Steam's secret Early Access rules reveal Valve's hands-off approach

[Editor's Note: These are Steam's rules and guidelines for Early Access development, provided in full below. Although I haven't edited the rules, I have added some text formatting, such as bolding and paragraph breaks, to make this page more readable.]

Steam Early Access is a framework of messaging that helps customers identify and learn more about products that are currently under development with the involvement of the community.

As a developer, this is useful to help set context for prospective customers and provide them with information about your intentions during Early Access. Early Access is meant to be a place for games that are in a playable alpha or beta state, are worth the current value of the playable build, and the developer plans to continue to develop for release.

Rules & Guidelines for Steam Early Access
When you launch a game in Steam Early Access, there is an expectation by customers that you will continue development to a point where you have what you consider a 'finished' game. We know that nobody can predict the future, and circumstances frequently change, which may result in a game failing to reach a 'finished' state, or may fail to meet customer expectations in some other way. We work hard to make sure this risk is communicated clearly to customers, but we also ask that developers follow a set of rules that are intended to help inform customers and set proper expectations when purchasing your game.

Therefore, what follows are a set of rules and guidelines that govern your use of Steam Early Access. These are important to consider when evaluating whether Early Access is right for your product, whether you are ready to launch as Early Access, and how to talk to customers about your use of Early Access.

These are rules that you need to follow for your title in Steam Early Access.

You must include Steam Early Access branding and information about the current state of your game on any third-party sites where you are distributing Steam keys for your Early Access game.
We work really hard to make sure that customers understand what they are buying when they get an Early Access title on Steam. But we've seen that many of these titles are sold as keys on other websites where there is no explanation of what Early Access is or what the current state of your product is now versus what you hope to achieve. As a result, we are now requiring developer to include the Steam Early Access branding as well as information on the current state of your game and a link to the Steam Early Access FAQ on any site where you are selling Steam keys for your Early Access title. You should also include the Early Access questions that you answered when setting up your Steam page. You can read more in the Steam Branding Guidelines.

Do not make specific promises about future events.
For example, there is no way you can know exactly when the game will be finished, that the game will be finished, or that planned future additions will definitely happen. Do not ask your customers to bet on the future of your game. Customers should be buying your game based on its current state, not on promises of a future that may or may not be realized.Steam Early Access titles need to be available to customers through Steam.

If Valve is enabling your Early Access game we expect you to have the Early Access game available for sale on the Steam store.
Do not offer it for sale on Steam any later than you offer it anywhere else.

Don't overcharge Steam customers.
We expect Steam customers to get a price for the Early Access game no higher than they are offered on any other service or website. Please make sure that’s the case.

These are suggestions for ensuring a better experience for customers.

Don’t launch in Early Access if you can’t afford to develop with very few or no sales.
There is no guarantee that your game will sell as many units as you anticipate. If you are counting on selling a specific number of units to survive and complete your game, then you need to think carefully about what it would mean for you or your team if you don't sell that many units. Are you willing to continue developing the game without any sales? Are you willing to seek other forms of investment?

Make sure you set expectations properly everywhere you talk about your game.
For example, if you know your updates during Early Access will break save files or make the customer start over with building something, make sure you say that up front. And say this everywhere you sell your Steam keys.

Don't launch in Early Access without a playable game.
If you have a tech demo, but not much gameplay yet, then it’s probably too early to launch in Early Access. If you are trying to test out a concept and haven't yet figured out what players are going to do in your game that makes it fun, then it's probably too early. You might want to start by giving out keys to select fans and getting input from a smaller and focused group of users before you post your title to Early Access. At a bare minimum, you will need a video that shows in-game gameplay of what it looks like to play the game. Even if you are asking customers for feedback on changing the gameplay, customers need something to start with in order to give informed feedback and suggestions.

Don't launch in Early Access if you are done with development.
If you have all your gameplay defined already and are just looking for final bug testing, then Early Access isn’t the right place for that. You’ll probably just want to send out some keys to fans or do more internal playtesting. Early Access is intended as a place where customers can have impact on the game.

Early Access is not a Pre-Purchase
Early Access is not meant to be a pre-purchase space but a space to get your game in front of Steam users early and gather feedback from them while finishing the game. Often times the game is over 60 days from a release date and should still need finishing touches.

The main difference is that pre-purchase offers do not usually provide immediate access to play the game as it is being developed. Early Access titles must deliver a playable game or usable software to the customer at the time of purchase. Read more about pre-purchases on the Pre-Purchase Documentation.

