more likely to provide feedback, and to be accepting of the idea of an evolving product that can change.
Instead, selling a game early at a discount can make for disappointed players unhappy with a game that they might enjoy when it is polished and refined.
This idea of selling a game at a lower price before it's finished may seem counter-intuitive, but look at it from another perspective: would it make sense for a Kickstarter to offer beta access for less money than the price of the game when it launches proper? Of course not.
As well, making an unfinished product cheaper punishes players who rightfully expect that they should be able to spend money on a game and get a finished and reined product. Games are unique because they have to come together as a cohesive, functional, whole, and there's nothing wrong about expecting that.
Using early access to shift the perception that expecting a refined product should cost more has no benefit to customers or to the culture of gaming itself.
This concept of limiting the audience to cultivate a product into a better finished work is actually not new to mobile. There's nothing like the Steam Early Access section, but the concept does exist.
Right now, the primary way of doing so is with free-to-play soft launches, where only certain countries get games before they release globally. The App Store's 2.9 review guideline, "Apps that are "beta", "demo", "trial", or "test" versions will be rejected," seemingly makes it impossible for this concept to exist. But that doesn't mean that it can't be done in creative ways.
An app has to be polished and functional, but games can be that and incomplete in terms of content and how it functions on a game design and monetisation level.
Mobile developers have many ways to limit their audience for an early access release. Limiting audience can be done by only selling in certain countries, of course. But another way is to just simply not promote a game.
This exactly is what GREE has done. Heard of League of War? It's a GREE-published game developed by Munkyfun that has been devoid of GREE's promotional muscle in order to it in the hands of only a limited audience for the purposes of feedback. This clever tactic might not work so well for indies, who have limited promotional power to begin with, but it's a thought to consider.
Android makes it easy to provide limited early access, through alternative app stores and even direct APK sales through Humble, like what Out There did on Android before its iOS and Android release.
The App Store's review guidelines seemingly makes it impossible for early access games to exist.
For premium iOS-only games, why not try selling a game at a higher cost on the App Store with limited content, and then later putting promotional pushes behind the finished version, after player reaction and analytics reveal what needs to be improved? Who says that the benefits of soft launches on mobile have to be limited to free-to-play games?
But even though early access does exist, developers do need to be careful. Selling unfinished games is playing with fire.
Only developers that are ready - ideally ones who have proven that they can deliver products - should consider early access. Because this shouldn't become a system where developers no longer feel the need to create finished and refined products because they can make money through early access alone.
I don't think that developers need to undergo "performative game development" and release at the crazy pace like Vlambeer, but developers an ear for listening to feedback and work toward justifying the faith put in by those who buy early at a premium.
And I think that by cultivating early access as a premium proposition, it provides a standard that makes it a valuable tool, and one that benefits players, developers, and the culture of gaming as a whole.
Chicago-based Carter Dotson is a senior writer at 148Apps.com, which was acquired by PocketGamer.biz publisher Steel Media in 2012.