Steam Early Access (March 2013), Xbox Game Preview and Playstation Early Access (both in June 2015) are all early access models for financing and distribution of games (most often, an independent studio's creations) that is pretty much the same as crowdfunding in the rest of the world.
If you're interested in any of these subjects then this article may be a good starting point for you. It is an introduction-level text, so pros in this area might quickly get bored.
What is this about?
In early access model, future player pays for an ability to play in an unfinished, sometimes at a very early stage, but must be already playable (promises and concept-only games are usually disallowed).
Money gained by developers are used for finishing the production, which is pretty much 1:1 crowdfunding model. There are only two differences or exceptions:
- early access is for games mostly (or only); while using crowdfunding you can rise funds for pretty much anything, from IT and electronics, through regular areas of market, to even building a Death Star to defend the Earth,
- early access mostly (or always) aims into selling sometimes very early stage, but yet playable game; while in crowdfunding you may try to rise a money even for a concept, a promise or a dream.
Similarly to crowdfunding (even though since early access starts with a playable product!) it is pretty often and common that project is terminated due to not gaining enough money or for other reasons. According to gamesindustry.biz's 2014 article only 25% of games produced in early access model were finished in time. The remaining 75% were still in development (sometimes awfully delayed) or already abandoned.
It is not all about the money
Early access model is used not only for rising money. Studios uses it also for:
- free or low-cost, world-wide beta testing,
- aid in design (possible concept changes),
- rising awareness or even straightforward as a marketing method.
Games offered in early access model are usually full of bugs, often crashes and requires really a madafucka hardware, because QA engineering and optimisation are usually last two stages of game development. People investing in early access and buying games distributed in this model agrees on all of these aspects.
An ability to play the game before others is not the only "thank you" from the developers side for hours spent on testing their game and for the money received.
As a part of early access (as in case of good old crowdfunding) players may be awarded with:
- adding names or nicknames into game's credits, wall of sponsors etc.,
- adding links to their websites or profiles to game's documentation,
- adding logo, graffiti or artwork directly into game,
- allowing to give name to a certain characters,
- allowing to change some minor parts of scenario,
- free copies or access accounts for friends and family members,
- access to some designated, supporters-only levels or mini-games,
- high-speed, closed server designated for backers only,
- shirts, cups or other marketing-like stuff,
- a private visit to a company studio,
- taking part in some closed events
and a lot more. What you can get in exchange for your money and time during early access is limited only by an imagination and a mutual agreement between you and game creators.
Some history and stats
Here are historic dates for early access model start at a various platforms:
- Steam Early Access (March 2013),
- Playstation Early Access (rumoured in June 2014, started year later) and
- Xbox Game Preview (June 2015).
And some stats (quite old though):
- 103 games released in early access in 2013 (March-December),
- 255 games released in first three quarters of 2014 (January-September),
- 25% of the games delivered on time,
- 85% early access published games are brand new creations.
Thus, only 15% of games that shipped in this model were a new parts of existing games (published on regular basis). The Final Fantasy XIV: Heavensward maybe one of many examples here.