Testing of games prior to their release used to look very different than it does today. Even now we seem to be in the midst of another change. It can be seen in the language and attitudes of developers and PR representatives. We are getting to a stage where Early Access means Launch.
It used to be game testing was done strictly behind the scenes. Studios would have in-house beta testers or hire professionals under a strict NDA to test the game for them. This is still done for single player titles today. Over time this changed and the general public was suddenly finding themselves invited to take part in beta testing, often for MMOs that studios couldn’t reasonably test on their own. During these early days of beta testing you would have to fill out a questionnaire about yourself and if you got in you would get a disc to install the game. This was back when you would actually be excited for the mail delivery to be made, much like waiting for an Amazon shipment these days. Of course, good things rarely come in the mail anymore.
Open beta testing was introduced and suddenly anyone with sufficient hardware and the time could take part. This opened up the opportunity to test the strain on servers, catch more bugs, and get feedback from people who would actually be playing the game. From a marketing standpoint, it was fantastic as well. It got the news out about the game without the need for advertisement, and word of mouth from people who took part in the open beta was invaluable.
This is when we started seeing a shift. Games in open beta had to be more polished, they had to be nearly perfect and ready for launch if not completely. They became less of a testing tool and more of a marketing one. During the height of Facebook gaming, many games were in a perpetual state of beta with many never even formally launching. However, they were still playable by anyone and you could spend money in the games. They were well polished but insisting that they were in beta. This was a marketing choice.
MMOs started to catch on to the idea as well and the concept of a soft launch came into being. It was called open beta but there would be no progression wipes, the servers were always on, and the game ran as though it had launched. This idea didn’t last terribly long though because idea of Early Access soon came into being.
To this day developers haven’t really settled on what Early Access means. For some, Early Access means “I announced my game 5 minutes ago, it has half a map and only male characters.” For others it is the final stage of testing and a time when paying players can give input before the game launches. While others live in a state of perpetual Early Access and never show any signs that they’re progressing towards launch. These are often games that are still in development but people pay to play the game and in return development of the game continues. DayZ is perhaps the most famous example of this. The game has been in development for 6 years now and five of those years in Early Access.
This year we’ve started seeing the words launch and Early Access together. Using DayZ as the example once again, at Gamescom 2018 Bohemia announced that the release date for DayZ for Early Access on Xbox Game Preview would be August 29th. Last week, Battle Royale game Battlerite Royale put out a press release that was titled “Battlerite Royale Release Date Revealed.” Further reading to the very first sentence of the press release showed that what they actually meant was the start of Early Access.
The line between Early Access, beta testing, and launch is becoming harder and harder to see, not only because of the language used but the way these stages are being used by developers themselves. Games that are in Early Access are making money and don’t require all the fine-tuned polish that is expected of a fully launched game. Come across a bug? Sorry, we’re in Early Access…bugs are expected. By the way, buy this sparkle pony for $5.99!
From a consumer’s point of view, it looks like a great deal. It pushes those instant gratification buttons. If you could pay $10 to see Marvel’s Infinity War Part 2 right now, but maybe all the CG isn’t done yet…would you do it? I know I would at the very least give it some heavy consideration. Instead of having to wait, you would get to see a slightly less polished version right now. What if that became the norm? The next Guardians of the Galaxy movie (if there is one) doesn’t have Rocket or Groot as CG anymore. Instead, you’ve got Sean Gunn running around on his knees and a random dude in a blue suit wearing Groot’s head as a helmet.
This is what Early Access has become for the gaming industry. We think we’re paying for the privilege of getting our hands on the game early. At least that’s how it feels in our minds, but from a development point of view, it is seen much differently. Early Access grants them funding for games much sooner than they would have previously. This means more games are able to be made. This isn’t always a good thing though. How many bad Early Access games are there currently on Steam? How many games never reach the point where they’re polished enough to launch? Many games spend so long in Early Access that they have their peak during Early Access and then use launching as a marketing tool to bring people back after the game has started to decline.
The quality of our games is going down because of the way Early Access is used. Consumers are the ones paying the price for these industry practices. Sadly, there are only two options, continue to buy into games in the Early Access stage keep the trend going or stop paying from Early Access. Unless everyone does it together, the industry will always have someone willing to pay for an incomplete game.
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