Believe it or not, Steam Early Access debuted just 18 months ago. In the year and a half since we’ve seen hundreds of titles make their through, and more than a few sink without trace in its treacherous waters. It’s an entry point for many indie developers that can allows projects and ideas to flourish that would never normally have a chance of coming to fruition, an opportunity to branch out from the norm and experiment in ways the big boys could never dream of.
They’re not without their problems though, delivering some extremely early prototypes that can sometimes offer just the barest bones of a gaming experience, many iterations away from the real deal. The recent example of DayZ is a case in point. Bohemia’s online zombie sandbox hit Early Access last year, and it could still be a further two years until it launches. Others, like The Stomping Land, can even be removed from Steam entirely (albeit temporarily), while the likes of Paranautical Activity had finally just escaped the clutches of Early Access, only for an ill-judged death threat to signal its untimely demise.
Ultimately people like to invest in Early Access because they want to get in at the ground floor. It can be a fascinating experience getting involved with a project early on, influencing the development process and getting a peek behind the scenes as brand new features are added for an eager audience to test out. It’s an opportunity to become a real-life game tester, playing a game you’re anticipating months before its eventual launch and become involved in a growing and engaged community.
Like it or not though you're paying for the privilege of being a QA tester, with the developer profiting out of you attempting to play its unfinished product. The game in question might never even see the light of day, with unforeseen costs spiralling out of control forcing many devs to shut up shop.
It’s a tricky proposition, and one for which there’s no definitive answer. Is getting involved in Early Access a worthwhile enterprise, do you like to get stuck into a game as early as possible? Or would you prefer to wait for the final, complete product before spending your hard-earned money?