Early Access in an interesting beast. Part of Steam, the world’s largest online gaming platform, this portal enables consumers to buy into games that are still in early development. In theory, you’re buying the right to help test and shape these games and then getting the finished version when it releases. The reality, though, is sometimes different.
Looking through the Steam Early Access catalog, 203 games are available, including big names like open-world zombie title DayZ and survival game Rust. But many Early Access listings have sat there since early 2013, and development on some has ground to a virtual halt.
The Steam community discussion boards are awash with complaints and questions about Early Access projects that aren’t progressing. So GamesBeat tracked down some developers to ask what was going on and whether they will ever complete their games.
We also reached out for legal advice on the rights that Steam customers have when buying in to Early Access. We discovered that the wording on Steam’s Early Access page may have been sufficiently vague for consumers to complain under Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act, which prohibits unfair and deceptive sales practices.
But since then, Steam operator Valve Software, one of the biggest publishers in the game industry, has altered the description of Early Access that it provides to its customers, making it clear that some games will simply never get finished.
What does Valve demand from Early Access devs?
Gravi, a puzzle-platformer, has been in Early Access since October. Marco Williams, the chief executive officer and sole programmer at indie developer HashBang games, talked candidly with GamesBeat about the process of getting his game into Steam Early Access — something that sounds easier than it perhaps should.
“From what I’ve gathered and how it worked out for us,” said Williams during a Skype chat, “we went from Greenlight [Steam’s community-voted submission process] and had to make a choice of what we wanted to do.” He explained that he could either wait to put out a full release, go Early Access, or accept preorders. “Our choice was to do the Early Access,” he said.
Williams explained how the entire submission process is now automated. “You don’t really approach [Valve] any more,” he said. “You don’t really have to talk to anybody, any more at least.
“Its not much of a process. You just tell them you’re Early Access, you give them a release date [for Early Access], you upload your build, and you’re in.”
I asked Williams if he had to sign anything to say he would definitely finish the game. “Not that I recall,” he said.
Williams revealed that Valve has no demand on developers to release regular updates when their game enters Early Access: “They haven’t approached me or said anything, and there’s nothing in the console that says ‘You have to release an update.'”
But, he points out, Valve does give you a reason to release updates.
“However, there is incentive for releasing updates. Steam has a way for you to get your game more exposure. Those methods of getting more exposure are only available to you if you’re doing regular updates to your game.“
According to Williams, every time you update your game, it unlocks an area inside the admin console where you can get your game on Steam’s front page. “You get X amount of views of your banner,” said Williams. “That’s important because, if you’re not a fairly popular title, getting onto that front page is where you get our sales.”
“There’s a button. You click it and you go into the queue. If nobody else is in the queue with you at that time, you go in right away. You can see that happening.”
I asked Williams what would happen if Valve did mandate a regular update schedule. “It would kill us,” he said. “I have a full-time job. I’m doing an hour a day [on Gravi]. There’s a lot of developers in the same boat, and putting that kind of restraint on a developer adds a lot of pressure.” But, at the same time, he said, “We would make it work.”
From a developer’s perspective, from what Williams claims, Valve has done a great job of streamlining and automating the Early Access process. But has this come at the expense of its customers?
The Early Access games that went quiet
Genre: First-person shooter
Release date: Sept. 17
Last update: No updates
The Steam community view
“This will suck if it becomes vapour ware. The Early Access/Greenlight system might need a touch up to get rid of cracks like this. Steam shouldn’t be abused, especially without some legal protection.”
“Come on guys, this game isn’t going anywhere. The devs said they are alive just to make more money so people will buy it.”
“This is not the first game in Early Access where developers have given up on the game. They simply might not have gotten enough funding to finish the game. And its a risk we all take with Early Access. I’m fine with whichever way this game goes.”
The developer response
“Final Rush is still very much in development,” Luke Regan, design director at Strike Games, told GamesBeat via email, “and getting very close to an update release.”
