How DayZ and Steam Early Access are changing videogames

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Steam Early Access titles Day Z, Rust and Starbound as bestsellers, but are the promises made by Early Access games ever achievable?

Shigeru Miyamoto is famously quoted as saying that a delayed game is eventually good, whilst a bad game is bad forever. In an age of Steam Early Access, open betas, and public alphas, both of his assertions no longer ring true.

When developers no longer require a finished or fully functioning title to break a million sales, as in the case of DayZ, the completed game going for gold might soon be another footnote in the history of a rapidly changing video game industry. Could the rush of unwrapping and playing a long-sought video game soon give way to unilateral Early Access? And is instant gratification preferable to waiting for the quality and consistency that a finished product often offers?

Not that this is a bitter pill to swallow. On the contrary, the successes of DayZ and Rust are indicative of a rabid audience’s desire to play tomorrow’s games now, whatever the pitfalls. Furthermore, with Early Access titles, consumers can be an integral part of a still developing design process.

With Early Access, developers are changing the way games reach an audience, and engaged and vocal audiences are changing the way developers are making games.

Is Early Access a signal of a creative renaissance in the industry, or a sign that industrious, if not slightly left field developers, are selling unfinished products in order to fund their projects?

In fact, it’s both – and it’s a good thing.

The labelling of Early Access problematises some elements of its legitimacy. The use of Early Access as a blanket term for wildly varying approaches to alpha or beta stage products is perhaps the most obvious issue. Early Access as a term does not denote that the product being accessed early is in alpha or beta. First coming to attention as a pre-order bonus for MMOs, such as Guild Wars 2 or Final Fantasy 14, Early Access was built on the idea that you were been given preferential access to an already finished product.

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Now, Early Access is synonymous with Minecraft and DayZ. DayZ might sell a million copies without being finished but then not every game is DayZ. Its genesis from cult mod to million-selling standalone is the American dream rendered in miniature. Big dreams, now with anti-aliasing and Direct X-11 support. That DayZ has spawned imitators in gameplay, design and business plan terms is indicative of its impact. Expect the success of DayZ to have lasting ramifications on the way in which indies bring titles to market.

For traditional publishers, the audience’s dialogue with DayZ and its creator, Dean Hall, must seem rather curious. In an age where EA shareholders intervene in the update process of Battlefield 4,and day one patches are met with unilateral scorn, what should big publishers learn from DayZ’s success?

The open and honest approach to videogame design is DayZ’s biggest virtue;  the amount of goodwill accrued from DayZ’s mod days and the open forum on the games design cannot be underestimated.

In the absence of a bloated traditional marketing campaign, DayZ’s approach has been thus: why spend money selling your game to consumers, when consumers can sell your game for you?

When a gamer joins an Early Access, their engagement with the title can vary from casual, all the way up to hardcore, forum-posting, chest-beating advocate. A direct line between developer and consumer fosters a unique sense of engagement with a game and its development team.

By participating in an Early Access alpha, users of DayZ fulfil the role of QA team, focus group, marketing team, and financial investors. Bohemia Interactive are making gamers pay for the privilege of helping them complete their game, and we love it.

With the admission from Dean Hall that DayZ is still some way from beta, the million-plus and counting users of the game can consider their purchase of the game to be an investment. A sound and already engaging investment, but one that will not fully pay dividends until 2015, or beyond.

The nature of the exchange between gamers and developers can be varied. For those who paid for The War Z via Early Access, they found themselves in a poorly supported mess of a game, which was as illegitimate and contemptuous as its title. The difficulty for consumers is being able to tell the stars of Steam’s Early Access program, from those exploitative titles. Even then, should a consumer feel let down when a game in Early Access feels like an alpha?

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Criticism in this area can often  stem from the terminology and signposting of an early access title. The War Z was removed from Steam because of some of the contemptuous claims made by its product description. Developer, OP Productions, listed features on the Steam page that were simply not present in the product, and were not denoted as upcoming. Ultimately, The War Z’s unforgivable sin was intentionally misleading customers, and selling the product on that basis. For Early Access to continue to flourish as it has, developers need to continue the honest and open appraisal of their work and associated sales pitches. For the hardcore, Early Access means an expected amount of game-breaking bugs, progress wipes and server downtime. For the casual users, who will no doubt be among the one million users of DayZ, the placeholder nature of much of the games alpha state is potentially damaging to the image and sustainability of Early Access.

The growth of a non-linear sandbox title is powered by the growth of its community. Minecraft, without its significant YouTube power base, would be a Lego set that sat unused. DayZ without the dedicated forums and gonzo journalism advocates would have been a shell of its current form. In that sense, while any given game is still being built, those Early Access fans are building the game. In DayZ and Rust, the player-on-player experience is the game experience – by getting in at the ground level, players inform and shape the behaviours of the player that become integral to the game.

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So will we see the Early Access model adopted by AAA developers and publishers? Certainly not in the same way. Early Access games do not fall prey to the whims of shareholders, or the visually driven AAA games market. It exists in a separate sphere entirely, and for a big publisher to cross the threshold, they must be brave and sincere. These are traits that many of the largest video game developers and publishers do not possess in abundance.

The high staking game that is the AAA market does not allow for the slow burn of a public alpha and beta, offered by Early Access. Financially, Early Access allows indie games to be made, but it might just kill a AAA title if public scrutiny didn’t first. Were Destiny released on Early Access tomorrow, there would be a weight of expectation and desired level of quality that would suffocate it. The fanboy level of entitlement that Early Access sometimes invites, would surely be exacerbated the larger the title being offered on the program. So in its current mould, Early Access is for the little guy, and it’s all the better for it.

For small developers though, the boon of Early Access is made manifest by the mainstream visibility and financial stability exhibited by many of those games in the program. Titles that may never have seen the light of day as fully finished products, due to budgeting or other publisher issues, now have a chance to succeed and stand out in a competitive market. Alongside Kickstarter and other self-publishing platforms, Early Access means that smaller developers can continue to make great games that would simply struggle to exist otherwise.

That said, whilst DayZ has already proved that Early Access can work for the developer, DayZ must now prove that Early Access can work for the consumer.

Images: Bohemia Interactive, Bethesda Softworks, Mojang

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