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.
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?
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.
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.