Steam gamers are right to jump to conclusions, said Regan, as “indie game companies often pull a switcheroo on them.” He said this isn’t the case with Final Rush: “We literally had to rebuild the — entire — game with only two people. While we’re nearing completion, it’s still a few weeks out.”
Regan explained that he had been fairly silent on updates as there wasn’t much to tell. “Gamers would feel just as disenfranchised if every week we told them it was just a few more weeks.”
Since contacting Regan, he has actively engaged with the Steam community more, posting four written updates in the past few weeks. However, he doesn’t expect to the game to be a commercial success despite his best efforts.
“At the moment the only reason we’re working on the game at all is to not disappoint the fans and the customers who’ve already bought it,” he said. “Seeing as the game was bought by barely a thousand people, all the money it made went directly back into its unexpected rebuild; and is only enough to barely pay one programmer. In my case I’m not even taking any pay so as to maximize the funds available to the rebuild.
“It’s coming — it’s just a very intensive process; one which is nearing completion.”
Genre: Turn-based dungeon crawler
Release Date: Oct. 25
Last update: Feb. 6
The Steam community view
“Wait till this game is finished! 2 updates I think since its been out and devs always saying next week, or later this week. Save your money and get another game till this one is finished. Devs like these give Early Access a bad name.”
“Stay away from this. Last update came on February 6, now it’s May 7. No status updates, no content updates, game received like TWO updates AT ALL ever since it came on Steam as early access.While I enjoy the concept, I don’t appreciate developers who take people’s money for an unfinished product and then run away with it.”
“It’s not unreasonable to expect updates or progress reports from an Early Access game (especially one that customers have paid for) regardless of who is working on it — you think this is the only game being developed by one person?”
The developer response
“Yes, the comments are justified,” said Dungeon Dashers developer Andrew Sum via email.
“I can try to justify the lack of updates on the game by saying that I’m a 23-year-old developer programming and designing game by myself. I’m also a part-time student, studying a master’s [degree in] software engineering. I spent a lot of last week working on an assignment for my cloud computing class. Most of March was taken up by preparing for and attending GDC. Then there’s emails like this that I respond to daily and all of the other stuff that goes into running a business.”
Sum admitted that, whatever the reasons, he just isn’t putting enough time into Dungeon Dashers. “And I am embarrassed about that,” he told me. “I want this game done as much as the players. Many people expect that I am working on this game all day, every day, and that’s probably not an unreasonable expectation to have. But, as I mentioned, I’m doing other things at the same time, and that’s not in line with what people expect.”
Sum explained that when Early Access first came out nobody knew how the Steam community would react. “Expectations for players and developers have changed over time,” he said, “and not all games fit the Early Access model.”
What does work?
“Procedural and sandbox games with emergent gameplay suit it best,” he added. “Dungeon Dashers has a linear structure with discrete levels, and that is another thing that makes it hard to release frequent updates.
Sum recommends that developers who are slow on updates should not ignore players and their questions.
“The best that I can do is to be transparent with all communication,” he said. “That’s what I’ve always tried to do. People are always welcome to ask me questions, as you did today.”
Genre: Physics-based Collectible Card Game
Release Date: Jan. 9
Last update: Jan. 20
The Steam community view
“Wish you could refund games like this. They promise updates but then they give 1 update and let this game rot.”
“Yet another early access fail. Good work steam and devs.”
“What did you expect? Did you really believe after this fail they will work on it more? They never reach the targeted sells [sic] (not even close to it). The best way out of this is run off and leave the game as long they only have a small bill instead of a bigger one. Just read there [sic] website: AmazingAtom.com Last Update 20 Jan. They properly run out of money.”
The developer response
Developer Amazing Atom did not respond to our requests for comment. The game is now no longer available to purchase via Steam.
Community discussions claim that Steam Support has refused to offer refunds to players who previously purchased Monsters and Munitions.
Genre: First-person music game
Release date: April 2011 (pre-Early Access)
Last update: July 18
The Steam community view
“For the love of Christ, do not spend your money on this game. It is completely broken and the Devs haven’t touched it in ages. Waste of money and time, and is a great source of frustration is provided when trying to get my personal songs to calibrate (All star).”
