Should Early Access Titles Allow Reviews?
I was looking once again at Otherland on Steam, the Tad Williams-inspired MMO set in a virtual cyberpunk universe. I have only read a few of the novels on which the game is based, and liked them OK, but of course I’m a sucker for cyberpunk leanings so why the heck not, right?
Being in Early Access (EA), the game is, of course, unfinished. That means that if you opt to buy into an EA product during its EA period, you will be receiving a game that has bugs, unfinished elements, and if it’s an online game, random outages at the data-center. I’ve purchased several EA games over the years, and although I’ve decided to seriously screen my future EA purchases (more due to potential burn-out than because of issues during EA periods), I’ve always gone in with eyes wide open about what I’d be getting.
Some people, it seems, are not so self aware, as we can tell by almost all comments left on the Steam Store page for EA titles. Complaints about an EA game basically being an EA game, with all of the flaws inherent within such a state, seem to make up the bulk of what people end up talking about.
Pointless? Of course; it’s the Internet, where being seen saying something is more important to some people then considering what or why it should be said. For me, the purpose of a Steam comment section is twofold: one, it’s to provide a quick thumbs up or thumbs down as an overall opinion on a person’s thoughts on the game. Two, the comments allow for people to explain why they gave it the rating they did. Looking at those parts, giving a thumbs down to an EA game, and then proceeding to pillory the product for lag, bugs, and unavailability only goes to showcase the poster’s complete and utter lack of understanding about how and when they chose to spend their money.
Certainly, some would say “well, we’re being asked to spend our money, so we should have a say!”, which is absolutely true…where it would do the most good. Like Tweeting at corporate accounts with technical issues, some people assume that anywhere they can type is as good a place as any to air their grievances in a bid to get changes made. Most developers, I assume, have set up specific places where customers can report bugs and request changes — which, by the way, is part of why people should buy into EA if they believe that they will be passionate about a product. Trello is popular, but in the absence of a noted location, Steam provides a discussion forum that any developer worth their weight in electrons should be monitoring.
What does leaving a comment on the store page do for an EA game? I can only express how I feel about it, of course, and that feeling is “mislead”. Take Otherland. The User Review shorthand at the top of the page shows that it’s reception is “Mixed”, out of 279 (current) reviews. If I were considering this title, I’d see that and frown…”mixed” is a little more on the questionable side than I’d like to see when I’m considering spending money on A Thing. So I’d then jump to the comments for elucidation, where I would find people complaining about a laggy UI, crashes, and server downtime. Those tell me nothing other than the game is exactly where I’d expect it to be. Some people continue taking the game to task for being boring or for some of the design choices that the developers have made…basically the kinds of things that feedback on the Discussion boards or in the bug and change management system are set up to capture, and is one of the reasons EA exists at all. In the end, the only thing I get from the Review-o-Meter and the comments themselves is that some people have poor impulse control when it comes to money, and that most people see it as their duty to warn people away from a game at the point where the developers are allowing players to have a say.
I’d like to see comments on Steam EA games go away, and instead be replaced by an expanded section dedicated to the change log and updates from the developers. Not only would this remove the axe-grinding that are the comments section, but would allow potential customers a better gauge of the state of the game — and the dedication of the developers — by seeing the scope of the changes and the frequency of the updates. For me, I can accept an EA game so long as I get the sense that it’s not been abandoned, and that the developers are continuously making updates and are communicating with the customer. For a great example, check out Eden Star and their update format which features members from different departments giving updates on what they’ve been working on. I always have Good Feelings from Flix because of their updates, and I think getting a sense of the actual trajectory of a product from those who are in charge of making it happen is a much better indicator of whether or not I should jump in at the EA phase than comments from people airing their buyer’s remorse.