Earlier this week I picked up a copy of Starbound, which should not be an unusual transaction in any way, except that the game isn’t actually done. Not by a long shot. Starbound — built directly from the DNA of games like Minecraft and Terraria — is, like many of its modern brethren, a game that is made available to buyers through Early Access, allowing players to have and play the game now, even though it is not technically finished.
It seems like a win-win situation. Instead of just pre-ordering and providing developers (or retailers, more specifically) money for the promise of a someday game, you get an immediate benefit. You even get the opportunity to watch how a game is built, refined and developed, and it’s all above board, because you go into the transaction knowing you’re getting something incomplete. The developer, on the other hand, gets the money they need to stay in business and keep developing, but they also get broad feedback that can improve the finished result.
And, of course, there’s no reason to buy an Early Access game if you’re not into that kind of thing. Just wait until the thing is released, and you’ll have months worth of direct gamer feedback to sift through to make the decision whether it’s the game for you or not.
Everyone should be happy, and yet there does seem to be this tinge of controversy to the practice. There are a lot of different ways to view the motivations behind releasing your game for Early Access, from the way it's priced, to quibbles over the semantics of an "alpha" versus a "beta," to concerns that this will be seen by publishers as a way to entice consumers to pay for beta opportunities that used to be both exclusive and free.
And, as is often the case in the gaming community, a lot of those perspectives view the industry trend with cynicism and distrust.