Three years ago, Valve started up a program called Steam Early Access, wherein developers could sell unfinished versions of their title to the gaming public. Ostensibly, the goal of this program was to showcase video game concepts and develop them into full-fledged titles with feedback from the community. Though the goal of Early Access sounds pretty innocent on paper, the result is that Steam has become a dumping ground for skeletal indie media.
How could this be? Surely the game developers who release games on Steam Early Access intend to finish them at some point? Yes, but that “some point” can be anywhere from seven months to over a year, according to a study conducted by the video game research firm EEDAR. The study, conducted in March 2016 (the last year for which data was available) concludes that while more Early Access games tend pass the finish line these days, gamers still have to wait long stretches of time for them to finish baking.
The real problem, though, isn’t that players might have to wait around for Early Access games to become complete titles (although that’s annoying too). The problem is that developers have no accountability toward their customers for actually finishing a game on time. Sure, developers can stencil out a projected release date (and often do in the Steam Early Access information blurb) but it’s not uncommon to see that date delayed time and time again.
A classic example of this phenomenon in action is the standalone release of DayZ, a title that started out as a mod for ARMA 2. The Early Access version of DayZ launched in December of 2013, and though developer Bohemia Interactive has promised otherwise, progress on the title remains glacial. The game’s been out for nearly four years and it’s still a rough alpha. The sluggish pace at which Bohemia is developing the title has led to it getting review-bombed on Steam, and rightfully so. Customers have no other means of recourse when an Early Access title misses its deadline, and DayZ is hardly the only offender in that regard.
To be fair to these developers, game development can be an arduous process and devs are allowed to change the scope of their project, but Steam offers no incentive (or punishment) for these teams to hold to the word they put on their Steam store page. They have no impetus for sticking to the plan (that is, when they do have a plan) they put forth except the threat of getting negative reviews on Steam. Sure, negative reviews are a pain, but they aren’t a punishment. They certainly aren’t legally binding. Because Valve doesn’t require a dev’s strict assurance that a game will come out of Early Access on time, the Steam store has become flooded with unfinished media that will be finished… at some point in the future.
In order to reverse its storefront having become an Early Access junkyard, Valve needs to suspend its laissez-faire attitude toward quality control and implement some sort of penalty or disclaimer system for Early Access developers who miss their deadlines. Maybe put a stamp on the store page that says “hey, these dudes done goofed their release date, just FYI.” Steam’s refund system has somewhat helped gamers gain retribution, but that doesn’t solve the larger problem of unfinished media lingering on the storefront. Only Valve can implement a fix for that problem, and they need to do it soon. This issue will only become more dire as more Early Access games release.