“The potential is there, but it seems the developers have no interest in ever getting this game out of early access, enforcing my distrust in the whole early access principle. I don’t think this game will ever get finished and I kind of feel scammed out of my money. My love for music games made me ignore my suspicions, and I now wish it hadn’t.”
“I purchased this game back in 2011 (before this Early Access stuff started), in hopes that the Developers would get around to finishing it. Instead, they went back and re-released a “new” version of ‘AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! — A Reckless Disregard for Gravity’ and have barely touched this game ever since.”
The developer response
Developer Dejobaan Games did not respond to our requests for comment. Founder Ichiro Lambe posted a written update on the Steam community board on May 1, which states: “I’m just not happy with gameplay, and that’s the primary reason for the lack of a recent update. Instead of building on what we have, we’ve been gutting it.”
You can read the full statement at the Steam community page.
Genre: Competitive arena shoot-em-up
Release date: Sept. 25
Last update: Oct. 2
The community view
“Only had 1 announcement patch and 2 pages of thread on which ~15% of threads are pinned. Devs gave up?”
“That seems like a lie to me since there are like 2 days a row only 1 server up and this 1 is always empty … so back to the main question yes it is dead.”
The developer response
Developer Michael Lubker talked about Steel Storm A.M.M.O. via Skype. He explained that he was the community manager for the original Steel Storm game and interest in multiplayer sparked development of this title.
Lubker told me there hadn’t been any further progress with the game since its October update.
“I guess you would call it a chicken-and-egg scenario,” said Lubker. Average numbers playing were reasonable up to the end of 2013, but “the past six months or so have been bad,” he told me.
“We don’t have the amount of customers we need to do an update,” he said. “There’s not enough people on there at the same time.”
Lubker told me that, despite the lack of players, he is still looking to bring the game out of Early Access at some point. I asked whether Valve was asking for updates to the game: “Basically, what we have been told is to do what we can to bring it out of Early Access if we’re not going to continue updating it,” said Lubker. “It may not have all of the updates that we wanted to do, but it will be something that is playable.”
As for Early Access as a concept, Lubker said: “It’s opening up the secrets of the underbelly that may not be so pretty.
“It’s a risk for both customers and developers. But it’s something that people are having to try because they’re not getting sales otherwise. It takes time to develop a game and sometimes you have to raise money in unconventional ways.”
The legal perspective on Early Access
Jesse Saivar, a partner and the chair of the intellectual property department at law firm Greenburg Glusker, discussed the legal implications of Early Access and what it means to Steam customers, via Skype.
Saivar explained that the Federal Trade Commission is the body responsible for monitoring business practices, with Section 5 of the FTC Act prohibiting “unfair and deceptive practices.”
“What Valve and Steam really have to be careful of is that they’re not doing anything that would be deceiving consumers,” explained Saivar.
Saivar took a look through the Early Access page (as it appeared on May 22) in order to gauge whether Valve was “giving consumers enough information for them to understand that there are these risks.”
He said that there were just enough subtle warnings to ensure that Valve was towing the line, but he did raise a couple of concerns.
“I would probably advise as a lawyer that you should have something somewhere where you’re making it very clear to the consumers that what you’re buying is a game in development,” said Saivar, “‘We make no warranties that this game is going to be completed, or that all the bugs that may be present in an in-development game are going to be fixed.’ So you’re buying at your own risk. I think that they could do a better job of doing that.”
Saivar was also concerned that there was no hyperlink to specific terms and conditions when going through the payment process for an Early Access title, but “even without that, I think this page that describes what Early Access is probably does enough,” he said.
However, when I brought up the paragraph titled “Is this the same as pre-purchasing a game?” Saivar had some reservations.
“That one paragraph is the most problematic,” he told me. “Of everything they have in here, that’s the one that seems to imply it’s going to be released. It doesn’t ever say there’s a chance it may never be released. It kind of implies it could be a long time until it’s released.”
