A surprising thing happened during the Winter Steam Sale.
Three games — Starbound, Rust and DayZ — were consistently placed at the top of the sales charts, regardless of whatever else was on sale. All three were new. All three were undiscounted. And all three were "Early Access" games, a relatively new branch of Steam games available for purchase and play before they're "finished."
This was a coming out party for Early Access games. These games were — are — phenomena. They exist, can't be ignored, and force an acknowledgment that Early Access and similarly distributed games are an important part of the game industry now, for better or for worse.
A sense of loss
For many people, it's "worse." A recent thread on NeoGAF covered most of the arguments against Early Access, and very few in favor of the strategy. These arguments are hardly limited to that particular forum; I regularly see game critics tweeting about why they feel like Early Access games should be ignored.
The crux of the argument is similar, and usually boils down to this: "Early Access games aren't finished, and only finished games are worthy of attention."
The problem with this line of thinking is that it assumes that "finished" is a possible, or desirable, trait in this particular type of game. But the vast majority of games that go into Early Access, or open beta, or whatever Minecraft-like development or business plan they're in, are unfinishable games.
I use the word "unfinishable" two ways: Early Access has the kinds of games that, as long as they're supported, are going to be consistently tweaked, expanded, patched and even modded. They're also unfinishable in that they're not games that players can say they've completed with any kind of authority.
There's a divide between finishable and unfinishable games in game writing and culture, and it's rarely discussed. Imagine someone saying "I beat Tetris and Civilization" and you'll see what I mean. No matter how much of an expert a player might be, and no matter how well the last game went, there's always something to learn. There is no "win" condition in Minecraft or DayZ.
Unfinishable games exist across genres, and they've only become more popular as time goes on. Anything with permadeath, especially procedurally generated games, is usually unfinishable. League Of Legends and all the DOTA wannabes qualify. Almost anything multiplayer, up to and including Call Of Duty and Battlefield. Sports games are unfinishable as well; their career and franchise modes never ending.
And these games are constantly adjusted. When I reviewed the strategy game Crusader Kings 2 in 2012, I enjoyed the game quite a bit. But it's changed a huge amount in the past two years — it lasts 50 percent longer, almost every faction on the map is playable and quite different from one another (only feudal Christians were playable on release) both politics and religion have been given significantly more depth. And this isn't even mentioning the mods. Is it the same game that it was on release?
Yes, but also very much no. Every few months, something new gets added, I start another game, and lose another week to taking over Europe. And Paradox said late last year that they had two more years of expansions planned. Crusader Kings 2 has gone through so many iterations that I can't tell what the conceptual difference between it and an "Early Access" game might be.
Games have been massively changed since their supposedly finished release for decades now well beyond what might be termed "the DLC era." We just happen to be used to the form, like Civilization releases getting major expansion packs, or Blizzard patching and rebalancing Brood War for over a decade after its release. The original Roguelikes: Rogue, of course, Nethack, which was in development from 1987 to 2003, Moria, etc., all had different versions floating around floppy disks and BBS's.
And then there are the commercial variants on the unfinishable game. Fighting games have gone through multiple major iterations of characters and balance, released as full games with "turbo" or "hyper" attached the name, complete with a suite of changes that can radically alter competitive play.
Attaching a year to the title of a game made with a similar engine, with tweaks to balance, updated rosters, and perhaps a significantly improved meta-game is precisely what sports game do year after year. None of these ideas are new.
The overlap between games unfinishable by the player and games unfinishable by the developers is not a coincidence. Games that are played and replayed demand constant improvement. On the other hand, games that are played once, and present their entire story across that playthrough, need only to be good enough to be complete. They can get away with being static.
The draw of linearity, of the "finished" game
A game that tells a single story across a single playthrough is the ideal mode of video gaming for many people. The idea of "AAA" gaming is generally built around the idea of an 8-12 hour-long cinematic action-adventure. Naughty Dog's games are the often the best example of this.
The further away from that form you get, the less "gamey" games are considered. Open-world games, like Assassin's Creed or Grand Theft Auto, maintain the cinematic bombast but add a great deal more exploration and collection, thus are still considered part of the one-story group. So are indie games like Journey or Braid or The Walking Dead, which are largely considered acceptably shorter, smarter, less expensive variations on the one-game, one-story model of AAA gaming.
The mainstream video game press is, unfortunately, often included in that group of "many people" who prioritize shorter, story-based games over unfinishable games. By and large, games chosen for Game Of The Year are almost always very completable games: Journey, The Walking Dead, The Last Of Us, Bioshock, Mass Effect 2, Uncharted 2, and so on. Games like Civilization, the NBA 2K series, League Of Legends, or Minecraft — games that are wildly popular but also unfinishable — are usually ignored en masse.
This makes sense. If you're a member of the games press, or anyone who wants to feel like an expert in the breadth of video games, then it makes far more sense to play five AAA games, or ten indie games, than it does to play 50 hours of DOTA 2.
Even the issue of stability is rarely examined critically. A game that you can't play is very different from a game that you can't finish. But most all of the Early Access games I've tried are stable, or at least, stable in percentages roughly equivalent to conventionally released games. Looking at you, Skyrim. A game like Nuclear Throne feels stable and ready to be played to death, and even something like Spacebase DF-9, while clearly missing important components, is still playable.
So long as developers are transparent enough about the state of their game so that players can make informed choices — and that seems to be mandatory on Steam now — then it's up to the players to decide for themselves if the glitches of DayZ and Rust or the server wipes of Starbound are worth their energy.
Indeed, I wish Steam's requirement that developers detail the state of their game be used for other games—the dreadful state of supposedly-finished games like The WarZ, now Infestation: Survivor Stories, Aliens: Colonial Marines, or the totally busted Legends of Dawn that I reviewed does far more damage to the game industry than Early Access.
It's the ideals of the "finishable game" that make Early Access games seem bad. If Uncharted is the ideal game, than any game that's not as finished and polished as Uncharted is going to look bad. But the video game industry is much more diverse than the AAA/indie divide makes it seem.
Let's embrace different styles of games. Let's embrace card games and strategy games and Roguelikes and survival sims and builders and just plain weirdly awesome stuff that probably wouldn't exist any other way. Let's acknowledge that Early Access is merely a slight reframing of what's come before, with players playing and developers updating games for months, or years.
Most importantly, let's treat unfinishable games as being as important, and as fantastic, as any other kind of game. Let's stop pretending that "done" is an aspirational state.