Is Early Access Right For You?
Early Access is a tool to develop your game with the community by giving them access to your title before it is officially released. During Steam Dev Days, in January 2014, five developers shared what they have learned from being on Early Access; how it affected their development, their sales, and when does Early Access make sense.
Panelsts are: Justin Bailey (Double Fine), Bob Berry (Uber Entertainment), Jamie Cheng (Klei Entertainment), Mark Morris (Introversion)

Describing Your Early Access

How should I describe my Early Access game to customers?
It’s very important to provide an accurate Early Access description where you clearly define the current state of your game build and pricing plan up until launch. This allows customers to be informed when making their decision to purchase the game now or wait for the full release. In addition if you choose to offer details of the features that will be offered in the final release build of the game, this list should be as accurate as possible to avoid unhappy future customers.

The "What The Dev Says" (Early Access Dev Description) should establish for the user on what to expect from the game and the developer and how their participation will be helping you as the developer. This description should answer the following questions:

This description should answer the following questions:

Why is your game in Early Access?
How long do you plan to be in Early Access?
What is the current state of the game?
What features are you planning to add to the game?
What is your pricing strategy during and after Early Access?
How can the Steam Community help you during your development process

Please check our Early Access area to see some great examples of games in this state on Steam. In addition, feel free to ask questions here in the Steamworks Development Group and we will do our best to respond.

Early Access Pricing

How should I think about pricing my Early Access?

Pricing your Early Access can depend on the nature of your game and what behavior you'd like to encourage. Most developers have chosen to start out with a price lower than their target launch price. This establishes a price that is fair for the content being provided at that time with the intention that the price will rise over time as more content is added and the game becomes more polished. Alternatively, some other developers have chosen to set their Early Access price higher than the target launch price so that they can reach a smaller group of more dedicated fans.

If you choose to start out with a lower price, it is generally a good idea to communicate that to customers in the Early Access description on your page.
This lower price should just be represented by configuring a lower base price for your product rather than setting it up as a 'discount'. Discounts are generally indicative of a brief, limited time offer, and send a different message to customers.

Note that you will not be able to run a discount within 30 days following a price increase. This includes a launch discount when your game transitions from Early Access to fully released. If you have raised your base price within 30 days of this transition you will not be able to run a launch discount.

Enabling Early Access

To enable Early Access on your product, you will need to complete these two items before your product is released on Steam:

Check the 'Early Access' checkbox under the 'Early Access' tab in the store page configuration area for your product.Completely answer all questions about how your product will utilize Early Acccess.Once your product page has been completed and reviewed by Valve, you may release your title as Early Access. For more information on releasing your title, please see Preparing for Your Release on Steam

Visibility During Early Access

When your product launches in Steam Early Access, it will appear in a couple places in the Steam store. This is a great time to make sure that you are spreading word about your product through as many external channels as well to reach potential customers wherever they are. The amount of exposure your title gets on Steam will depend on how customers are responding to your product by purchasing, playing, reviewing, and other such factors.
For details on how and where your game can appear to customers during Early Access, please see Early Access Launch Visibility documentation.

Transition From Early Access to 'Released'

Moving from Early Access to 'Released' is typical when the developer considers the product as feature complete and when the product is no longer in a significant state of change. It is worth pointing out that this doesn't mean you have to stop adding features or updating your product--you should keep adding content or fixing bugs as is appropriate for your title. But if your product is no longer marked as Early Access, the expectation from customers will be that your product is now more stable and delivers a complete experience.

When you are ready to remove the Early Access context from around your product, there are a couple of things that should happen:

You will need to upload and publish your updated build of your game or software. You can then click 'view release options' at the top of your product landing page to prepare and release your game fully. Pushing the release button will update the release date for your game, remove the Steam Early Access branding from your store page, and apply any launch discount you have defined.Note that if you increase your price within 30 days of your transition from Early Access to fully released, your launch discount will not apply.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Can my Early Access Game be listed as Coming Soon?

A: Your product can be listed as 'coming soon' before it is available to purchase, regardless of whether you are going to use Early Access or not. Once you have an Early Access title up for purchase, there is no notion of a product as being available to purchase in Early Access and coming soon at the same time.

If you are thinking about how you message the date of your product's transition from Early Access to 'released', you can do that on your own through announcements and on your store page, but there is no official place for defining this date on your store page.

Evan Lahti
Global Editor-in-Chief

Evan's a hardcore FPS enthusiast who joined PC Gamer in 2008. After an era spent publishing reviews, news, and cover features, he now oversees editorial operations for PC Gamer worldwide, including setting policy, training, and editing stories written by the wider team. His most-played FPSes are CS:GO, Team Fortress 2, Team Fortress Classic, Rainbow Six Siege, and Arma 2. His first multiplayer FPS was Quake 2, played on serial LAN in his uncle's basement, the ideal conditions for instilling a lifelong fondness for fragging. Evan also leads production of the PC Gaming Show, the annual E3 showcase event dedicated to PC gaming.