Once in a while, you gradually become accustomed to some new normal without even realizing it, and it takes a huge step in that direction to make you wake up, examine the situation, and be surprised at what’s changed.

Today, that has happened with Steam Early Access.

Steam, for those who don’t know, is a service for buying and downloading games online. Their brand-new Early Access subsection includes several games, most of them new to the store. The catch is they are not ‘final’ games. They are still actively in development. Plus, you need to pay for them. So effectively, you are paying for the games now, and you get to play them early, bugs and all. And hey, at first glance, that’s cool for both game companies and game players.

But then you start to notice a few things. First off, you have to pay for something at this early stage of development. To see why this is so different that it is normally, consider how AAA games normally are managed before release: the game company in question usually hires a large group of game testers whose job it is to play through every nook and cranny of a game and report their findings to the programmers, who in turn fix whatever’s found to broken in time for release (In larger games like Skyrim, however, this can be a herculean task, and I really don’t think those who blame Betheseda for having ‘a buggy game’  understand the industry at all. I’ve never had many problems with it, at any rate). So, we had game companies paying testers to find the bugs in their game. But now we have testers paying game companies instead.

Quite a shift from the norm.

Also consider the fact that in the current state of the industry, only games aligned towards the ‘indie’ designation can take this kind of approach. For the sake of this article, imagine that EA/Maxis releases The Sims 4 on Steam Early Access tomorrow (which won’t happen for a variety of reasons). There will be some who would happily pony up the ~$60 for the game, knowing that it could have flaws. I’d imagine that more, however, would criticize EA/Maxis for taking this ‘cheap’ route – especially since EA tends to have a high amount of criticism directed towards it already (although this would likely happen with any big-name company, not just EA). Indie games, however, are less suspect to criticism because they have less of a name to slander, plus some us can sympathize with them because they have low budgets and usually cannot afford many testers in the first place. Also, some of them have been releasing their games earlier for a while before this anyway.

There’s another problem too, and this has been thrown around before, except in a different place. On Kickstarter, a website which people can crowd-fund projects which get created (including games), it has recently become a hot topic: what happens if a funded project fails to get created? There is currently nothing in place to ensure that what a company does with the money they get is what they say they do with it. Or perhaps they just underestimate the difficulties involved in their project and it never gets off the ground. I am not aware of any high-profile cases of this happening yet, which is very surprising, but it’s still a question being asked, especially after the multi-million Kickstarter campaigns like Ouya. There’s the same question going on with Early Access games: what if the developer never finishes their game? Everybody who had paid for it essentially wastes their money to some degree. Granted, the danger here is less than with Kickstarter because in this case the player would at least get SOMETHING to play.

As loathe as I am to use my favorite indie game company Dejobaan Games as an example, I have to because it’s the most experience I have with this matter. So Exhibit A:

capsule_467x1811…2…3…Kick it! Drop That Beat Like an Ugly Baby

Ugly Baby, as it is often called, is a music shooting game where procedurally generated levels are built from your music. Then you can move and shoot your way through levels. It is reminiscent of one of their other games AAAA! A Reckless Disregard For Gravity (the full title has a lot more a’s), where you fall through manually-built (and better) levels. Not to the beat, though.

Anyway, the game was released in April 2011 during Valve’s potato-infused Portal 2 ARG. This game was released in an alpha state, which was quite unusual back then. You also had to pay for it (ten dollars I believe). Being a supporter of Dejobaan, I did that, trusting that they would eventually finish the game. Much less was done with the game than players would have liked. Dejobaan apparently ran up against a brick wall – they didn’t know what to do with the game to make it fun. While they pushed out periodic updates, these were each several months apart and typically removed the content of the previous update in favor of 1-3 new level styles. All I did was play each style once – I couldn’t say I was enthralled by any of them. It must be said that I never got into Audiosurf, but I loved Beat Hazard. Dejobaan kept searching for the fun needed for this game, but other Dejobaan projects were conceived and saw release while Ugly Baby was, well, an ugly baby. It even underwent an engine change at one point, I believe. Never did I feel it was worth $10 in the past two years.

So we have today. Ugly Baby is part of the Steam Early Access program, which it must be said is kind of funny to me – it’s been out for two years, after all. However, today came an update for the game that gives Ugly Baby a total of six level styles – most are likely reused. I haven’t played through it yet, so if my mind is changed, I’ll edit this post accordingly, but I’m assuming the ‘special sauce’ is still missing from the game. As much as I liked Dejobaan when I first discovered them during a Steam sale, I admit that sentiment has been somewhat dampened by this. Hopefully the update today is a sign of things of come, and Ugly Baby will march on to become… not so ugly. The sooner, the better.

While I don’t believe Dejobaan will ever outright abandon the game before completion – they’re bound by just about everything by blood now (but knowing how offbeat they are, perhaps they did do a blood oath at one point over the last two years) – this is an example of how this concept can turn nasty.

But I’m not saying that this is wholly bad for the consumer. I did note some good points at the beginning. You can play a game early and help to shape its development. While I don’t know in what states of completion the other Early Access games are, if some of them are like Ugly Baby was when it was initially released, all I can say is to do your homework and research each game before committing to buying it.

EDIT: I did play the new version, and I am starting to like the game more. It still has a ways to go, though.