Posted by Rampant Coyote on February 6, 2014
When I complained about “Early Access” games a month ago – games that are released (and sold) to the public in an unfinished state, I neglected one of the critical aspects of gaming that it impacts.
The only thing I can figure, like the reviewer, is updating the review to match the development of the game. But who has time for this? Especially if it wasn’t fun on initial release. There are gazillions of new games released every week, and they can all use reviews. I don’t want reviewers stuck re-reviewing the same game every two months.
In theory, I think early releases are a great thing. Customers may have to deal with software being less stable and mature, but in return get to help drive development, and (hopefully) get it at a discounted price. Win / win right? And the software gets treated – at least for a while – as “live” development, constantly being improved. I’m used to regular updates of Windows, Unity, Blender, and other software. That’s a decent way for software to work, right?
To be fair, I think that’s how many (if not most) game developers honestly think of it, too.
But in practice, too often this system gets abused. It’s an opportunity to crank up the old “release it broken, and patch it later” cycle to eleven. But now – a studio without much of a reputation to risk can collect half the revenue for a game up-front with only 25% of the work. All you need is some clever marketing, pretty pictures, and something a little cooler than a tech demo. (Oh, did I just describe the majority of Kickstarter game projects as well?) Maybe they even go into it with good intentions, but as the pre-order revenue dries up and they realize they aren’t going to make the kind of money they’d expected for this game, it becomes easier just to quietly taper off development, rename the studio, and move on to bigger and better things.
I think if we could solve the review problem, it would help. It would behoove studios to make sure that what they release is worthy of a good review. It would probably encourage studios to release a game only when it was far closer to completion, and has received some major polish efforts.
Some guidelines I’d like to suggest to reviewers:
1. Having “Early Access” reviews specially marked as “Work in Progress” (WIP) reviews might help – an obvious, impossible-to-miss visual indicator. This would at least clue in readers that there’s a difference – and risk – when comparing a commercially available work-in-progress to an actual “released” game. Obviously, both may undergo changes, but part of the rating / recommendation for the WIP would be based on its potential and promise, as opposed to what’s actually there. The former is a guess – the latter is far harder to deliver (and easier to criticize) and should count for more, if only by differentiation.
But really – an “early access” WIP games request a different set of standards than a finished game – always adding the caveat that it’s still in full development and may improve substantially over time. I think reviews need to acknowledge that, and make it very clear that they are operating under much softer standards than a full release.
2. While doing constant updates to a review for an early access / commercially available work-in-progress, minor updates – a “delta” to show how things are going – could be in order. If things seem to be really improving, maybe a “+” or “++” could be appended to the score. If things do not seem to be improving over time, a “-” could be appended – again, with potential comments. In my view, a game that hasn’t been updated (or only received a “token” update) in three months should earn an automatic “–” suffix. Exceptions may be granted , but it seems like a game that is still “in development” and ready enough to be sold to people should be able to have updates once a quarter.
3. Possibly provide two scores or recommendations for WIP games. One would be for the game as it stands at the time of the review, and the other would be the guess as to likely deliverable value. The first one would be more important, as it is what the player might be stuck with should the developer stop development and never produce another update (always a possibility).
My biggest concern overall is that we’re going to end up with a barren indie wasteland of incomplete games, and customers suspicious of indies who never finish their jobs.
On the flip side, I think developers who continually update and improve their products after their official “release” deserve plenty of praise. It’s easy to come down on them and say, “You should have fixed this before release,” but I think most of us are tech-savvy enough to understand that there’s no such thing as perfect software, and every release has its share of surprises – sometimes bad. But the ones that keep fixing and improving their software – for free – deserve praise.
Ultimately, I guess what I am calling for is sticky reputations for developers. A dev with a good rep deserves the benefit of the doubt with early releases, crowd-funding efforts, and so forth. A developer without any track record should be viewed with suspicion. And any developer who has screwed up in the past and not made a good faith effort to make things right by their customers should have a lot of repentance to do in order to escape their reputation. And really – game journalism is where these kinds of reputations (or lack thereof) can be applied.
Filed Under: Biz - Comments: 8 Comments to Read