Steam’s early access program is sort of nearly a decade old and launched in 2013. Billed as a way for gamers to help shape games through feedback and testing, but also as a way for developers to finance their games, there have always been tensions. Individual studios have their own ideas about their purpose, as do players, creating a mess of shattered expectations and confusing messages. Even now that Early Access is the new norm, it defies consensus.
Let’s start by fixing this problem: I think early access is often a good thing. Allowing gamers to experience the development process first-hand helps demystify game making, it provides developers with vital feedback, and it’s been a huge boon to indies, allowing them to secure funding without publisher interference.
Look what it did for Larian Studios. After leveraging his community first through Kickstarter and then through early access, he was able to make his biggest hit and then an even bigger hit, which resulted in the developer being handed the reins of Baldur’s Gate 3 It is now one of the most important RPG developers on the planet.
But even Larian isn’t immune to misplaced expectations. With Baldur’s Gate 3, it was clearly stated that only the first act would be available in early access, with the rest coming at launch. Despite that, you still see a lot of people wondering when the next act is coming or complaining that they’ve played enough of the first act already and want something new.
This is unavoidable simply because early access games are always premium products. These aren’t public alphas, and to get a chance to play early you need to slap some cash. The moment you part with your money, it is natural to feel ownership and even entitlement. And with each passing month or year, that sense of belonging and entitlement only grows.
At the start of the program, the developers were quick to point out that these games were in development and that you should only take the plunge if you were okay with being an unpaid tester and accepting bugs and missing features. But those caveats were immediately undermined when these games started being promoted with the same enthusiasm as the finished products and when they started showing up in sales. This is not how you find testers or die-hards who will endure the long development process; that’s how you argue with regular players.
I feel bad for the devs when I see forum posts complaining about unavoidable things in Early Access, but it’s also ridiculous to expect people to skim through blog posts, updates, and logs developers to find out what state the game is in before making their purchase. And traditional methods of knowing if a game is worth your time aren’t as effective when it comes to early access offers.
At PC Gamer, we don’t give formal, graded feedback on early access games for a multitude of reasons. Beyond the fact that these simply aren’t finished games, the review ecosystem isn’t set up in a way to allow reviews to be edited. If you give a game a 60, it doesn’t matter if you give it a 90 a few years later, that old score will stick around like a bad smell.
We usually do printouts, sometimes multiple times, before tackling the final review. But if you’re planning on, say, getting Baldur’s Gate 3, my main impression won’t be much help to you. I wrote it in 2020, before there were bards, wizards and druids dressed as giant badgers. To get a clearer picture of where he is currently, you should check out our ever-growing feature on everything we know about Baldur’s Gate 3 (opens in a new tab), then follow the links to other articles. That’s a lot to ask of someone who just wants to play a game.
After almost a decade there haven’t been any solutions, so I think we just have to accept that Early Access will always be a bit of a Wild West where you can’t even be certain that the game you have purchased will one day be completed. Some games just die, while others just never leave. Project Zomboid, for example, has been in early access since the program launched.
These issues aren’t limited to official early access programs from Steam, Epic, GOG, and Xbox, either. Pre-order betas are also common, encouraging people to buy games early so they can help with stress testing. We just saw it with Darktide, which had several betas before launch. Gamers were tempted to jump in early, only to find that, even a week before launch, it wasn’t close to being ready for prime time. It’s safe to say it still isn’t, with performance issues and temporarily missing features making it look like a WIP.
In a perfect world, everyone would know what to expect from Early Access, and all feedback and playtesting would lead to more polished games. Instead, however, I feel like I’m constantly testing betas, even in games that are apparently out. It seems more and more that most launches are followed by developers announcing patches and fixes and beta branches for further testing.
But I still lap it. Total War: Warhammer 3 is one of my favorite games of 2022, and a big part of that is the Immortal Empires campaign. Yes, it’s in beta. No, there is no release date. Even though I keep telling myself that I don’t need to dedicate another few hundred hours to it, the fact that it’s there, pulling me in, means I just can’t help it.