Valve must take greater ownership of Steam's Early Access program

Early Access is a blessing, but it has many blemishes. Godus didn't come close to fulfilling its promises. Development on Spacebase DF-9 halted after it didn't make enough money through Early Access. Nosgoth, from Rocket League creators Psyonix, closed abruptly in May. Others, like pioneering survival game DayZ, continue to linger under the label after almost three years.

It's not surprising that Steam's Early Access program has produced some disappointment.  Finished games fall short of our expectations all the time—why would we expect unfinished ones to be less flawed or controversial? But Early Access disappointments have broader consequences: when Early Access games fail, struggle, or their creator does something irresponsible, it harms the integrity of that label for everyone. As a Project Zomboid developer wrote in 2014, "[Early Access] failures tarnish the reputation of the entire model, so a failure (particularly a high-profile failure) is potentially damaging to the very developers who need this model the most."

Two years later, those words of caution remain relevant. An unscientific poll of PC Gamer Twitter followers suggests, at best, a lack of consensus about the value of Early Access. Early Access' reputation continues to be shaped by its worst participants, and in fact, we're grappling with new and inventive abuses. 

Last month saw the release of the first paid expansion for Ark: Survival Evolved, Scorched Earth. At $20 (the base game is $30), the pack added a ton of new stuff: new creatures like the deathworm and the mantis, new features, over 50 new items, and the centerpiece, six desert biomes. "Littered with ruins, geysers, and intricate ancient cave systems, survivors will find a whole new frontier to explore and master," the Steam page promises. 

Together, Scorched Earth is a huge addition to Ark, and the expansion itself has earned "Very Positive" reviews on Steam. But the notion of expanding so significantly on Ark—a project by-definition unfinished—drew outcry from much of the game's community. On the third most-popular post on the Ark subreddit ever, one fan criticized: "We paid for the developers to finish Ark: Survival Evolved, instead they took our money and made another game with it." 

The expansion was a brash move by Studio Wildcard, and the dev's response was mostly unapologetic. "We determined that it is more sound to iterate on these systems during Early Access than after retail launch, given the significant risks involved if we didn't ‘get it right’. While that meant unveiling the first Expansion early, it also means an easier time integrating further post-launch Expansions into the Ark network." Ark's user reviews dipped ("Mixed," currently), but the greater damage was to Early Access itself.

Who does Early Access belong to?

The issue here is Valve's unwillingness to take ownership. Historically Valve has been reluctant to exercise fine control over the systems it creates, or even to make public statements when problems occur. At different times this has been true of CS:GO, Steam Greenlight, and Steam's tagging system, for example. Even the Steam Controller's community-provided control schemes is an example of Valve's desire for Steam to run itself. (We'll see whether this is further reflected in the upcoming Steam UI overhaul.)

That hands-off attitude has invited some bad behavior. We can't hold Valve responsible for every bad Early Access apple—The Stomping Land was abandoned suddenly, for example, although the also-derelict Towns came up through Steam Greenlight. Although the flexibility of Early Access allows it to accommodate a variety of development approaches, it's clear that Valve could be doing more: More to filter who is accepted into Early Access. More to encourage or nudge games who have taken years to exit Early Access. And a lot more to enforce the rules and guidelines it's established.

Valve has allowed Early Access to become something of a genre.

The text of these rules is private to Steam developers, who are not allowed to distribute them. I obtained a full copy of the rules. The document does confirm that Valve vets each project (though seemingly just its marketing language and visual assets) before granting approval. "Once your product page has been completed and reviewed by Valve, you may release your title as Early Access," the text reads. But what's missing from that more than 2,000 words of boundaries and advice is any mention of what consequences developers face by breaking rules. No mention is given to the possibility of being banned, having a product removed, or even less extreme sanctions. My sense is that, if Valve is in fact policing Early Access games behind the scenes, it prefers to give itself room to treat each case individually. But as written, there's no sense that breaking Early Access rules will result in anything more than a stern email. What message does that send developers about who has ownership over this program?

Valve did intercede in May 2014, pulling Earth: Year 2066 from Early Access and offering refunds. "Steam does require honesty from developers in the marketing of their games. We have removed Earth: Year 2066 from Early Access on Steam."

Valve did intercede in May 2014, pulling Earth: Year 2066 from Early Access and offering refunds. "Steam does require honesty from developers in the marketing of their games. We have removed Earth: Year 2066 from Early Access on Steam."

From this document, it's clear that Valve is comfortable with Early Access as a highly inclusive program. "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," the rules begin. "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," it continues. 

I think Valve's desire for Early Access to be a one-size-fits-everyone label does create confusion. Because the same 'under construction' label is applied to each project, the burden is placed on the player to research and understand the exact state of the game, interpret the developer's roadmap, and dig up other nuances that distinguish the often radically different approaches of Early Access developers. "We work really hard to make sure that customers understand what they are buying when they get an Early Access title on Steam," a preamble to the Early Access rules reads. I think the opposite is true: there's no subcategorization between a pre-alpha experiment and a nearly-finished technical test, for example. A visualization of how many updates the game has received over time is one feature that could help players the history of the project at a glance.

Valve has allowed Early Access to become something of a genre on Steam. It's almost treated this way within the Steam store, barely separated from sections like Action and Strategy, and adjacent to Free to Play as a category. There's a suggestion there that Early Access is a type of gaming experience: the opportunity to get in on the ground floor, the chance to see something in its primordial state and influence its evolution. Increasingly, it's an experience I think many PC gamers would say is unpleasant and uncertain.

Tom and I talked about the merits and pitfalls of Early Access last year.

But it has produced many successes. Darkest Dungeon is my favorite PC game of 2016. Some of Klei's best work was born under the Early Access banner. Offworld Trading Company, Divinity: Original Sin, Infinifactory, RimWorld, and Kerbal (although it took two years to exit) come to mind as some of the best graduates. And of the 10 most-played games on Steam right now, four are current or former Early Access games.

I believe that Early Access is a net positive for Steam and for PC gaming. The PC isn't one-form-fits-all platform, and I want developers to have freedom to release games in different states. I want studios to be able to make changes to games a year before release, rather than months after it. For now, the future of Early Access feels jeopardized by those who, intentionally or not, abuse the spirit of the program. Valve must do more to protect the future of this vital aspect of Steam.