Early access, is also known as early funding, alpha founding, alpha access, or paid alpha, is a funding model in the video game industry. Gamers can purchase and play a game in the various pre-release development cycles, such as pre-alpha, alpha, and/or beta. At the same time, the developer can use those funds to continue further development on the game.
Those who pay to participate typically help debug the game, provide feedback and suggestions, and may have access to unique materials. The early-access approach is a common way to obtain funding for indie games and may also be used along with other funding mechanisms, including crowdfunding. Many crowdfunding projects promise to offer access to alpha and/or beta versions of the game as development progresses; however, unlike some of these projects, which solicit funds but do not yet have a playable game, all early access games offer an immediately playable version of the unfinished game to players.
Traditionally, game publishers do not release unfinished versions of their products to the public instead of relying on in-house testing non-disclosure agreements. This prevents such arrangements from becoming the target of software piracy and limits what information can potentially be shared with competitors. As such, publishers will fund the entire development through its completion but will be less willing to take risks on experimental titles. In some cases, publishers have found different ways to allow gamers to win or buy access into a game’s beta version in a controlled environment. For example, an invitation to the beta version of the multiplayer portion of Halo 3 was bundled with the game Crackdown.
The concept of early access helps to ease both problems. Generally, early access to a game is offered when the game is in a playable state but may not be feature-complete or have several software bugs to be identified. Often these games are considered at alpha or beta releases and maybe months or years from anticipated completion. Interested players can buy into the game’s development, gain access to the software in the working state, and are encouraged to play and stress-test the software. Gamers’ feedback can help the developer tune the game’s direction, art, and software mechanics in anticipation of a final release.
Once the game is released, the player either continues to have access to the software or is rewarded with a means to obtain the last release of the title and other extras, such as sounds, their name in the game’s credits, or other rewards. These players help fund the game to completion but risk that the game may never reach a final release. A further benefit can come from preliminary word-of-mouth of a game in an early access state. As players are typically not limited by confidentiality agreements to participate in early access, these players can provide reviews on social media or play the game on streaming broadcasts, which subsequently can stimulate interest in the title.
One of the best-known early examples of this model is Minecraft. The game’s development began in 2009 by Markus Persson initially for internet browsers that he developed alongside his full-time job. The alpha-version game proved popular enough that within the month of release, Persson added a means by which players could pay 10 euros (approximately US$15) to access the game, allowing him to continue its development.
As sales of the game increased, he quit his job about eight months later to work on the game full-time, founding Mojang to bring on a larger development team. Minecraft continued to offer early access throughout its development period, assuring those that bought into it would receive the final version for free, which happened in November 2011. Before this, nearly two million players had purchased into the alpha- and beta-stage releases, with over $33 million raised from these early sales. Minecraft‘s success led to the early access approach becoming a popular way to publish indie titles.
Steam Early Access
The “Steam Early Access” release service (run by Valve) uses proprietary Steam software for sales and distribution. The program launched on March 20, 2013, and initially made 12 games available. Before the games are released, the developers solicit feedback from Steam Early Access purchasers (who have contributed funds to the game’s creation) to provide the needed input. After its release, Valve planned to have titles taken from their Steam Greenlight program added to Steam Early Access and add titles that have already been accepted through Steam Greenlight.