“If I was their attorney,” he added, “and I was looking at this I would say you’ve got to ease up on those because it does seem to imply that these will eventually be released and if consumers are buying these games with the expectation that they will eventually be released, and that’s why they’re getting involved, then that’s where they could run into some trouble.”
Saivar concluded that Valve was not immediately at risk, but if enough people complained that Early Access cheated them, as happened with children making in-app purchases, the FTC might investigate.
GamesBeat reached out to Valve multiple times but they didn’t respond to our requests for comment on Early Access. However, the issues raised by our lawyer, which we questioned Valve about, seem to coincide with some major changes in the description of Early Access to Steam customers.
We broke the news yesterday about Valve’s changes to the Early Access FAQ, and you can see the major wording alterations in the screenshots below.
Gone is the promise that you gain access to an Early Access game “in its current form and as it evolves up and through release.” Instead, Valve says: “You keep access to the game, even if the game later moves from Early Access into fully released.” [Our stress on the word “if”]
Before the change, Valve told customers: “If the release date is known, it will be listed on the store page for the game, in the upper-right corner under the game’s branding image.” There was no mention of the possibility that a game might remain unfinished.
Now, the description reads: “You should be aware that some teams will be unable to ‘finish’ their game. So you should only buy an Early Access game if you are excited about playing it in its current state.”
A small victory, then, in giving consumers a clearer picture of what they are getting with Early Access, but a significant shift in the goals of the program.
No longer can customers buy into Early Access with the assumption that they are getting a finished product at the end of the day. In fact, there is no telling when any of the projects on Early Access will reach completion, if indeed they do.
GamesBeat reached out a final time to Valve, and Doug Lombardi, director of marketing, provided the following statement:
“The changes to the FAQ are intended to help set customer expectations of what may or may not happen over the course of development of an Early Access game. We frequently iterate on Steam features as we gather feedback and find areas for improvement.
“In this case, it became apparent that further clarification would help customers evaluate their potential purchase of Early Access titles. We think of Steam, Early Access, and game development as services that grow and evolve best with the involvement of customers and the community.”
The future for Early Access
When I explained to Saivar that there was reportedly little or no curation of projects accepted for Early Access and no demands on them for regular updates, he described it as a “dream for lazy developers.” However, for studios that actually care about completing their game, Early Access may be more of a nightmare.
Early Access in its current form seems to favor larger developers with the time and resources to drip-feed updates to an engaged community. Smaller developers can’t always deliver the level of attention, progress, and engagement that Steam customers expect.
All of the developers I spoke to seemed genuinely passionate about their projects. But they are generally single-handed or part of a very small team. Williams explained that Early Access customers have reported close to 50 bugs in Gravi. He’s now desperately trying to fix these before he can focus on moving the project forward.
“The project is not dead,” he said, “it’s just moving at a mock-snail pace because I cannot afford further development costs. I’m locked in with high interest loans as I try to pay down Gravi, and the game has not even made a third of its money back.”
So while games like Day-Z and Rust have generated millions of dollars through Early Access, the significantly smaller amount of money many projects raise can have little or no impact on development, leaving an incomplete game, frustrated customers, and developers trying desperately to keep afloat.
“I’m all about the indie developers, said Williams. We’re all working out of our homes. We’re putting our life savings into a dream.”
Is Early Access helping with that dream? “I would like to say yes, but no,” he said. “It hasn’t helped us with that dream.
“We spent $60,000 to build Gravi. Early Access made it so that we could get about $15,000 of that back. It got us closer to a break-even point, but it didn’t really help us in terms of clearing our debt.”
Williams told me he was expecting a lot better. “I know some games that have gone on Early Access or Steam that have done over $100,000 in the first six months,” he said.
When I asked Williams if he’d use the Early Access process again, the answer was a resounding “no.”
“We wouldn’t do that if we were going to do another game,” he told me. “If we had a bigger team, it would be another story. We could put it up there, we could be getting feedback from the users, and we could be actively fixing those bugs as they come in. Just the three of us? There’s just no way we can keep up.”