Steam Updates its Early Access Rules for the Better

Steam’s Early Access doesn’t have a great reputation. When it works as intended it’s a great way to get a game out there for the world to see, let the fans and press have access to the latest builds, and generate some revenue for the developer during the long, arduous creation period. On the down side, games have gotten booted after being abandoned, left Early Access too soon, or have simply not been able to live up to the initial promise. It’s not as bad as it sounds, even with the EEDAR report saying that only 25% of the games have made it to full release.

Keeping in mind that game development time is always long and the fact that more than twice as many games have hit Early Access this year (255) than in 2013 (103) — when the service officially launched in March — that percentage doesn’t seem too unreasonable. Still, there’s no question that the Early Access rules needed a bit of tweaking. And earlier this week, Valve made some nicely thought-out consumer-centric updates.

While the full (short, easily read, legal-ese free) rules have been helpfully posted online, the gist of it is about setting customer expectations. The game needs to be sold as-is, instead of what the developer hopes it will be someday. When keys are sold on anther site, the game has to be branded Early Access with links to the Steam Early Access FAQ. Don’t be too specific on promises that may not pan out, such as release dates or new features that might change during development, either.

The new rule with the greatest potential to cause a bit of developer friction, however, is the one saying “We expect Steam customers to get a price for the Early Access game no higher than they are offered on any other service or website,” which seems like it rules out adding games to bundles.

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This is what Early Access is defined as, and what the rule update is reinforcing.

The second half of the updates aren’t hard rules so much as guidelines, but they do provide perspective for the rule changes. What Early Access is supposed to be is a way to get customer feedback during development. If it adds a bit of cash to the development coffers, that’s a bonus, and needs to be viewed as such. If all you’ve got is a tech demo that’s in the process of being worked into a game, it’s not ready for Early Access.

The product being sold needs to be worth buying in its own right, and while what it could potentially become may be endlessly more awesome than the game in its current state of development, when a customer puts down money they shouldn’t be buying a far-off dream. Conversely, Early Access isn’t for bug-testing a completed game, so while it may artificially bolster the “released from Early Access” percentage due to a quick turnover, it’s not where the game belongs.

Early Access has been a lot of fun, but only if you go in with proper expectations. These new rules are set to reinforce those expectations for both the consumer and the developer; hopefully leading to a smoother experience for both. There’s a few extras in there to reinforce Steam’s inclusion in any sales or promotions, but aside from that this setup is to make sure developers are up front with what they’ve accomplished, and not to get overambitious with promises.

The whole point of Steam Early Access is to let developer and consumer work together to shape a game’s future, and this update should bring good things toward reinforcing the trust between the two parties.