Both Microsoft and Sony are strongly considering implementing Early Access style systems into their consoles, having been asked by numerous developers to do so.
Speaking to Gamesutra Sony’s Adam Boyes had this to say when asked how early the company would consider putting something in the development cycle into the hands of the public:
“That’s one of the massive conversations we have internally — that, at what point does [a game meet standards of release]? We still at some point ensure that we’re being mindful of the consumer. We don’t want somebody to stumble across that title and expect a full product, and have a negative experience.”
“Honestly, we’re working through that right now. We’re figuring out what’s ok. We obviously have our tech requirement checklist that people have to adhere to. So we’re internally discussing, what does that list look like this? What are the caveats? Stuff like this. So it’s still a project that a lot of minds are considering. No details yet, but it’s something on the top of my mind every day.”
Boyes thoughts were largely mirrored by Chris Charla of Microsoft when he spoke to Develop:
“It’s a really interesting issue with digital marketplaces, and it’s something our store and marketplace team think about all the time,” Charla told us. “There’s a lot of heavy deep thinkers, experts, PhDs working on these problems at Xbox every day – not just for the Xbox store, but for Windows Store and Windows Phone. Our goal is to have a rational marketplace, where good games are visible and sell well.”
As a concept Early Access is an idea I love as it allows for otherwise potentially niche titles that would have been unable to get funded by big publishers a chance to get made and satisfy the target audience, but in practice Steam’s system is a steaming mess. The biggest problem for me is having to pay upfront for the games, which often have absurd pricetags, without truly knowing if it’s something you want to fund. How often have the vague product descriptions been nothing like the actual game itself, leaving players with a bitter taste. Youtube helps a lot, but it’s not a great solution. If Sony or Microsoft implement a similiar system I’d like to see players being allowed to download and play an Early Access title for a short period of time, say an hour or two, before having to decide if they wish to pay for it and fund its development.
More assurances need to be made that developers will actually continue to work on their game in a timely fashion. Microsoft and Sony need to ensure that developers have a clear work plan laid out. Obviously deadlines may be missed or development plans changed, but the overall aims should be laid out to the public.
The biggest problem is with the developers themselves, who often seem to view Early Access as either an extension of Kickstarter or a method of avoiding criticism, hiding behind the label. Brilliant games with potential are often hidden behind a mass of tripe created by people who are jumping on whatever is popular in the hopes of snagging some easy money for minimal work.
There’s no way of judging exactly when a project is ready for an Early Access release, but in my eyes it needs to be when the playable work clearly demonstrates the vision of the developers, and not just as soon as its gotten out of the Kickstarter phase.
Above all else pricing needs to be nailed. Charging double the price the game will actually cost at launch doesn’t exactly feel fair to people who genuinely want to help fund a games creation, nor does even charging intended retail price feel like a good move for the customer. Keep it relatively low to help bring a large audience.
Landmark has proven to be a recent admirable example of what I’m saying. It’s reasonably priced, the developers have laid out a clear development plan that the public can check out and they talk to their community, telling them what’s going on in the next update etc. Of course there is the fact that Landmark is coming from an experience, professional company rather than a new team trying to get their very first project off the ground.
There’s also the question of optimisation. Games in Early Access tend to be badly optimised before eventually being polished up, often resulting in a decrease in system specs required to run it. Furthermore Early Access games also tend to come with any number of bugs that range from small and irritating to ones that crash the entire system. Again, this would tie into my point earlier about no surefire way of judging when a title is ready. There would need to be some sort of system in place to ensure that any given game doesn’t have such serious problems, as consoles aren’t designed to have their components pushed to max or to be crashed in numerous different ways.
And perhaps the biggest the biggest concern would be seeing companies like EA throwing Battlefield into Early Access.
Finally, there’s an interesting debate sparking off as to whether bringing Early Access to consoles is just another kick in the face for what consoles were really meant to be about: simplicity. This generation of consoles feels far too close to PCs as it is with mandatory installs and massive updates getting in the way of actually playing games. But its important to remember that Early Access would merely be an option, one to be avoided if you want to keep things as straightforward as possible.
Early Access on consoles. Good or bad?