The over-30 crowd remembers the old days of video games. A time when, if you purchased a title and didn’t like it, there wasn’t much to do about it. The 1980s and 1990s marked an era before game developers released updates and downloadable content, before Reddit forums allowed dissatisfied players to express their reprobation publicly, a time before player feedback mattered.
Fast forward to now, when developers want fans to be involved with a game’s creative process, from concept and features to how it ends. They’re eager to procure feedback from those who know games best -- the players.
One of the easiest ways to do that is to release titles in an early-access, or alpha, phase, and it’s a growing trend. Steam Early Access is one of the best examples of this business model, in which players will fork over $20 or more to play a game that is still glitchy, broken and laden with bugs. Mainstream games are also jumping on the early access bandwagon. Earlier this year, "Destiny" developer Bungie released the game as an alpha test in June, months before it formally shipped.
Last December, Prague-based developer Bohemia Interactive launched “DayZ” on Steam Early Access, a zombie survival horror game that sold more than 172,500 copies within 24 hours and 2 million copies within six months. One year later, the game is still in the Early Access stage, with entire Reddit threads and Steam forums devoted to its bugs. "DayZ" is currently the second best-selling game in the alpha phase.
Once developers launch a Steam game, it’s their responsibility to update it regularly if players encounter errors, though some studios have let in-game advancements slip. Still, not just any developer can land their game on Steam Early Access. The popular platform sets a high bar.
“Our primary reason [for releasing a game on Steam] was because Steam always had a great reputation for quality, due to it being so difficult to get a game accepted onto their service,” Andy Hodgetts, developer of "Project Zomboid," a Steam Early Access game, told International Business Times. “With Early Access being new, we feared many people might feel misled into thinking that all games available on Steam were of a certain quality -- regardless of how much we signposted it being Early Access.”
Hodgetts believes that while players should be fully aware that they’re purchasing a game that isn’t finished, developers should still release a quality product. This has been an issue with major game releases as of late -- EA DICE's 2013 game "Battlefield 4" launched with bugs and errors that lasted months, while Ubisoft's recent "Assassin's Creed Unity" launch also contained various glitches.
“We waited until we felt confident that despite being an unfinished game, the build we would be making available was worth the money we were asking for and that people would be satisfied with its value even if we never released any further updates,” said Hodgetts. “Of course, we would never abandon the game, but we felt that it should pass this value test before it would be appropriate to launch.”
One of the advantages of releasing a game on Steam Early Access is its massive number of users -- there are currently more than 5.5 million. “There is simply no comparable service in terms of consumer numbers for PC indie developers,” Hodgetts said.
Industry watchers say alpha programs can offer gamers a good value, as long as they are aware of the ground rules. "It can be a tough choice. If the game seems cool, give it a try," Brian Blau, research director for consumer technology at Gartner, told IBTimes. "That's the conundrum with Early Access or crowdfunded games. Some are great, and they deliver. But some fail horribly. Some will take years to develop. From the buyer's perspective, you need to know what you're getting into."
Alpha phases can also be a boon for developers. If the game does well in its early stages, it will bring in enough revenue to continue the development process and support the studio. “Early Access is a great tool for developers to gauge community involvement and support for their work,” said developer Touz, the creator behind Early Access game “The Fifth Day.” “It allows the game designers to tailor the final product and add features based on community feedback.”