Early access game programs are tricky because there’s no definitive line as to when they are and are not appropriate; They fall into a gray area. An early access program can make perfect sense for certain titles whereas for others, no so much. Minecraft I suppose, would be the natural example of an early release title that has succeeded to almost an extreme extent, I would say mostly in part to it being on a continuous development cycle. Though it had a hard release date separating the full release of Minecraft from the alpha and beta, it’s just one of those games that receives regular updates that adds game content beyond the standard bug fix patch.
So, for games like Minecraft, games that have developers who are transparent about the state of their game, what is planned for it, when updates will be released, and so forth, early access programs are great and make a lot of sense. However, for every jewel, there has to be at least a dozen games with frustratingly slow updates or worse yet, games that seem to completely stall out once they receive their initial influx of cash. It is within those types of titles that the problem lies. Overall, using an unfinished game as a business strategy concerns me and I feel that it sets a bad precedent as it can and well, to be honest has, created the opportunity to use early access programs as a means for lazy funding. At worse, it can be abused as a blatant cash grab ala The War Z scandal.
I feel that retailers who have early access programs, need to be more apparent the a game is in pre-release and that the consumer is purchasing a title that is not yet complete. For example, DLC releases on Steam have a purple colored tag on the upper left corner of the game portrait. This tag is visible when viewing games on the front page and makes it fairly easy to see that a particular title is downloadable content and not a standalone game. It would be nice if early access games had something similar.
I do not think that a game developer or publisher should treat or advertise and early release title as if it were complete; That’s just…deception. I also feel that at the very least, a rough timeline if planned releases and what not should be added for the consumer’s benefit. It would also be nice to have some way of filtering out all early release games from the store. It just feels kind of shitty, in my personal opinion, when most of the games on the front page of Steam are early access titles; Lastly, a title that has been posted for early release should be fair game for reviews. Lastly, a title that has been posted for early release should be fair game for reviews. If you feel that your game is presentable and playable enough to the point where you are willing to charge the general public to download and play it, then you should be ready to accept any criticism, whether the actual game is finished or not.
There really isn’t anything wrong with offering a game for early release per se, so long as the developer/publisher is transparent about the state at which the game is being released in as well as with overall development progress. Ultimately, consumers do have the power to choose what they do and do not want to buy, early access release games included. Don’t want to play a game that’s not 100% finished? Well, there’s really nothing forcing you to. And to that extent, as long as it isn’t outright deception, I really have a difficult time feeling too bad for anyone who gets burned buying into a flopped early release. As a general rule of thumb, take a look at the status of the game that you are thinking of purchasing. If you would not be satisfied should development on the title suddenly halt, then you may want to reconsider your purchase.
There is certainly a risk that a sub-par game will be released or that the game project will be abandoned altogether; There have already been several cases in which this has happened. But that sort of risk is in the nature of buying a product before it has been finished. If you don’t like it, don’t support it or at the very least, do your homework on the studio and the progress of the game before dishing out cash. Also remember: You still do have the option of waiting for a more complete and polished product to be released. It boils down to patience I suppose.