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Early Access Games Offer Promises, Not Guarantees

Well, it’s happened again. An early access game has managed to upset people and I figure now’s as good a time as any to take a look at just what happened and why this outrage keeps happening.

I know what you’re thinking – the developers have run away with everyone’s money, they’ve missed deadlines, they’ve thrown in a bunch of in-app purchases, etc.

Actually, what’s got everyone riled up this time is quite new. The game in question is ARK: Survival Evolved. It’s currently in early access and is doing quite well for itself. There’s a ton of people playing it on Steam and it’s been pretty well received.

However, last week they launched an expansion pack for the game. ARK: Scorched Earth builds upon the original game, with new creatures and a whole new map. The problem? The expansion pack isn’t an early access title, but the game it’s expanding is.

How can they do this? How can a developer have an unfinished game but then sell us a complete expansion? This is why people are upset.

The developers argue that ARK is meant to be an upgradable game and they want to make sure that expansion packs, such as Scorched Earth, will work.

I’ll admit that it does look bad. To the outsider, it looks like they’ve concentrated on creating and selling a new product rather than finishing the product everyone’s already paid for. It may look like they’ve given up on ‘finishing’ ARK: Survival Evolved and are instead looking to milk more money out of the player base with DLC.

However, the people complaining and getting upset need to learn something. You do not need to buy this expansion pack. People also need to realise that ARK: Scorched Earth is full of new assets and content, it isn’t offering a better engine or improved graphics. I’d guess that the people working on Scorched Earth’s new models and textures aren’t the same people who are trying to finalise features in the main game.

Sure, ARK: Survival Evolved isn’t at version 1.0 yet, but so what? What difference does the version number really make? As long as the devs are supporting the base game, as long as they’re continuing development of the product, who cares if it’s ‘finished’? They could start introducing in-app purchases, new game modes and new console versions before the game’s ‘finished’. Would it really matter?

Also important to remember is the fact that buying a game when it’s in ‘early access’ is just that. The game is in a state of flux and you have little to no say in just what happens to the game. You’ve paid to access it, you’ve not suddenly purchased the right to make design decisions and dictate how the developers spend their time. In fact, this is true of games that are ‘finished’ too.

You see, in this day and age, games are either being worked on or they’re not. A game might be sitting on the shelves, ready for you to buy, but if it’s about to be patched doesn’t that count as early access too?

There’s tons of examples where ‘finished’ games have gone on to have tons of updates and fixes applied to them, meaning that those who bought the ‘finished’ game on day one had a very different experience to those who bought it a year later.

Look at The Witcher 3, which had a total UI overhaul, and No Man’s Sky, which had a huge day-one patch and has plans for loads more content to come. Does this mean that because more is going to be added to it and that because things are going to change and improve, No Man’s Sky is in early access? Some of the backlash towards No Man’s Sky would suggest ‘yes’, which I’m fine with. I’ll simply wait until there’s more to the game and buy it at a later date. Development is ongoing – it’s a fact of modern game making.

This has even been acknowledged by a lot of game review sites. Polygon got a bit of flack for the amount of times it updated its Sim City review. I think this was harsh, personally, as the game changed after its release. What started out as a 9.0 review soon plummeted to a 4.0 (after servers and patches made the game worse) before the review had its last update to a 6.5. People scoffed at Polygon, accusing them of writing a review to quickly before the game was ready to review, but that’s such an impossible distinction to make. When is a game ‘ready for review’ given that they launch with known issues which are then patched out?

This isn’t a case of ‘greedy devs releasing before it’s ready’ as plenty of games are now seen as a ‘service’. They’re released with future updates already being planned and often already being worked on. Look at Overwatch, for example. I got the game on day 1 and had a blast. I didn’t enjoy it because of the ‘promise’ of extra character and extra maps, I bought it because what was in the game was already enough for me. Now, don’t get me wrong, the new characters and maps have kept me coming back and they’ve no doubt brought new people into the game, but this is all gravy for me – a day 1 player.

I think it’s important that people start to realise that the term ‘early access’ is downright useless at this point. I’ve played ‘finished’ games that are buggier than ‘early access’ games and I’ve played ‘finished’ games that have received more updates than ‘early access’ titles.

You pay your money, you get to play the game. What happens to the game through patches, DLC, balance changes and extra features? That’s not up to you. Don’t buy into promises – only pay when it’s good enough to play, would be my advice.

Matthew Parker

A lover of all things gaming, Matt is a programmer by day and a writer by night. Also big into sports, he professes to having no skill at any of them and instead mostly watches them being played.

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