Like many of you, I've been playing video games for about as long as I could sit up and hold a controller. I was fortunate enough to start PC gaming in the very early days and was just the right age during the Golden Age of PC Gaming (roughly '97 - '05) where I had the freedom of time found only in youth and willful unemployment but had the cognition of a young adult. Back in the early days of PC gaming, many small game developers would kill to get someone half way competent to give their game a try and were often so desperate they would settle for handing a partially finished game to a 13 or 14 year old kid like me just to get some feedback and find hard to find bugs that would only surface after hours of play testing. Fast forward 17 years and indie developers who funded their game by begging for your cash on crowdfunding sites are now charging you for the privilege of beta testing their buggy, partially complete game for them. How times have changed.
Despite any opinion I may have, the situation is clear; if you offer something for sale and someone is willing to pay for it, complete or otherwise, the practice will continue. And boy are people willing to pay! DayZ sold 1 million copies in just the first month alone and still sits in alpha nearly a year and a half later, nowhere near complete by conventional standards. Yet, people paid $30 of their hard earned money for a game still in early alpha, barely playable, lacking most of its intended final feature set, and buggy as all hell where the main draw consisted of wandering around for hours on end while avoiding near harmless zombies only to be handcuffed and force fed disinfectant by another player and start all over again. After covering the 30% of all game sales Valve gets on the Steam platform, Bohemia Interactive, the maker of DayZ made $21 million dollars in the first month of Early Access. Thinking back to the early days of PC gaming, I would have never anticipated that people would be willing to pay to perform what amounts to slave labor and potentially help someone else make that type of money.
To be honest, I generally have no issue with any arrangement where both parties consent and Early Access is no exception. If you want to pay for an unfinished game and burn yourself out before the game is even "released", go right ahead. To me, the practice just seems wrong. I test all sorts of software for a living, games included, so there really no way you are going to convince me to shell out to spend more time working but that likely isn't a problem for most gamers. From a Product Management and Publisher perspective, however, Early Access has a number of flaws. Marathon gamers will often play an early build for hours on end, burn out and never touch the game again even after the full featured polished final product has released. Their last memory of your product will be a buggy mess when they see your next project hit the shelves or feel outright cheated and never consider another one of your projects again. My experience with an early Beta of Path of Exile comes to mind. About 2 hours in, I hit a game breaking bug where a quest item didn't drop and I had no way to progress without starting completely over. I was angry. My friends moved on and I never really caught up so quit playing. Thankfully the game creator, Grinding Gear Games, launched with an ethical free to play monetization where the part so you for are simply accessories to the game, so I eventually picked it back up and didn't feel like anyone was taking advantage of my, or other players, good will.
Some people, myself included, view the practice as somewhat predatory, particularly when payment for Early Access costs more than the final price of the game. Why not give a discount? They are helping the developer succeed after all so charging MORE not LESS seems near criminal. As I said before, if people will pay, the practice continues. Another issue arises in that a number of users won't fully understand the concept and will think they are buying a complete game or conversely, know what they are getting into but don't have a deep enough understanding of development cycles to know the final product is a long way off, sometimes several years or not at all. With the Day Z example above the publisher makes it absolutely clear what you are getting but publishers don't make it as obvious. Both factors could negatively influence the future viability of your products and frustrate players/users. Personally, I will simply wait for everyone else to test it for me and then spend $10 less when the game hits full release.
The jury is still out on another important aspect; does Early Access testing actually result in a better quality final product? My gut instinct says no using the many failures of well funded Kickstarter projects as an example of how end users don't always know what they want and can influence your final product in a bad direction. Open Source software, on the other hand, does not show these issues. Open Source projects with high adoption rates often meet very high quality standards, though the process of getting there can take years and multiple community driven rewrites of major features. Judging by the many Early Access games popping up on Steam, we will likely get better evidence and case studies soon.
Criticisms aside, the arrangement can be beneficial for everyone involved as long as people understand the premise. Much like the Open Source community, players get a chance to be part of the creation process. They get to give feedback, suggest features, and watch the game evolve over successive builds. Developers gets their code tested by hundreds, thousands, or even millions of real world users and get a much needed injection of cash to help actually finish the game where they otherwise may not. For small indie devs, an injection of cash can mean the difference between, not releasing at all, a small limited feature game, and a best seller. Additionally, developers become less risk avers resulting in cool, new, and novel games instead of rehashing the same played out concepts over and over and over again often associated with big budget AAA publisher titles. Without Early Access, the world likely wouldn't have seen a number of mega hit over the last few years, including Minecraft, which as anyone with a tween or young teen can attest, continues to be an undeniable success.
So how can a developer or QA team achieve maximum benefit while minimizing the negative? Timing and alternative monetization is the key. Using my experience with Path of Exile as a case study, if I had paid for the game I would be pissed and never touch the game again. With an ethical free to play strategy however, I came back and enjoyed what became a fantastic game by the time it was out of Alpha and Beta phases. If users don't feel cheated and feel that they are gaining something, they will support the product, game breaking bugs and all. Timing can be just as important as monetization strategy. If players are going to pay to test, make sure they are getting their money's worth. Releasing in early alpha yields pissed off players in all but the most viral games like DayZ where the issues and bugs are part of what caused the game to go big in the first place. Instead, wait until the product hits a beta ready state and use players to polish what is otherwise a feature complete game. Also consider an Early Access pre-order where users are first in line to use your product or play your game if they pay up front but won't get a negative opinion from being exposed to early buggy builds. The concept can work for non-gaming software as well. For more "traditional software", consider making an arrangement with your early adopters where they agree to purchase the software and provide feedback in exchange for a massive discount and a good support agreement or provide a sliding scale SaaS model where early adopters gain some benefit or temporary price break. This type of "Customer Zero" arrangement works especially well with expensive SaaS software or service websites like subscription or premium content sites.
Love it or hate it, doesn't matter. Early Access will exist as long as enough people continue to pay. Its up to individuals and organizations to decide if the technique provides benefit to their software.