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Early access changed everything about games

But after 10 years, the term has become confusing

A character from Star Citizen stands in a hangar Cloud Imperium Games
Austen Goslin (he/him) is an entertainment editor. He writes about the latest TV shows and movies, and particularly loves all things horror.

Selling games is a lot more complicated than it used to be. A decade ago, games came in boxes on store shelves and cost $60 each. Now, some of the most popular games in the world are free to play. But perhaps the most important lesson developers have learned over the last 10 years is that you don’t need to finish a game to sell it. Over the last decade the advent of early access has given developers a way to fund their games while they’re still in development, and a way for players to keep up with the making of the game.

Early access, at least in the way we think of it now, started in 2009 with Minecraft. The first versions of the game were free, but creator Markus “Notch” Persson decided to create a paid version. That initial version of the game, which only let players fight, dig, and build, was an instant success. By 2010, just a year after Persson’s first put the game on sale, it made more than more than €600,000.

minecraft ps3

With Minecraft’s experiment a success, the path became a godsend for dozens of other small developers. Early access gave developers a way to make money while still finishing the game, rather than needing the money up front. For some developers, Persson included, early access was the difference between working on a game part-time and making development a full-time job.

Everybody loves getting something early

There are other advantages to early access as well, including some that aren’t quite so concrete. Early access acts as a kind of verbal padding and changes the expectations players have for a game. If things aren’t quite right players can just assume that it will get fixed in the future. In fact, there are plenty of triple A games that could have used that kind of benefit of the doubt.

Games like Rainbow Six: Siege, Mass Effect: Andromeda both got derisively labeled “early access” by players who felt they were incomplete, thanks to a lack of content or a wealth of bugs — and often both. Siege managed to turn itself around, transforming into one of the decade’s most interesting shooters. Andromeda didn’t.

Rainbow Six Siege trailer screencap 1280
Rainbow Six: Siege

The early access model can also help hold players’ attention. As anyone who’s spent time dabbling in this past decade’s most popular multiplayer games knows, the key to keeping players logging into your game is consistent updates. With early access, frequent updates are usually baked-in as part of the package.

In early access, single player games can keep players coming back just like multiplayer games. With constant updates, developers always have a hook to bring players back and players always have new content when they returned to a game.

How does early access end?

As early access has gotten more popular it’s also gotten more confusing. While some games, like PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds and Minecraft, had their official releases about a year after they were released into early access, other games didn’t move quite so quickly.

Kerbal Space Program

DayZ stayed in early access for about five years, releasing its first version through Steam in December of 2013 and its first full release in December of 2018. Kerbal Space Program, which first released just a year after Minecraft in 2011, didn’t officially come out until 2015. None of these were necessarily bad things, but it did cast some doubts on what early access meant. But at least those games actually came out. Some aren’t so lucky.

As more developers tried to test the early access waters, hundreds of games have come and gone without much notice. Even some games from bigger studios don’t make the cut. In 2016 Epic Games released a third-person MOBA called Paragon. Two years later, in April of 2018, Epic shut down Paragon’s servers, ending the game’s early access — or any access.

What does early access even mean anymore?

Certain other games, especially over the last few years, have made understanding early access even more confusing.

Fortnite: Save the World, the PVE cousin of Fortnite: Battle Royale, is technically a free-to-play game. Or it will be, when it’s actually released. The original idea behind Save the World’s release was that in 2017 it would have a paid early access option, which it did, and a free version later on. But it’s now 2019, the game is still in early access, it still costs at least $39.99, as opposed to Battle Royale, which is actually free, and there’s still no official release date in sight.

Speaking of Fortnite: Battle Royale, it’s been out for over two years now, and it’s also still in “early access,” though it isn’t clear what that means. Epic hasn’t given much indication of whether Battle Royale will ever get a full release, but unlike Save the World there aren’t any promises tied to release. Battle Royale could stay in early access forever and it wouldn’t make a bit of difference. Although it would be pretty confusing.

Fortnite Save the World
Epic Games

Even more confusing is Star Citizen, which is in a form of early access all its own. The game started life as a Kickstarter project in 2011 then quickly grew to accepting donations mostly on its own site. Star Citizen is designed as a multiplayer space trading and combat game. It’s ambitious even on paper, but in practice it’s even more complicated.

As a way of keeping players up to date on its progress, the developer releases builds for players to try. The first build let players modify spaceships, and see them inside a hangar, and it has slowly built up from there. There have been builds of the game’s first person shooter elements and builds of its space flight, but there’s still nothing that turns all of these things into one coherent game. And there’s no telling when it might actually be released.

While the lines around what early access really means may have started to blur recently, it’s been an important step forward in the last 10 years. With development costs rising, early access has provided a new path for certain developers. In the age of early access, fans have proven to developers that you don’t need a full game for players to buy it. All you have to start with is a few good ideas and people will be willing to pay for them.