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2014 in review: The year in early access

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Steam’s Early Access program launched in March of 2013. That makes this the first full year the industry has lived alongside a formal early access program.

The reward for gamers is a year positively bristling with new, exciting game experiences that may not have existed if early access wasn’t available. But it has also been a year filled with uncertainty as developers and consumers work out what is expected of each of them in this new kind of relationship.

The concept of early access itself is not new. Some of the first games to use the model include Minecraft and Kerbal Space Program. Early access allows players to purchase a license for a game very early on in the development process, before a title might otherwise even enter beta testing. Games may not work right all the time, planned features may be missing and instability is considered the norm.

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One of the the first major successes of Steam’s early access program was DayZ. The standalone version of the successful Arma 2 mod announced in January that it had sold more than 1 million copies in its first 30 days. However, shortly after that announcement the creator of the game, Dean Hall, announced he would leave the project.

Dean Hall said he would leave DayZ, as well as Reddit, in 2014

Recently publisher Bohemia Interactive raised the price of the game, something that had been promised since the beginning of the project but nonetheless frustrated many players due to the game’s unfinished state. Having spent time in it myself recently, it’s hard to say that the game has progressed much in the past year. The fallout was so severe that it chased Hall from the message boards on Reddit.

While very little sales information is known about other games in the program, many early access titles have received critical praise throughout 2014. Starbound is a side-scrolling space exploration game and the first early access game that Polygon ever reviewed. In April our Phil Kollar called it "one of the most impressive never-ending games I've ever played."

Of course, the notion of reviewing a game still in development caused Polygon to rethink its policies, which you can read more on here.

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Another stand out title was The Long Dark, a stylish survival simulation set in the Canadian wilderness. Since our first play through in July the team at Hinterland Games has increased the playable area to 10 square kilometers, added more than 100 pieces of equipment and improved the hunting and first aid systems.

Another survival simulation, called Rust, actually saw its development restarted. Polygon’s Griffin McElroy enjoyed his time there, even if it was fairly cutthroat. But even after the game met with early success Facepunch Studios decided to go back to the drawing board.

"There were a lot of stupid decisions made in the old codebase," Garry Newman told PCGamesN. "That's probably unfair. There were a lot of decisions made when we didn't know what game we were making."

While Rust gets retooled, Facepunch seems to have moved on to a new game. Announced during The Game Awards, Before is set in the stone age. Instead of ensuring only their own survival, players are responsible for an entire tribe. It’s still not known how development of this new game will impact work on Rust.

Early access as a concept wasn't limited to Steam this year. In conjunction with Kickstarter, it has invigorated an entire genre — spaceflight simulation. Just this month Elite: Dangerous launched, complete with a 1-to-1 recreation of the Milky Way. After a successful Kickstarter and rolling early access program that saw the game sold at a premium of more than $150, the massive game is finally in players hands.

Star Citizen, the spiritual successor to the Wing Commander series, has continued to rack up funding without the help of Steam early access. All the while Roberts Space Industries has been bolting on more and more features and variants.

Using elaborate video commercials, it’s racked up more than $60 million in funding, but the laundry list of production goals includes a single-player campaign, a persistent universe and even a first-person shooter. It’s difficult to see how there should be enough money to go around. It’s also still not clear when the game will be playable in its various forms, and Polygon has still not been given editorial access to the working pieces of the game or given permission to write about it.

Valve revised its guidance to early access developers half-way through 2014

So troubled has Valve’s first year with early access been that it issued some seemingly obvious guidance to developers that want to participate.

"When you launch a game in Steam Early Access, there is an expectation by customers that you will continue development to a point where you have what you consider a 'finished' game," the document reads. "We know that nobody can predict the future, and circumstances frequently change, which may result in a game failing to reach a 'finished' state, or may fail to meet customer expectations in some other way. We work hard to make sure this risk is communicated clearly to customers, but we also ask that developers follow a set of rules that are intended to help inform customers and set proper expectations when purchasing your game."

Growing pains aside, early access has brought many more users closer to the process of making games. What that gives developers is more cycles to test and evolve their games. When I talked with Pocketwatch Games, makers of the upcoming RTS Lead to Fire, it was clear that their game would be different if it weren't for the input of their early access players.

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"When you actually put your shit out there the truth bubbles to the surface," Pocketwatch's Andy Schatz told me. "When you shine a light on it, different parts of your subconscious will reflect the truth. For us, doing this on a weekly basis keeps us focused on what the actual fans care about. It’s been really really valuable to us."

Handled poorly, early access can be a dangerous gamble. Handled well, it can stoke the coals of an already powerful hype train. But in exchange for their money, fans expect something to occupy their time. Drag your feet, or worse yet get bogged down in your game’s production, and you run the risk of making enemies out of your biggest fans.

This piece is part of Polygon's 2014 in Review series. Throughout December we'll be exploring the games, people and events that shaped gaming in the past year. You can check out more 2014 in Review stories in our StoryStream.