The Survivalist: Is gaming’s early access the new launch?

Previously, while discussing ARK: Survival Evolved’s big bird nerf, I touched on the subject of the early access model. My focus then was on the model in relation to ARK, but it isn’t unique to the dinosaur survival game by any means. In fact, that model pretty much defines the entire multiplayer survival genre, which appears to be (perpetually) stuck in early access. Just take a gander at our guide: Practically every title is in EA. Some have even been in this unfinished state since 2013!

So what gives? Why isn’t anything getting completed and actually launched? Or is this really what launch looks like nowadays? I certainly hope not. Early access certainly has its place, but there are issues — especially with games that use the model for years on end. And that isn’t doing the survival genre any favors in the long-term.

Early access: The new launch?

I’ve admitted before that I honestly forget that titles are in early access occasionally. When that happens, it’s actually a good sign! It means that things are going well for the game, with regular updates and such. Folks are just cruising along, playing and enjoying the game. However, other times the fact that a game is EA is glaring; we’re talking slamming-you-in-the-face-with-a-frying-pan obvious. Such was the case with that bird nerf in ARK. But even when things are going well, I am worried about the prolific and (especially) the extended use of the early access designation. Now it’s like early access is used as a new launch — but without culpability or responsibility for the bugs and messes.

Why would I call early access a new launch? Because as much as I like small, independent games getting straight into the hands of players, expanding the pool of available games, and securing some funding to finish up development, it too often seems as if development never actually finishes. People are buying and playing, but the games remain endlessly in EA. How many EA survival games have actually shed the EA designation? Are any actually going to? It sure doesn’t feel that way anymore, and I’m not the only one harboring doubts! Remember, some of these games have been early access since 2013. It is hard to blame folks for feeling that games are actually “out” despite their EA designation when they have been out for years on end! At what point are these devs going to say their games are launched? It’s not as if launching will prevent additional content or bug fixes from happening; development is expected to continue. So why not launch?

…Or simply an excuse?

As time passes, it’s feeling more and more as if early access may be a way to avoid taking responsibility for creating a polished product. After all, there are just some expectations that a launched game would have, such as being optimized, having a majority of bugs squashed, and a completed story (if there is one). In EA, you don’t need any of that. The idea that a game needs to be feature-complete is not a factor when you are talking about ever-changing virtual worlds and MMOs; expansions and ongoing content is expected. So what’s the holdup in the survival genre? Even those games that start off utilizing EA as it was meant to be and promise quick development seem to be seduced into the dark side of the never-ending non-launch.

I can’t blame consumers who believe that early access is simply a way to fleece players out of their money without ever having to deliver a finished product. The emphasis is on “finished” product. How many products have been finished so far? I know of two offhand: Don’t Starve Together and Starbound. What motivation do devs have for leaving EA? As long as devs can point to being in early access, they never need to deliver on these points mentioned above — yet they still have their players’ money. I’d like to think that there is a new market for players who want to buy but have been waiting for launch — those who don’t want to be testers and want to experience a complete (for now) game — would be a big motivator, but I have yet to see it. Then again, why would that cash be any bigger of a motivator than the cash they still get now in EA? And would there really be a big influx of players, or would anyone who wanted to play it already have jumped in then jumped ship after a few years of EA?

On the other hand, I would argue with the “fleecing” part of that idea. In most cases buyers did get the product they purchased. Remember that quote about early access games you had to pass over as you went to buy? It’s the one that point-blank says, “This Early Access game is not complete and may or may not change further.” You got exactly what you paid for.

Still, it can be unsettling that with this little disclaimer, developers have the ability to make sweeping changes, regardless of whether you like the game as is or not. It says they can right there in blue and white, and you’re warned not to buy if you don’t want to risk it. Now to be fair, launched MMOs make some drastic changes sometimes too. You can read up on plenty of conversations and bellyaching (at times quite justified) on many a game forum or news site. But the fear of everything you’ve worked for getting zapped and destroyed in a moment hangs in the air of EA games.

Another benefit of staying in EA is that devs — not to mention players — can point to things not working, lack of development, or what have you as simply a factor of “early access.” It feels as if it can be used as a way to deflect criticism without having to deliver on anything. Do all developers do this? No. But it is out there, and it casts a poor light on others trying to use the model legitimately.

I think there comes a time when you can’t keep hiding behind early access.

Invest in early access or no?

Buying or not buying into early access is not necessarily a simple matter. On one hand, there’s the decision of whether or not you want to play a game as is right now. If so, get the game; if not, don’t. On the other hand, getting the game can feel like supporting a seemingly shady-at-times practice of profiting while never offering a final product. And you always have to be ready to lose everything you have done to wipes, changes in developmental direction, and so forth. Can you stand to lose the game you love when the devs change their minds? These are questions someone contemplating an EA game should reflect on.

