Early Access: The Next Pay-to-Win

Yesterday we had a good discussion about pay-to-win strategies and how gaming companies are starting to slowly back off of the “whale-model.”  We also noted that the pay-to-win or else you have to grind model is also inherently flawed as it fractures the game into how it was meant to be played and how some people are forced or opt into playing depending on which side you’re on. Now I want to talk a little bit about something that I think is starting to replace the pay wall model: Early access.

Early access is a fascinating thing. There’s a degree of marketing genius behind getting someone to actually crave and desire to buy a game before it is completed. Money today is worth more than money tomorrow according to all those finance classes I tried to sleep through in college. We as gamers always want in on the ground level. If a game is ready to play now then we want it right this second. We’re also inherently wanting to be the best.

Is this almost a basic form of pay-to-win? On one hand they’ve simply moved up the date of the game and gotten you to pay to stress test.  On the other hand, if this is a F2P game then they’ve gotten you to willingly pay-to-play or in this case… we might even consider that winning. What’s even more ridiculous is that they’ll get us to pay a price way beyond what we might ever even pay in the cash shop.

I am 100% leading the pack face first into this one. I pay for early access all the time!  I would -never- spend $100 in a F2P game’s cash shop, but I’ll drop $100 to access an alpha for a game I’m anticipating. I’m either well within my right of exchanging value for value, or I’m insane. I think a little bit of both.  Either way, I have payed to–some degree–win.

This entire early access model is going to fall flat fairly quick. What’s happening is that the majority of the industry is becoming frustrated by games never finishing. The incentive to finish a project seems to wane when you no longer have to make sure you’re working hard to develop a product people want to buy–they’ve already purchased it after all. I still have early access cash tied up in 3-4 games that may never see completion. Am I pissed off? Ehhh no. I knew the risk, I played them for many hours already and could justify that for the price of admission alone, but gamers are wising up.

Just like with F2p/P2W models, gamers are expressing their dissatisfaction and unwillingness to accept shoddy craftsmanship. Early access will be no exception here. Regardless of your “business model” (and however hard you try to turn your game into a business), if you can’t make an amazing game you will fail. The market will catch up with every model eventually and demand quality.

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bhagpuss - July 15, 2014

I think Early Access is either going to need some very careful handling or it’s going to end up hurting developers more than it helps them. If they can time the “Early” part so that the crazed and the curious actually access something worth playing then it can be a win-win for devs and players. If they keep on opening the doors before they’ve even painted the sets let alone hired the actors or written the script then they’ve only themselves to blame if no-one turns up on the real opening night.

JJ Robinson - July 15, 2014

There is definitely an over abundance of Early Access offers in the market today and probably coming in the near future. In some cases, I don’t view it as that bad. Especially if a game is already close or fairly close to a finished product. Stress testing servers is a good thing in the long run. Sure, it may piss me off if my week “head start” is only up for 3 days, but if the game is good I’ll get over that pretty quickly.

But, it’s my take that early access for kickstarter and indie games could end up back firing. Those types of games usually have limited devs, so the products need more testing and take longer to finish. No one really wants to play a half finished game, or even a broken one, despite what they might claim. Worse even, the devs could be highly influence to make unexpected changes to cater to kickstarters, which either changes the intended game altogether, or delays the game in the long run.

It’s a classic catch-22 but as more purchasers get burnt, the less likely they will be to buy Early Access.

imem - July 15, 2014

What is your definition of pay to win? Because it doesn’t seem to match up with this definition from Urban Dictionary:
“Games that let you buy better gear or allow you to make better items then everyone else at a faster rate and then makes the game largely unbalanced even for people who have skill in the game without paying.”

Not sure how a game like LOTRO fits in with that definition. Are you saying Pay to Win is needing to buy anything off the store to progress in the game? Like having to buy quest packs in LOTRO?

John - July 15, 2014

I will never pay money for early access in a f2p game, except if this early access comes along with a bundle of items from the shop that will cost the same or more money when the game goes live. From the other hand I will pre-order a subscription game for early access and guaranteed beta access.

nukethesitefromorbit - July 15, 2014

I still hold to my belief that EA is a perfect fit for only certain types of games. While I may have bought EA for something like Wasteland 2 I have only played it a handful of times and that was to see how the mechanics of the game were handling. I paid no attention to story. Games like Project Zomboid, Starbound, 7 Days to Die, Minecraft… these are games that fit perfectly into EA and can actually benefit from enthusiastic players who can come up with great ideas developers may not have thought of themselves.

The problem I see with EA is when games that are more story driven start to adopt the model. There is no reason a game like Tomb Raider or Watch Dogs should be EA and I can not see myself ever paying extra for something like that.

Tristan - July 15, 2014

Both cash shop and early access represent a form of what economists call price discrimination– that is, charging different consumers different prices for roughly the same product. Obviously this isn’t the place to explain the technical details, but the bottom line is that companies can generate more revenue if they can find a way to charge the people who have the highest “willingness-to-pay” at a higher rate than everyone else.

One theory I have is that as price discrimination through cash shop became less socially acceptable (there is the “ick” factor due to its proximity to P2W), publishers substitute in price discrimination in the form of early access.

solarbear - July 15, 2014

I refuse to pay for Early Access. In the past I might have, but my current experiences tell me that products are very unfinished even at launch and the content is seldom worth playing twice. I even skip beta unless characters will be kept. However, I could see some real benefits for helping declmp people when the game releases. I admit I might not represent the market. 10 years ago I might have paid and not thought twice.

qyte - July 15, 2014

It has been so long that something “new” came along with quality in the package that it is exactly that which the early access tries to bail on. Unfortunately MMOs need quality of at least medium in EVERY single department with some of them to excel at. It is truly something not as easy as it may seem at first.
Both developers and consumers alike need to understand that.

Rawblin - July 15, 2014

Subscription only, and no early access. That is my perfect world.

I do not enjoy a sub model with an added cash shop. Especially if that cash shop is “only vanity items”. Screw you devs. Those vanity items should be something people MAKE in the game. Or at least EARN in the game. Take a chance for once, instead of being greedy bastards and trying to make people just BUY the shiny thing, give them the ability to PLAY THE GAME FOR EXTENDED PERIODS OF TIME and get the shiny things. Trade the shiny things with each other. Make an economy of it. Craft the shiny things.


I have to go now, this stuff really is too depressing these days. Dev’s can’t think long-term anymore, and it drives me nuts.

Cora - July 17, 2014

I bought some of the early access games too, but I no longer do. Getting early access is cool and fun for the first few tries, but after that it got old quickly for me. These games aren’t finished and it shows. It’s a shame really, I often see great looking games on Steam get my hopes up only to be disappointed when I find the Early Access banner. I might put them on my wishlist but I wont buy any of them until they’re done.

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