While looking for your next game to play on the Steam storefront, you’ll inevitably come across a few labeled “Steam Early Access.” So what does Early Access mean for you as the player, and are there downsides or risks involved in buying Early Access games?
How Early Access Works
Early Access lets game makers put their games up for sale while they’re still under development. Steam itself doesn’t put a lot of restrictions or rules on Early Access—you could, theoretically, put a broken mess online and try to get a few suckers to pay for it. That said, Steam expressly states in its documentation that Early Access isn’t a place to showcase tech demos; the game needs to be playable.
Steam itself doesn’t seem to enforce this, though, relying instead on its community. Basically, when you play any Steam game, you get the right to write a review about it. This review can be marked positive or negative, and the text can be as long or as short as you’d like it to be.
This is important for any game, of course, but in the case of Early Access games, it’s particularly vital as it’s here that prospective customers can see what others thought, and where players have left valuable feedback for the developers. That said, these days most Early Access titles will also have a Twitter, Facebook, and Discord where you can leave compliments and complaints.
The Purpose of Early Access
The system in itself is pretty simple, as is its purpose: Early Access is great for developers as it gives them the opportunity to test things on real players, see what works, see what doesn’t. Adrien Briatta from Shiro Games, a studio that makes liberal use of Early Access, in an email describes it as a “honeymoon phase.” It allows the devs to balance the game and implement new content with near-immediate feedback from players.
Early Access is clearly a fantastic way for Studios to get close to customers, but you, as a gamer, may wonder what benefit it is to you. For one, you get to play a game you like earlier than you would otherwise. If you’re a big fan of a particular studio or are very interested in a certain feature, Early Access lets you get to it all that much quicker. On top of that, games in Early Access are usually a smidge cheaper than fully released ones, so there are potentially some savings involved.
Not All Games Leave Early Access
However, there is a downside to Early Access: some games never come out of it. This isn’t always a bad thing: Project Zomboid has been in Early Access for almost a decade now and its fans are fine with it: the game is perfectly playable as is and new content is added regularly, so everybody is happy.
That said, some games languish in Early Access, never to come out and leaving players stuck with a nasty taste in their mouth. While Steam promises that buyers of any Early Access game that’s canceled will receive a refund, there’s little evidence of this—and Steam didn’t reply to our queries.
While it’s hard to say exactly how many games don’t make it out of Early Access as Steam doesn’t maintain statistics of this, we do have a few ideas—mainly by scouring old reddit posts complaining about games that didn’t come out.
Generally speaking, it seems that most Early Access games that aren’t working out are left to languish in Early Access rather than be canceled, probably because canceling would entail a refund to customers—though again we don’t know if that actually happens. That said, some games do in fact get canceled, like Patterns and Under the Ocean, which now have inactive Steam pages.
Then again, some games will be published and then abandoned, like Cube World, a highly anticipated game that just didn’t work out.
Despite these bad examples, though, it’s surprising how many Early Access games are released in a finished version, and how many end up being moderate to big successes. The aforementioned Shiro Games released its biggest hit Northgard in Early Access in 2017 and released it a few years later. The experience was so good it debuted another big title, Dune: Spice Wars, in Early Access, where at the time of writing it’s getting great ratings.
Are Early Access Games Worth It?
So, should you take the risk and buy games in Early Access? Well, much like with buying fully released games, there’s always a chance you’ll end up disappointed. However, what you should do in any case is check the game’s reviews; see if your fellow gamers have anything to say about it that may affect your purchasing decision. Steam puts up an aggregate score on each title so you can see at a glance what the reviews are like.
Even without customer reviews there are ways to figure out whether an Early Access game is worth buying. Fewer and fewer Early Access games now are experimental: most of the stuff being released is as good as finished, needing just some extra hype and funding to go over the edge. If the name of the studio behind the game is good, there seems little risk in buying it.
To start your journey, check out the complete list of Early Access titles on the Steam store.
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