Like a number of Valve initiatives, Steam’s Early Access program has proven to be a boon to both players and developers. Valve has long been a company celebrated for being a consumer-facing company first but also one that takes care of its developer and publisher partners, and Early Access is no exception.
Valve has been fairly liberal and accommodating in terms of selecting what titles qualify for Early Access, but also has a solid framework for accountability on the development end. Developers need to spell out in detail the current state of their game when it enters Early Access, why they’ve chosen this route, and what features they realistically plan to implement in the coming months.
All of this information is surfaced and available on the front page of any game in Early Access on the Steam store and web interface, and puts a certain amount of pressure on developers to deliver the promised content and improvements within a reasonable time frame.
So what are the advantages? Given the aforementioned pressures and the potential flack a creator might take for exhibiting a product that’s not finished and generally very raw and unpolished, what motivates so many, particularly indie, developers to test the Early Access waters?
Pay to play
Well, there are the obvious, oft-touted advantages. For one thing, games in Early Access aren’t free demos or betas. They’re products for sale, and as such reap funding that a creator can then apply to further development (or whatever else they please).
And then there’s the flagship feature of Early Access — the one Valve most likes to emphasize whenever it discusses the program: Early Access allows developers to get feedback directly from players during the development cycle, and gives players the sense that they’re contributing in some small way to how a game takes shape.
Features can be trimmed or added according to response from live players, which not only energizes your player base but has the added advantage of (usually) yielding a better game.
But there are a number of less obvious advantages that aren’t often discussed but that are in some ways even more important than this kind of interactivity and additional funding. Another byproduct of letting players get their hands on early versions of your game is that they put it through its paces in ways a small development never could.
What this means practically is that you’re getting, for free, a service that lots of AAA teams pay tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars for: free testing and bug reporting, assuming you can build a community yourself — which is admittedly a big assumption.
But as any developer will tell you, finding bugs early makes exterminating them much easier than when they’re rooted in fully developed systems that are integral to the framework of your game.
And there’s another, almost voyeuristic advantage of Early Access. It gives creators the opportunity to watch players experience their game live, without having to lug it to trade shows or host expensive events. It also means that typically a much larger audience can get an opportunity to sample your game than at one of those shows, which means a much larger pool of data from which to draw conclusions.
Being able to watch players in a live environment can be invaluable. It’s a powerful tool for things like establishing the flow of your game, seeing how well players are finding critical pieces, how well highlighting and indicators are working to guide players forward, if you’ve unintentionally built red herrings or misdirection into your design.
This is especially useful when building tutorials; it’s much easier to learn what you need to teach your player by watching them actually play your game than in a sterile development environment, which always risks becoming an echo chamber. It’s also valuable for any number of miscellaneous tests, like testing how difficult your hidden collectibles are to find, or how well things like randomly generated loot tables work and how they impact the play experience.
Another huge upside of launching in Early Access is that it’s essentially free marketing for your game. While this can be a double edged sword (games that launch too early or that leave the impression that no amount of development will cure some of their fundamental issues actually suffer from early word of mouth), games that show promise and that promise an exciting slate of upcoming features can generate a lot of hype well in advance of actually launching.
Instead of paying for advertisement, you’re actually generating revenue from what doubles as an (albeit limited) advertising platform. This type of word of mouth campaign can snowball as players begin to build communities around your game and being to stream and record videos and write about it. Almost every huge hit to emerge from the Steam platform has been the result of this sort of viral marketing.
So while launching on Early Access comes with some inherent risks, the advantages, especially for smaller shoe-string creators that are looking to promote their first projects, generally outweigh the cons. It’s no surprise we seen such an explosion in that space in the last few years, or that platform holders like Microsoft are leaping to ape the service with their own takes.