Steam Early Access sets a dangerous precedent

New methods are regularly being devised to provide independent game developers with the funds needed to realize their dreams. When it’s accomplished, more often than not, everyone wins. Indies get to make their games; gamers get to consume them. Crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter have taken center stage in such efforts, allowing developers to sidestep stringent publisher policies and roadblocks. However, not all successful Kickstarter campaigns are open roads to completion and release.

With Steam Early Access, game developers now have a way to allow a title to generate revenue before it's actually completed. It’s a boon to indies, as revenue streams are few and far between, particularly during development. It’s also a plus for gamers willing to take a chance. They may be paying to play an unfinished game, but they often gain the opportunity to influence its development through feedback.

Such is the case with Divinity: Original Sin. Larian Studios blew away their Kickstarter goal in April of 2013, and have since followed up with a Steam Early Access release on January 17th, 2014. Eager gamers have the opportunity to spend $39.99 for the right to play the alpha version today, and will receive the full version upon release. Larian Studios get an early return to invest back into the title, and excited gamers get a taste of what’s to come ahead of the final release. Everyone wins.

early access

What happens, then, if Steam Early Access proves to be a successful business model? What if it brings in hefty profits beyond a nudge needed to polish a final release? What’s going to keep the monolithic, wealthy publishers like Ubisoft — who aren’t hurting for funding — from pushing major IPs onto the service?

Nothing, apparently. Today, Canadian gamers can play Ghost Recon Online through Steam Early Access, and the rest of the world is expected to follow suit in the Spring. The trend is squarely in place.

Granted, Ghost Recon Online isn't exactly an apples-to-apples comparison to titles like Divinity: Original Sin. Ghost Recon Online is a free-to-play title; the latter requires a $39.99 investment for access. In this case, it seems obvious that Ubisoft is using Steam Early Access as a vehicle for game testing. What with EA’s recent launch debacles in SimCity and Battlefield 4, part of me is happy to see evidence of some sort of intensive testing ahead of release.

Still, it's less than cynical to expect this practice to progress further. If Ubisoft enjoys the fruits of posting Ghost Recon Online to Steam Early Access, it’s not unreasonable to suspect that they may post a fully priced game to the service in the future. While paying early for independent games is a useful way for the game to gain necessary funding, paying early for a major Ubisoft IP could scarcely be considered anything other than being charged for the privilege to test an unfinished product. We thought pay-to-win was bad; what about pay-to-test?

While that is a hypothetical (though not unrealistic) situation, there is a very real issue alive today: in-game purchases. Ghost Recon Online may not be a completed game, but its internal store sure is ready for prime time. They may not say it outright in their press releases, but Ubisoft has no qualms about accepting your money for perks during its testing period. That makes the Steam Early Access appearance come off a bit more shady.

ghost recon online

Worse, regardless if it’s through microtransactions or an outright purchase of a full title, you’re investing in an unfinished game that’s not guaranteed to see release. What happens if you spend your cash on a Steam Early Access title that ends up cancelled? Nothing happens at all. That money is lost. Developers — indie and big-budget alike — have a win-win situation on their hands. Gamers assume the entirety of the risk.

What started as a method for gamers to support independent titles could easily become a risk-free way for major publishers to not only test the audience’s reception of a would-be game, but to turn a profit in the process. Nothing in the rulebook can prevent publishers like Ubisoft from introducing an unfinished game on Steam Early Access and then cancelling it if it looks like a flop, taking the money and running.

Steam Early Access has its heart in the right place, allowing fans to directly invest in the development of a particular title while sampling its progress. Still, the precedent is in place for major abuse of the service, and it encourages the release of an unfinished product when such practice is rampant already. As gamers, all we can do right now is be frugal and careful with our investments. No matter whose name is on the title, think twice, and consider that whether or not you actually see the finished title, you won’t see your money again.