In the earlier part of the millennium, I was really into checking out beta versions of video games. That was inspired largely by the then-newly-discovered dump of a beta of Sonic the Hedgehog 2, nicknamed the Simon Wai beta after the man who dedicated a corner of the Internet to unpacking it. I found myself thinking about those halcyon days of seeing the fabled Hidden Palace, Cyber City, and Wood Zones that did not make the cut for the final product recently when I was flipping through the Steam store. Half of the advertised titles were labeled “early access,” which puzzled me. One would think that selling a game on future potential is a little cart-before-the-horse. Why would you pay full price for anything clearly and unequivocally labeled incomplete? I wouldn’t pay a tailor up front for everything so he can stitch my coat and only one leg of my suit pants. I’m pretty sure going to trial in a suit like that would earn me a citation for contempt of court.
In theory, developers gather information about what to improve in their games through early access. For example, DayZ was released in 2012. It has undergone continued development since the mod was released, with its creator joining with the development team behind ARMA 2 to produce a standalone game expected for release late this year. However, those are future projections with no guarantees. Plenty of games have disappeared into development hell (and some, like Duke Nukem Forever, should have stayed there). A game that is 60% done upon release is that and only that: 60% done. If the development team folded up a year after its early access project went live, it’s not necessarily a bad reflection on the developers that they got hundreds of people to throw money their way. Personally, I would not be satisfied with driving on a bridge that is 60% done, but that’s just me. Besides, not every early access game is the success story that DayZ arguably represents. Steam is the great clearinghouse of games of every stripe and not every one of those peddled wares is lightning in a bottle. I mean, have you seen the game Hatoful Boyfriend? It’s a game about (ugh) bird romance. The store blurb reads as follows:
Congratulations! You’ve been accepted as the only human student at the prestigious St. PigeoNation’s Institute, a school for talented birds! Roam the halls and find love in between classes as a sophomore student at the world’s greatest pigeon high school.
Well, shut up and take my money!
Hatoful Boyfriend is not early access, but could you imagine if it were? A pigeon-themed dating sim is asking for $10 and it is not yet complete? It already fell at the first hurdle of being a pigeon-themed dating sim. Being incomplete would just be an insult. If people want to make total hack jobs and sell them on the market, that is their prerogative. I would hope that said hack jobs would at least put on the veneer of being professionally done from start to finish, not from start until the time the creator got bored and started playing Halo instead. Early access is snake oil salesmanship at its finest. “Buy this thing that is incomplete and maybe even buggy and we’ll give you a slice of cake when the full game comes out, or something. Maybe.”
Would making early access free to play douse the fires of my contempt? Let’s just say it will dampen those fires. At the end of the day, you’re a QA tester without pay. I’m not certain this is a win for consumers either, since now it is offering free labor to the producers without necessarily guaranteeing marked improvement. I’ve already done enough interning work for the rest of my life without thinking that, in addition, I’ll be making something intended to be fun and diverting into doing a favor for someone else. I’m apt to be skeptical of promises that pleasantly-smiling strangers make to me in real life, too, so invisible ones elicit another league of cynical reaction from me.
“But wait!” you cry. “Isn’t early access just like playing a demo? What is wrong with playing a demo? You get to see if you like the game or not before purchasing it.”
The curious thing about that is that there was a time when a demo was a novel concept. By that, I mean not that a preview of a game itself was new and revolutionary, but that it was showing something intentionally not the same as the intended final product. At the turn of the millennium, I felt that more demos were showing something that the final product was not exactly if the demo was preceding the game’s release, or was showing just a tiny bit of the final product if it was following the game’s release. When Zeus: Master of Olympus was released by Impressions Games and Sierra Entertainment (that alone telling you how long ago this era I describe was), the demo very lightly trod in the same path as one of the first campaigns before going wildly divergent to showcase a lot of the mythological game mechanics that separated it from prior titles in the series like Pharaoh or Caesar III. Nowadays, one mostly sees something yanked straight out of the game and presented out of context as a demo. The demo is no longer teasing your imagination. It is the game, in partial; apparently creating additional content is hard. The real point is this: you are playing the game, mostly, as it was meant to be played. That is not necessarily terrible in the context of a game like Super Smash Bros., where you know exactly what the game will be like. In story-driven games, all that means is that you are obtaining a bucket of spoilers before the game is finished. Fortune favors me again!
There is also this mystifying story from the game H1Z1, another zombie survival game that is no less brainless (fittingly) than any of the other ninety thousand zombie survival games that Steam is constantly hacking up like fur balls from a cat’s mouth. Basically, players could call in an airdrop for items. These items were supposed to be of marginal, minimalistic value. Then, players discovered they were receiving crates of ammo and firearms in these airdrops. Kind of a big deal in a zombie survival game, don’t you think? So did many others, which is why people were annoyed that these airdrops were obtainable through microtransactions, even after the developers said they had little intent of imposing microtransactions in their game. Then again, according to this article, what the developers exactly said is almost irrelevant in face of the mixed signals they gave on the subject. For me, the real disgust is in the fact that an incomplete game is already exacting more money from us with microtransactions. Where else could one get away something this obnoxious? I suppose cinema is now going to charge me an arm and a leg for a ticket and enough popcorn to fit up my nose before stopping the film every 10 minutes to say I can see the good outcome of a character’s decision in the film if I pay an additional $1.25 plus tax, only for the end to come right before the exciting climax with a title card saying, “See the full version of this movie in 6-12 months.” Microtransactions and I get along like the Montagues and the Capulets, so it was a foregone conclusion that I would be hostile to the idea anyway, but to go pay-to-win in an incomplete is the height of contemptible behavior. You might not think it is such a big deal, but you know that a model like P2W microtransactions in early access is now being seriously considered as a viable plan by developers everywhere because of stories like this. The developers win on every front. I may as well gamble with my own money against a house that is blatantly cheating and get surcharged $2 by the casino every time I bet.
What I’m saying is that zombie survival games are bad and you should feel bad. Apart from that, whether you call it a demo or early access, receiving a hack job before it is 100% complete does not make it less of a hack job. Indeed, it is more of a hack job. There is so little in the early access market that stands out as sterling. If I want bronze, I don’t grab it when it is still tin. This is not alchemy. This is my time and money, and I will thank you not to waste either.