Betting on betas: Why the early access phenomenon is risky business

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I planned on chatting about Castle Story today. It's an indie game about collecting resources, building castles, and fighting stuff—ostensibly part of that nebulous "Dwarf Fortress with a UI" genre that exploded once Minecraft made gobs of cash. Like so many Kickstarter projects I've thrown money at in the last year it's nowhere near ready for prime time, instead offering backers early builds of the game to tinker with. All part of that weirdly refreshing Kickstarter-symbiosis: developers show their hand a little early, and we get to offer up feedback in exchange for putting our money where our mouth is.

But a curious thing has happened over the last few months. A deluge of games in varying stages of completeness have popped up into the limelight, promising fantastic, engrossing gameplay and fun in spades...eventually. Consider Godus and Planetary Annihilation: both born of successful Kickstarter campaigns from well-regarded developers, both pitching access to early builds as incentives to Kickstarter backers, and both recently popping up on Steam's Early Access program, opening their floodgates to anyone with a bit of discretionary income—and increasingly, a penchant for gambling.

Photo may vary from actual product.

Because it is a bit of a crapshoot, isn't it? With prices wavering between $10 and $60,  you're paying real-game prices for a pre-released project that's at some undisclosed point in its development. Sometimes you get State of Decay, which has had the benefit of percolating on the Xbox 360 for a few months. Other times, you get a convoluted mash of interesting ideas, wrapped around a fledgling game engine.

Paying for beta access isn't a new concept—how many of us picked up Crackdown just to get a shot at Halo 3? But Minecraft's paid-alpha pricing experiment and subsequent dizzying success seemed to suggest that anyone with an idea and a functioning executable should find a marketplace to pitch their wares, hunting for patrons to keep the lights on while they sprint to the finish line. Planetary Annihilation has the benefit of being rather far along with seasoned developers at the helm, and well over two million dollars to futz with at the start. But $60 currently gets you in the queue for random, oft-buggy multiplayer matches and a promise of more to come.

Castle Story hits a bit closer to home. There's no documentation or tutorial, save what you can glean from some YouTube videos. Show-stopping bugs abound, the interface is half-baked, and much of the game's features—including any real purpose—have yet to be codified. In short, it's a game in an embryonic state, and while it's come a long way it really isn't in any shape to be slapped up for sale in front of folks who weren't swept up by the spirit of the (fairly successful) Kickstarter campaign in the first place.

Product color and shape may vary.

And there's the rub. Kickstarter is a sort of record shop of dreams; we wander its aisles, flip through the stacks and toss some cash at the pitches that move us most. When you back a project, you're investing in an idea, not paying for a final product—that many of these projects do come to fruition is just the icing on the proverbial cake. Steam is a marketplace in a more traditional sense: Early Access makes no claim to offer anything but unfinished wares, caveat emptor and all that. But without the pomp and circumstance of a countdown, watching a game you so desperately want to play someday bolting or limping across the finish line, it all just feels so sterile. Like any other transaction. One that doesn't offer much of any emotional attachment, and ultimately leaves a sour taste in my mouth when things go wrong.

Truth be told, it feels like Early Access does these fledgling developers a disservice—I was swept up by Castle Story's premise and promise well over a year ago and remain vested, but if I were to have dropped $20 on the game today and dive in, I'd be a little miffed.

Kickstarter remains the sort of thing you tell your friends about. "Hey," you'd say, "check out this game these folks are building in their basement." You'd rally around the idea, spreading its gospel as it climbed closer to its funding goal and maybe even showing off your sweet backer rewards, getting more people interested in what you're blabbing about. Dive into a Steam Early Access game and there's a good chance you have no sense of its history, of the game plan the developers laid forth to get where they are today, or any sense of how capable they'll be of getting where they're going.

It's a gamble, but without the long, invested interest born from getting on board at the start, I'm worried that offering barely-functional prototypes on Early Access will net a quick influx of cash up front but hurt sales of the finished product in the long run. And that can't be good news for the indies who get lured into offering Early Access builds because they need the financial help.

This story, "Betting on betas: Why the early access phenomenon is risky business" was originally published by TechHive.

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