Early Access is now the norm for retail titles and it’s deceiving customers

Early access is a great concept for certain titles, but are big budget developers and publishers taking advantage of the idea of playing an unfinished game early?

A little over a year after release, No Man’s Sky is a different game. That isn’t unique in an industry where products often change drastically week-to-week.

It’s the reaction of the game’s community, and how it’s developed over time, that strikes me as unusual. The more games come out that change over time, the more the influence of early access is seen.

After the initial shine wore off after the game’s launch, its players turned on it. After years of teasing and hype, the ‘final’ release ended up being less than what Hello Games promised. On the consumer end, the months after release were a mix of general dissatisfaction and a few players spewing venom bordering on death threats, juxtaposed with months of radio silence from the studio.

Then, toward the end of the year, Hello Games put out a free update. Then, months later, another. Players could start building bases and drive around in their own vehicles. Now, with the most recent Atlas Rises update earlier this month, they can see physical representations of other players in the universe and shape terrain, among other things.

More and more, however, we’re seeing the muddying of when a game is finished and when it’s simply put on the market. While early access allows a community to have a say in development, larger and more successful games are complicating what “early access” means. Sony ostensibly has no early access-like service, but they released Paragon and Fortnite in unreleased states.

I’m not saying early access is a bad concept, but when Sony picks and chooses which games they release as intentionally unfinished products without any precedent within their own store, it’s deceiving. It should be noted that it’s possible to walk in and buy a physical copy of Fortnite in stores. A physical copy implies a finished game, which Fortnite isn’t.

A different manifestation is visible in Ark: Survival Evolved. That game, which entered early access in 2015 and has seen two expansion packs added to it sinc. With the game having an “official” release this month.

The days of a game being released in its final form have passed, and that’s completely fine. The fact that developers can fix bugs and rebalance their games is, I think, good for players. But there’s a point where the industry may need to draw a line. Involving players in the creation of a piece of art is a beautiful concept, but there’s a point where that system switches from community involvement to community exploitation.

People interested in video games can more easily discern what’s final and what isn’t, but for a kid walking into Best Buy to buy a game that they might walk out with something three quarters done. They’d be seemingly safe in the assumption that since this game has a plastic sleeve and cover art it must be, you know, a finished game.

No Man’s Sky is better now, and Hello Games should be commended for the support they’ve given their product. The game sports a “mostly positive” rating from recent steam reviews; rising above the “mostly negative” it had been holding for months. There are some games, like Civilization or Crusader Kings, that are so complex they need to change over time. But allowing that to become the norm for all games can mislead consumers.

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