First off, this isn't a criticism of the early access model itself. I know it's valuable to both players and developers, and a lot of great games have come out of it, including Subnautica, The Long Dark, and Slay the Spire. Over the years I've personally followed a handful of games from their initial early access release to being, ostensibly, finished. And while that can be fun—particularly if it's a game you're passionate about—I think I'm done with it.
Early access is one of several ways the concept of a videogame has radically changed. Once upon a time, when I first got a PC capable of running anything other than Minesweeper, a game was confined to a CD-ROM. Everything it was and would ever be was stored in those microscopic indentations. If you had access to the internet you might be able to download a patch, but basically, the game began and ended with what was printed on that shiny plastic disc. And call it blinkered nostalgia, but that's something I miss.
I'm increasingly uninterested in 'service games' that exist as a platform to relentlessly hurl content at you. When I see one of those development roadmaps promising years of expansions, it fills me with dread. Developers want you to invest in their games, and become devoted to them, for long periods of time. But for me, all this does is shine a spotlight on the fact the game in question has been cynically designed to endlessly churn out money.
Early access is very different, of course. It's essentially a way of funding the ongoing development of a game, refining it based on player feedback. I love that, because it gives developers—especially smaller ones—a level of freedom and power they might not have under the scrutiny of a publisher. But when a new game I'm interested in is released and I see that blue early access badge on the Steam page, I must admit, I feel a little deflated.
Whether it's a service game or an early access game, I get the same niggling feeling: this isn't the full experience. For me, a game (well, a good one) is as much a piece of art as a film, album, or book. And that's why, in recent years, I find myself gravitating more towards games that are self-contained, finished things. The completed manifestation of a creative vision—not a whiteboard scribbled with smudged, half-formed ideas.
I guess I just like the romantic, old-fashioned idea of someone having a creative spark, realising it, then releasing it into the world, ending their relationship with it. An early access game is a wet lump of clay, endlessly remoulded and reshaped, sometimes for years. That's fine, but these days I'd rather play games that emerge fully formed. And if that means not playing Mount & Blade II for another year (at least), then I'll just have to wait.