“Early access has a problem”, this itch.io blog post begins, before outlining a new toolset for managing early access games: a toolset named itch.io refinery. The refinery is live now for developers using the rapidly growing, and just plain tops indie game store, and brings with it a bunch of features not present with Steam Early Access games.
Those features include limited key distribution and private messageboards, the ability to offer digital and physical rewards alongside games, and easy updating to get new builds to players with the minimum of fuss. In some ways it doesn't sound hugely different from what Steam offers with its own Early Access program, but having the option to control the scale of their early releases will be quietly revolutionary for developers, I reckon.
But what does all that mean for the rest of us? It's going to mean more games like Overland, whose First Access program used the itch.io refinery to sell an early version of the survival strategy game to a select number of people. Just 500 people have been able to buy Overland so far, with the promise of new content each month, and future Steam support, among other things.
Other games that either currently use the refinery, or that are planning to (it's quite hard to tell, given how developers can make these pages private) include Escher-esque puzzler Manifold Garden, detective adventure Jenny LeClue, and roguelikey shooter GoNNER, three games I'm very interested in indeed.
The refinery was announced as part of itch.io week, five days of announcements, and interviews with indie developers.