We’ve recently started a series called Early Edition where we cover Early Access games on Steam. First was Betrayer, a promising and deliciously stylized game about a missing colony in 1604. Second was a MOBA called SmashMuck Champions with a fresh, accessible twist on what it usually means to play a MOBA. Next will be, well, I don’t really know.
Normally these are just called previews, which are strangely hairy creatures to begin with. Previews are basically objective journalism getting roped into the marketing cycle. And for the most part, they all end with the same blurb of optimistic ambiguity: this game has problems but it shows potential. You’re probably as tired reading it as we are writing it.
That’s because we’re looking at an unfinished game. We can’t make a finalistic comment of any sort since the product we’re being shown is far from final as well, but putting a gavel down on an alpha or beta or what-have-you build of a game is dangerous because that’s not how consumers read or watch our coverage. That disclaimer that we’re covering an incomplete product often goes unnoticed, or they’ve become numb to its meaning. Hence the hedging conclusions.
Previews, however, do get a pass from our journalistic morality because it’s a build that only industry folk can access. We, at the time of playing and writing things, are talking about games that don’t yet exist for consumers. We are giving our opinions on products that no one can spend money on, so talking positively or negatively about them don’t have immediate sway.
Early Access games, however, are a different beast altogether for precisely that reason. If the developer so chooses, they can charge money for the game via Steam as if it were a finished product. In fairness, they have to disclaim the varying levels of completeness right on the page itself, albeit only for usability purposes: checkmarks for languages in the interface, the audio, and the subtitles. As for the content, though, that’s all up in the air.
Of course, the giant blue banner above the purchase button does spell out the risks rather plainly, which is to say “get involved with this game as it develops.” Attached is a blurb from the developer about the state of the game. In Betrayer‘s case, they “hope to rely on community feedback” to balance exploration and exposition, to “reinforce the game’s strengths and shore up its flaws.” For Audiosurf 2, “community feedback will shape it into the best game it can be.”
And that’s all fine and dandy save for the fact that they’re still charging money for it, and that muddies the waters in terms of coverage. Writing up impressions on an unfinished game is, by and large, what qualifies whether or not it’s a preview. But covering a paid product is a review, and reviews must give the preview’s missing finality in surplus. Reviews exist to suggest whether a consumer should consider paying for or totally ignore a product.
So where does an Early Access game fit in? They cost money (or can cost money, anyways) but they are also unfinished. In this case, I don’t believe there is any hedging. If money is on the line, we have to approach coverage with the same diligence as if they were reviews. From here on out, you can consider Early Edition pieces to be that oft missing finalistic say of an Early Access product.
That is to say, however, in the moment. If we cover v0.4 and then v0.5 comes out, our opinions only apply to v0.4 and not v0.5, v0.8, the first release build, or any patched versions after that. Of course, that can change, but this seems to be the right call for now. This is one giant disclaimer that while not reviews, Early Edition pieces will be fiscal recommendation that we stand by on a version-by-version basis.