Earlier this week I checked out the early access alpha build for Endless Legend, the latest in the multifaceted Endless series, and the latest attempt (of a long and woefully boring line) at a fantasy strategy game resembling Civilization V with magic, or something like it. I found most of the features marked with black-and-yellow construction tape, and found the game floppy, confusing, and unfinished. And it is unfinished.
Early access games let you buy the game in an unfinished, likely unstable build. The customer gets the game early and gets to see its development in action, and in exchange the developers get investment and/or returns on their game before they’re even finished—and sometimes, more importantly, oodles of valuable data from players who encounter bugs and provide feedback on how the game plays. The idea isn’t brand new, but usually only Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO for anyone who plays them) games have the scope and guts to make Open Beta a slightly different process.
Some games, like the massively ambitious and eternally developed Planetary Annihilation, a galaxy-spanning MMO Real Time Strategy title, charged even more for early access than they did for later builds of the game. Planetary Annihilation is also well known for continuing early development past the initial alpha stage and the secondary beta stage, where essentially all game development has stopped before. That action spawned numerous jokes pertaining to full calendar dates in sync with the Greek Alphabet, some joking that the game should be out of omega and done around 2076.
One of the first early access games, and certainly one of the most famous, was Minecraft, which became purchasable in 2009, yet was released as its “official release” in 2011. In fact, the game has gone through no less than seven publicly available and purchasable versions, from “Classic” to “Survival Test” to “Indev” to “Infdev” to “Alpha” to “Beta,” and finally to version “1.0,” the so called official release proclaiming MInecraft to be a full game. The thing is, as any Minecraft player knows, they didn’t stop updating it there, and haven’t since. Over those three years, Minecraft has gone from 1.0 to 1.8.
In 2012, the small-scale, indie-focused online game store Desura began what they called “Alphafunding” in order to help struggling developers get their ideas off the ground. Steam began their program of “Early Access” in mid 2013. The fact that Steam’s term is all but canon while Desura’s “Alphafunding” is never used says a lot about marketing, and a lot about the size of the platform’s respective user bases. Now Steam has an entire early access page, with a library numbering around 180. More and more games, especially those from independent developers or fledgling companies, are using the early access system to help fund games before they even begin.
This marks a huge shift away from the era of closed, professional testing and development. The trend of “crowdsourcing” has grown stronger and stronger in gaming, primarily for computer games. Player made in-game items, player feedback oriented design, and player influenced character decisions put together by the developers based on character popularity and demographics. Now, with the idea of late expansions and updates and constant release of new builds, some games are wondering if there is an end to the development process.