The Dangers of Playing in Unfinished Houses: Considering Early Access Video Games
Playing a game in its alpha or beta form is like living in an unfinished house; it's habitable, but some things seem off or don't work or might get better (or worse).
I've participated in beta tests off and on for many years. Back in the day, I participated in betas for games like Diablo II, Asheron's Call, and the digital CCG Sanctum. In more recent years, I've participated in beta tests for some high profile and much lower profile MMOs and MOBAs.
Beta testing is a curious experience. To commit to testing a game is motivated by any number of desires: sometimes it's the desire to just try something out that sounds interesting; sometimes it's a desire to see a product get finished and improved that you feel some affinity towards; and some desire to “help out” with getting something you want to play to market.
However, if you take the process seriously, it isn't always fun. Filing bug reports and attempting to replicate perceived glitches and problems isn't exactly “playing” a game. It isn't entirely unrelated to the mindset of gaming aficionados, of course, since anyone who identifies as a hardcore gamer tends to be driven by an interest in systems, how systems interact, what mechanisms make systems work, and what the results of breaking systems can be. It's how we game systems, and gaming systems can be fun. However, this meta-process can often feel more like work than play.
Playing early access games often feels like beta testing. Playing a game in its alpha or beta form is like living in an unfinished house. I mean, it's habitable, but some things seem off or don't work or might get better (or worse) eventually. However, you're paying for the privilege of working (or playing) within an unfinished system. You're gonna have to live there.
Motivations for doing so may be quite similar to those that define the interests of beta testers. You want to see what a game is like. You want this thing that you think that you will probably like get finished. But, again, you're paying to participate in the process of getting it working, so its a bit of a risk.
It's hard for me to think of other mediums that have an equivalent experience. It's hard to imagine someone selling tickets to a movie that is about 75 percent filmed with no special effects added and none of the sound editing done. But then again movies aren't a medium in which the audience will ultimately manipulate the product, or will be interacting with it directly. Games are something that you will ultimately play with by “working on it” yourself in any case, and this may help the process of testing pieces of it make more sense and even become a source of pleasure.
As a games reviewer, though, these unfinished works create a bit of a problem. Anything that I receive in terms of a review copy from a publisher these days that has the phrase “Early Access” attached to it becomes a complicated consideration for “review”. How does one review something that's in process?
I've had good experiences with early access games. I've played games that I feel strongly about advocating for even in their unfinished form. Darkest Dungeon was an exceptionally refined game when I played it in early access. A whole chunk of the end game was absent, but since it was roguelike, focusing less on getting through a plotline and more on mastering a game's systems, the game, as it stood, with most of those systems in place and in pretty good working order, felt like it was ready to play despite not being able to enter the darkest regions of its darkest dungeon.
Likewise, I really enjoyed my time in early access with The Flame in the Flood, a roguelike survival adventure, whose plot was entirely absent when I started playing it. However, as a game that focuses on building and crafting resources to make the survival of its protagonist possible, the situations that its web of interconnected systems created were ultimately more interesting than the game with its full story mode in place.
However, I find myself feeling quite stuck while playing a review copy of the early access version of We Happy Few, a game I got excited about just a month or two ago when I first saw its trailer at E3. Like Darkest Dungeon and The Flame in the Flood, We Happy Few is also roguelike, so its unfinished plot shouldn't be something that necessarily bothers me in terms of evaluating what the game is centrally all about. However, the intersection of its various systems in its present form seem much less polished than those other two games, which is not to say that the game is necessarily bad, but it might or it might not.
Considering games in this state is tautological in nature. Do they have potential? Of course. Do they have the potential to go wrong? Of course.
This leaves me with only the ability to describe the game and what it does and what systems seem like they might have balance issues within them or don't feel quite that fun yet, but I can't say that they will remain that way and I can't say that they won't. I can describe some sense of who I think would like the game, who it feels right for, but I can't say whether or not that audience will ultimately be happy with the final product. It's just slightly underdeveloped right now.
We Happy Few, for example, feels like a game like Dark Souls in a weird way. Not because it's a brutally difficult hack-and-slash game about the immediacy of death and the tension that creates in a player, but because the game world feels something like a Dark Souls game in that it doesn't really hold your hand that much. It's a game that requires you to go into its world somewhat blind and will only really become fulfilling once you try some things out, get a feel for how things work, and probably end up learning most things through initial failures. However, is that the game that We Happy Few ultimately will be? I don't know.
Maybe there are layers of tutorial that are still missing from the game, but that will be added during the game's time in early access or maybe in full release. However, maybe it will remain as it is, a game that makes you struggle early on, learn more on your own early on. In that case, yes, maybe I can recommend it to Dark Souls players on that basis, at least. However, maybe that's not the case. Hell, maybe the developers don't know yet. Maybe they will make a decision about what level of tutorial the game needs over the next few months as they get feedback from players.
Ultimately, I'm left with this tautological response to We Happy Few. Is the game good right now? To me, no. Is it bad right now? To me, no. It isn't average, though, either. All of these things are true. What I know is that it isn't quite fun to play yet because its systems seem like they need some balancing. In this survival/exploration game, one spends too much time circling back to maintain one's survival needs to really get into exploring much. Will this get better? Sure, maybe. Will it get worse? Sure, maybe. It's too early to say.
Which brings me back to the troubling nature of selling the consumer on early access or trying to inform the consumer about an early access product. Yes, I have more information about the game than a potential player that has only seen trailers or seen screenshots or read previews of We Happy Few, but that information doesn't necessarily translate into more insight about it.
The interesting thing about early access is that those who have crunched the sales figures surrounding these types of games have found that most early access games sell best on their first release, the early access release, not on their actual full release. If that is the case, then maybe the only insight I really have on who the audience is for early access games is those that like to play in unfinished houses.