What Does Early Access Mean in Steam?

When a game advertises as “Early Access” on Steam, it means it’s still in development. Well, usually. This means players are subject to frequent server wipes, bugs and glitches all in the name of fixing these issues before the game is “Stable.” Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t put this into consideration when buying these games. They often expect a working title for their money, even though the description clearly states that it won’t be.

Buying Into Early Access

One of the driving forces behind why people buy into early access is to feel like they are on the inside. It’s true that some developers take player suggestions and get feedback from the community. However, there is more going on than just “participating” in helping a company set up a game.

The Change in Business Practice

Back in the day before the Internet grew to the high-bandwidth gaming platform it is today, companies would hire “testers” to help fix the bugs. This was the original way to get a paycheck by playing games. I was almost a tester myself, but the company was looking for first-person-shooter experience. At the time, I was heavily into MMORPGs. Needless to say I didn’t get the job.

Today, faster Internet and computer hardware allows companies to put out early access titles. Instead of giving a paycheck to testers, companies can now get money from players. It’s one hell of a bonus for companies that are looking to turn a profit. Goodbye to a handful of testers and hello to thousands of players on varying machines. There is a good point to this switch, however. It gives the developers a more broad scope of hardware requirements based on those who purchase the product. This means they can address issues that may not have cropped up by hiring a handful of beta testers.

How Your Input Shapes the Future Game

In theory, alpha and beta-stage products are mostly developed by the majority of the players. It’s the input you give to developers that dictate a lot of what gets done on any given title. Today, devs will set up Reddit accounts, Twitter profiles and sometimes monitor the community in Steam to get a sense of what people want. Bug reports help fix current issues while smart suggestions are often a part of creation.

Time Lapsed Testing

One thing I have noticed with many titles is how it takes longer for an early access game to become a stable product. For example, Day Z has been in “Alpha” for an incredibly long time. It often seems like the updates to the game are few and far between. I’m not entirely sure if this is a real process, but it seems to me that companies made games much quicker back in the day.

Conspiracy Time…
Not to sound like a conspiracy nut, but it seems odd that one company can produce a game rather quickly while it takes another several years longer. Could it be that the company taking it’s time to develop a title is trying to squeeze out every last penny possible during alpha and beta-stages? Possibly. I don’t doubt that some creators do it for the money above all else. I just find it weird how a community of programmers can get farther along in an Arma II mod for Day Z than a major gaming developer like Bohemia can with “professional” developers for the stand alone game.

Taking the Game As it Is

The most important thing to remember when buying an early access game is taking it as it is. It’s going to be buggy, full of faults and will often experience server wipes. This is part of the experience. Yes, this is where your money is going. No, it’s not going to be perfect. Here is what you can expect when you buy into early access:

  • Bugs and fixes
  • Server wipes and clean-ups
  • Long waits when releasing new material
  • Vast changes to the mechanics to the game
  • Trolls who want to complain that the game is changing too much even though that is what early access is all about

Before you buy any early access game, consider what you’re getting into. It’s not going to be the most stable experience. You can’t expect perfection until the version number of the title hits 1.0. And even then, there is surely going to be more changes later on. If you don’t want to waste your time looking for loot or building bases, don’t buy an alpha or beta stage game title. It’s that simple. Otherwise, you really don’t have much to complain about.

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Michael Brockbank

I have been playing games for more than 30 years. I wouldn't consider myself a hard-core gamer, but I have brought the pain in my day. Now that I am rounding the horn at 40, I still enjoy everything from booting up the old Commodore 64 to exploring new titles in Steam. You're never too old to enjoy a good plot and mind-numbing graphics.

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