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Early Access: Friend or foe?

What’s more satisfying? Opening a present a piece at a time, or opening it all at once?

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How about if you knew what the present was, but were forced to wait for it. Let me tell you a story….

When I was at the ripe age of fifteen I wanted Xbox for Christmas. Sounds innocent enough. The Xbox 360 had just come out and I had told my parents it was totally cool if I got the old model. Well that Christmas morning, I woke up to find a plethora of gifts under the tree, but mine had a particular order to it, and so I had to open them up in a predetermined way. The first gift? A power brick. The second? The composite cable. The third? Well, I don’t actually remember, but I do remember catching on pretty fast that it was an Xbox 360. A few presents in, the whole charade became a tad annoying, because the thing I really wanted, that white piece of plastic that would dominate a good portion of my life, was a few presents away.

Did you like it? It was true, and believe it or don’t it’s very applicable to a current gaming trend. It’s called early access gaming, and it’s something that I’m honestly not a huge fan of. Much like being forced to open up a present one piece at a time, early access gaming takes some of the joy and surprise that comes along with the experience that games have offered us in the previous console generations. Remember when you had to wait three years before a game you thought you loved came out? Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like “back in the good ole’ days,” games were tad more suspenseful because you had no idea what to expect from them.

Yet in order to make their sales figure go up, publishers have released what essentially adds up to an alpha version of the alpha that hasn’t been made yet.

You might disagree and say they for testing purposes. True, there is an added bonus in that, however, isn’t that what they used to pay testers to do? Somehow, publishers and developers figured out that people would pay them to let them test their game. How they did it, I can only guess. Perhaps it’s the thrill of feeling a part of the process. Much like watching the behind the scenes of your favorite film, early access can feel like you’re participating in making the game, and to a degree you are. You’re providing valuable information to the developers. However, early access is very much unlike a beta test. In a beta test you sign an agreement saying that you’ll log a certain amount of hours and report “x” amount of bugs each time you log on, and that you won’t steal any of the company’s secrets and blah blah blah. With early access you’re not signing anything. You’re just playing a game that’s not ready yet.

And again, maybe this is just me, but isn’t one of the draws in gaming that cohesiveness of the experience? A friend of mine is an avid early access purchaser. Yet when I talked with him about this, he remarked that it did take some of the fun out of the finished product. His current favorite is “Day Z.” An interesting game for sure, and one I’m looking into playing once it’s finished, but the current build is rather empty, and while it offers massive potential, it gets kind of boring if you stop running into people.

Within this example, lies another fault in early access. The developer now has to keep a player base entertained, keeping their focus away from making a good game. Believe it or don’t, entertaining features and a good game are two different things. When there’s not a constant stream of updates, the players feel forgotten and hype for game drops. This seems like a lose-lose, don’t you think?

The tested, tried and true way of building hype is keeping secrets. No spoilers. You’ll find out when you find out. Suspense is a marketer’s best tool. What a consumer doesn’t know is ultimately the most interesting thing. A good example is comedy film. There is nothing satisfying about seeing a funny movie when all the funny parts were in the preview, especially if that’s the only thing it’s got going for it. The most successful trailers these days are teaser trailers. The ones that keep you in the dark, peak your interest just enough to keep you interested but nothing else.

It should be noted that early access gaming can act like this. Remember when Minecraft was in alpha? Every time that sucker got updated it was better than the first time before, there were a plethora of things to enjoy. Even with the full version out, I look forward to the updates, because, usually, it’s not a rehashing of old ideas, but rather than expounding of new ones. Part of me wonders though if Minecraft, or games like it, are the only ones who can get away with it. When it comes to shooters or RPG’s– heck even MMO’s– there’s a solid expectation of what’s to come, we know what the next update will usually include, because it will introduce the features the competition just included in their update. Yet with an indie/experimental title like Minecraft, a game in which there are no rules, is there any expectation?

I’m afraid that the worst possible outcomes of early access games is a future of Battlefield 4s. Publisher’s release a game that’s not ready and plan to update as it goes. At least with early access games you won’t pay full price.

I should point out that I still enjoyed my Xbox 360, and I’m not saying that all early access is bad. I’m just hesitant about the idea.

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You should probably take everything Chad says with a grain of salt. Typically a shoot-first-ask-questions-never kind of guy he’s not one for holding back his opinions.