Valve’s Steam Early Access feature has allowed for the development of some truly innovative and exciting titles that otherwise would have never seen the light of day through a large publisher, but it has also seen its fair share of stinkers and catastrophes. Recently, the software giant updated its Early Access guidelines and policies to make clear to potential developers that the feature is not something to be trifled with.
The story was first reported on by Giant Bomb, who confirmed with several game developers that Steam had updated the Early Access Rules and Guidelines. The documentation is prefaced by this message:
Steam Early Access is a way to invite customers to get involved with your game as you develop, so that you can get the feedback you need to make better informed product decisions and to ensure the best outcome for your customers and fans. When you launch a game in Steam Early Access, there is an expectation by customers that you will continue development to a point where you have what you consider a ‘finished’ game. We know that nobody can predict the future, and circumstances frequently change, which may result in a game failing to reach a ‘finished’ state, or may fail to meet customer expectations in some other way. We work hard to make sure this risk is communicated clearly to customers, but we also ask that developers follow a set of rules that are intended to help inform customers and set proper expectations when purchasing your game.
This is then followed by a set of rules that absolutely must be followed. These include branding games as Early Access when being sold outside of Steam, avoiding making specific and grandiose predictions on what the game will turn out to have, and ensuring that an Early Access game is put out at the same time as it is on other websites and priced identically.
These non-negotiable rules are then followed by some guidelines for developers to follow:
Don’t launch in Early Access if you can’t afford to develop with very few or no sales.
There is no guarantee that your game will sell as many units as you anticipate. If you are counting on selling a specific number of units to survive and complete your game, then you need to think carefully about what it would mean for you or your team if you don’t sell that many units. Are you willing to continue developing the game without any sales? Are you willing to seek other forms of investment?
Make sure you set expectations properly everywhere you talk about your game.
For example, if you know your updates during Early Access will break save files or make the customer start over with building something, make sure you say that up front. And say this everywhere you sell your Steam keys.
Don’t launch in Early Access without a playable game.
If you have a tech demo, but not much gameplay yet, then it’s probably too early to launch in Early Access. If you are trying to test out a concept and haven’t yet figured out what players are going to do in your game that makes it fun, then it’s probably too early. You might want to start by giving out keys to select fans and getting input from a smaller and focused group of users before you post your title to Early Access. At a bare minimum, you will need a video that shows in-game gameplay of what it looks like to play the game. Even if you are asking customers for feedback on changing the gameplay, customers need something to start with in order to give informed feedback and suggestions.
Don’t launch in Early Access if you are done with development.
If you have all your gameplay defined already and are just looking for final bug testing, then Early Access isn’t the right place for that. You’ll probably just want to send out some keys to fans or do more internal playtesting. Early Access is intended as a place where customers can have impact on the game.
If these guidelines sound familiar, it’s probably because they were catastrophically broken by various game developers who dabbled in Early Access, soiling the feature’s reputation in the process. These include the infamous Earth: Year 2066, which was pulled from Steam for its extremely poor quality, The Stomping Land, and most recently, Double Fine’s Spacebase DF-9, which left Early Access purchasers in a bind when the developer announced that they had run out of money and could not work on the game any further.
Of course, these are guidelines for developers to follow, not rules, and ultimately the best way to fight Early Access impropriety is through careful research and judicious use of your wallet.