Remember Earth: Year 2066? It was $20 on Early Access until Valve pulled the plug on it in early May because the game was such a train wreck. The War Z suffered a similar fate in 2012. Both games were high-profile examples of the risks of Early Access (opens in new tab), and yet neither resulted in any immediate changes to the system. But Valve has recently, and rather quietly, updated its Early Access FAQ to note that things can, and will, go wrong.
"It's up to the developer to determine when they are ready to 'release'. Some developers have a concrete deadline in mind, while others will get a better sense as the development of the game progresses," the FAQ states. "You should be aware that some teams will be unable to 'finish' their game. So you should only buy an Early Access game if you are excited about playing it in its current state."
It used to be that developers made a game, tested the game and then released the game for sale to the public. The advent of Early Access on Steam has brought about some pretty fundamental changes to that formula. These days, game makers can opt to offer their creation long before it's ready for release, giving fans a chance to support the development process and get in on the action early. In the right light it's easy to see Early Access as an "everybody wins" situation, but it can go sideways rather dramatically when the promised launch never actually happens.
As VentureBeat notes, this is a rather dramatic change from the FAQ as it existed last month, which said that a game's release date would be posted on its store page if it was known but made no mention of the possibility of it going unfinished.
"The changes to the FAQ are intended to help set customer expectations of what may or may not happen over the course of development of an Early Access game. We frequently iterate on Steam features as we gather feedback and find areas for improvement," Valve Marketing Director Doug Lombardi told the site. "In this case, it became apparent that further clarification would help customers evaluate their potential purchase of Early Access titles. We think of Steam, Early Access, and game development as services that grow and evolve best with the involvement of customers and the community."
Clarification is good, but I'm inclined to think that Early Access should be treated the same way as Kickstarter when it comes to throwing money at it: Do so carefully and at your own risk. There's a big difference between paying money for a thing, and paying money for the promise of a thing that doesn't actually exist yet.