As we develop games we normally go through several phases of development. These phases are:
- An alpha build is a rough concept of the game. Your game is not stable and still being worked on, missing features and critical holes need to be fixed.
- A beta build has all expected features to be completed but still has minor issues. You may opt to offer a closed-beta or open-beta format to get end user feedback.
- A release candidate is the final product meant for players. Everything is polished and looking like gold.
When I say closed vs open is whether there is barrier to entry for access. This barrier might be a generated code, invitation or something else limiting access.
My understanding of Early Access is you are monetizing your pre-release candidate builds to help fund your project. This also means you're either providing an open-alpha or open-beta of your game.
The way I’ve seen Early Access used in the Indie Game Developer space is usually a way to gain some funding while getting feedback from their players to help tune their games features.
Personally, when I see Early Access as a developer, I see it as a way to iterate my idea and get a pulse on what is or isn’t working. As a consumer, I want to support my project before release to finalize anything that might be wrong to be polished and I’m ok with that.
In my mind there are two games that challenge the idea of Early Access and what does it mean for development. They are Star Citizen and No Man’s Sky. Personally, I have not played either of these games, however, I have talked with friends about them each and read the headlines about them as well.
In the case of Star Citizen, as of 5/26/2020, they are still in Early Access. They have been in alpha since 2011, and because of increased funding they are still in alpha adding more and more features.
In the case of No Man’s Sky it was released in 2016, without Early Access. The news around the game now from fans is that where it’s at today is where the game should have been 4 years ago. Throughout that time, they have been iterating and adding new features to the game to provide better value for the player.
In the case of No Man’s Sky I saw a release candidate, they got to a feature complete game with no bugs that could be released, however all features were not developed. For Star Citizen, they are expanding the scope of their project yet still calling it alpha and still have outstanding bugs to be addressed.
Is it fair to say that No Man’s Sky although it was a released game, was really in Early Access to achieve funding and feedback from players to create a better experience? Or to say Star Citizen is really in an alpha build if they are in Early Access for over 9 years?
In my mind it boils down to this question: Is Early Access a way just for monetization or is it really a change in our process in how we develop and get feedback?