On a personal level, I asked myself if I should start steering away from early access titles. Maybe. I can totally relate to the people who wait so that they don’t tire of an experience before the game actually launches. But I have doubts that EA games will ever be anything but EA, so why not enjoy the experience while I can? For now, if I think the game will be fun and worthwhile as is, I will go for it! I will probably finish playing before the game is “finished,” but I can enjoy it while it lasts. One day, however, I hope to see an EA title launch. For reals.

In the survival genre, there are at least 1001 ways to die, and MJ Guthrie is bound to experience them all — in interest of sharing them with you! The Survivalist chronicles life and death struggles against all forms of apocalypse, outbreak, mutation, weather, and prehistoric wildlife. And lets not forget the two-legged savages! Tune in here and on OPTV to see who feeds better: MJ or the Death Counter.
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45 Comments on "The Survivalist: Is gaming’s early access the new launch?"

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Ken from Chicago

It’s similar to “soft launch”, the phrase Bree, Syp and I think most reporters covering video games haaaaaaaate. When is the game actually … ready? When is the game “launched”? I think it’s important to ask and have the game *developers* answer that question.

If the answer to that questions shifts, then they need to explain why it has changed. Sometimes there are technical hurdles, problems that arise unexpectedly, okay, but that needs to be communicated. And oddly enough, it’s 2017 and mmo game devs still misunderstand and underestimate the importance of basic communication.

Bad news needs to be explained, what happened, why, and how you are responding to it. Good news should also be explained to set appropriate expectations. Your game may deliver the moon, but if players are expecting the Sun and the stars, they can still be disappointed and your hard work may be for naught.

“Early access” is another case where clear communication helps game developers and those who fail to appreciate that will sadly be lumped in with those who are trying to scam people out of money. It’s in the devs’ long-term best interests to define what “early access” means and what “launch” means. They may get away being vague for a relatively short while, but you can’t fool all of people all of the time. You reap what you sow.

Mewmew
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Mewmew

For the majority of games, no, Early Access is NOT the new launch. You have a small number of majorly visible titles that stay in EA a long time but most of the games actually use Early Access as Early Access. Most of them are there for a time (yes, it can be years) before moving into a real launch. The games are usually such a different product in launch that nothing you do in EA is saved, your saved games and characters are normally wiped out.

EA is not the new launch. It’s still very much a testing and development period for the majority of titles that go into it. The product can be almost unrecognizable at launch from what you saw in EA for a great many of these games.

Let’s not try to call it launch just because a few games have used it as their launch pad, some popular games, some well known for various reasons (good and bad both) are doing it, but make no mistake they are a small minority and EA is still just EA.

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Norbert Lichtenecker

Early Access is a finished game where People that buy a Package or preSale can start earlier than the Rest, all the EA missusing sux, some Companies even sell now pre Alpha bullshit.

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Nick Smith

It’s like a vehicle mechanic… if you pay them up front before they start working on your car… what incentive is there to finish your car? They already have your money, why work?

luxundae
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luxundae

Could a big gatekeeper like Steam make a difference here by changing policy?

What if Steam announced that all early access games would automatically be transformed into full launches (or removed) after 6 months? 12 month?

Estranged
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Estranged

When you can have people pay you to test your game. Why not?

It is the new form of launch for some games, but the big ticket games still just go with the beta to launch format.

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Slaasher

Of course its the “new launch”
I hate it because peoples expectations are not changing based on the new reality.
Its creating a mess out there.

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Fisty

EA is a new launch. Like you noted, only two games I can think of that moved into release. Granted, both of those games mentioned were pretty awesome and sort of niche titles that required an EA release

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Life_Isnt_Just_Dank_Memes

I look at early access and kickstarter type crowd funding as the equivalent to scientists that are always pursuing their next grant. A lot of the time, the grant a scientist is currently financially benefiting from isn’t even paying for the current project and they are constantly having to chase that next thing because in some cases they aren’t fiscally responsible.

I’ve gotten in on quite a few projects early. Some have been busts and some are pretty great. I usually play a fair amount of hours early on and then shelve the game until it is “released”.

Prison Architect was an example of a game like that where I was really stoked with the finished product and was glad I waited to play until it was done after playing it when it was super rough.

I am currently doing the same thing with Conan. I will come back to it when it’s released and I am sure I will be happy I waited.

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Sally Bowls

I shall not be out-cynical-ed by MJ of all people:

EA is not the new launch; it is the new sunset.

Due to customers, the highest value things for a developer to invest in are the pre-Kickstarter efforts (not just software but videos and social media/PR/twitch/YT campaigns) and the pre-EA-launch efforts. Once the EA money is in, it is a lot of expense relative to the incremental revenue to get it finished.

EA is the signal to the dev that it is now time to start profitably managing the winding down of the project.