Early Access: When to Spend

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Within the next week, two games I’ve been watching closely are releasing on Steam Early Access: Rimworld, and Dead Age. Out of curiosity, I decided to check out how many Early Access games are currently in my library and was surprised to see how small the number actually was (when you consider the full size of my Steam library, we’re looking at less than 3%). Of course, that number doesn’t take into account other games that I bought while they were still in Early Access that have since released, or the time I bought a game that was later cancelled.

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There’s a lot of controversy over Early Access in general – developers have been known to use it as a quick cash grab – delivering a product that’s barely more than a demo, and then ceasing development altogether for one reason or another.  According to Wikipedia, only three Early Access games were officially cancelled, but that doesn’t take into account abandoned games that will likely never see a full release, or games like Spacebase DF-9 that were sent off into the world but fell far short of the developer’s original plan.

Some people choose never to invest any time or money into Early Access titles, and that’s a valid choice, because every one is a gamble.  However, for those of us who don’t mind taking a chance now and then, there are definitely ways to increase the likelihood that the odds will be in our favor.

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Look for Demos

There may be a downloadable demo right there on the store page, and that makes things easy, but it’s worth trying to hunt down a demo if there’s one available.  I’d been following Empyrion – Galactic Survival for awhile, but when they had a free weekend, I found I liked it enough in its current state to justify the purchase.  If there’s no demo available, consider watching game play videos instead, preferably ones produced by consumers instead of the developers.

Do Your Research

Look at the other games the developer has put out.  Are they still patched and maintained? Did you play any of them and enjoy them? Take a few minutes and look at the developer’s website – it should be linked on the game’s Steam page, but it’s worth doing a Google search if it isn’t.  If there’s no website at all, you might be better off keeping your money in your pocket and adding the game to your follow list rather than your shopping cart.  Read the update history, and check out the discussions. If the developer is active, that’s a good sign, even if updates aren’t coming as quickly as anticipated. Read reviews off of Steam, if you can find them, both by game journalists and by consumers. Despite only having been available for purchase on the developer’s site, Rimworld already has a huge following (including its own subreddit), and communicative devs. I feel like even with the moderately high Early Access price, this one will be a pretty low-risk purchase.

Take Advantage of Deep Discounts

If you find an Early Access game you’re interested in, the first thing you should do is a price check. Some developers will toss EA keys into bundles, or do key giveaways. I’ve gotten most of the EA titles in my library through bundles.  Early Access titles will also sometimes have fantastic sales (like BloodGate had in the recent Summer Sale).   Most EA games are playable and if you like the genre, it’s not hard to imagine getting a couple of dollar’s worth of entertainment from them even if they end up in Early Access purgatory.

Trust Your Gut

Does the game look enjoyable now, even with the probable bugs and lack of polish? Do you feel like there’s enough entertainment value currently present to justify the purchase price? Or are you just so excited about the idea, you want to throw money at it with little or no expectation of return on your investment? If you can say, unequivocally yes to any one of these questions, the game is probably worth an Early Access purchase. I purchased Parkitect before it even became available on Steam based on two years worth of weekly updates, and a deep desire for a RollerCoaster Tycoon alike that doesn’t suck. I’m hopeful about the “very likely” campaign mode, but if it never materializes, I will still consider it money well spent.

As for Dead Age – I’m still not sure.  The game looks fantastic as is, but the only previous game I’ve played by Silent Dreams, I didn’t care for at all. There’s no website, and the trailer looks great, but shows very little game play.  As much as I want to click that buy button as soon as it shows up, I think I’m going to try to practice restraint, and wait until reviews from the early adopters come in.

Feel free to tell me all about your Early Access experiences in the comments!

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