Perhaps it’s wishful thinking that Steam’s removal of Greenlight and introduction of Steam Direct means the end of Early Access on Steam. I first discovered Early Access through Rust. Rust barely ran on my laptop, and a few months after I bought the game it stopped working. I talked about this with friends more familiar with PC gaming than myself, and the response was a lot of you-should-have-known-better finger wagging. So I looked into what Early Access meant and, well, they were right—I didn’t know what I was buying into. I vowed to never make that mistake again.
Then I bought Ark: Survival Evolved on PS4.
Ark: Survival Evolved and the birth of PlayStation’s support for Early Access
Sony launched its Early Access program silently, without an official blog post or press conference. Given the presence it has on the store, you might say Sony never really launched a program at all. Some time around the release of Ark, Sony decided in favour of charging players for beta access. And that’s essentially what Early Access is. You’re paying for a beta. Crowdfunding is the new “thing”, and I’m okay with it, but the PlayStation Store isn’t making the definition of Early Access very clear, and that’s a problem.
It’s easy to find Steam’s Early Access FAQ where they outline exactly what you’re buying. Steam has an Early Access section in its store. You cannot buy a Steam game without knowing. The same is not true on the PlayStation 4. Ark: Survival Evolved is Early Access on Steam. The “official” wiki agrees. But the PlayStation Blog presented Ark as a full game release. Now, I mostly enjoyed the game and even wrote about it on the old PlayStation Compass—twice (warning, these link to old archived articles with no images and poor editing). But there is a clear issue with PlayStation and Ark developer Studio Wildcard not fully communicating with customers here.
PlayStation does not have a similar FAQ. The only product that comes up when searching the PlayStation Store for “Early Access” is Atom Universe, which is just amazing:
It’s like PlayStation Home, if Home took place in a boring theme park.
The Tomorrow Children, a failed experiment
The Tomorrow Children announced on the PlayStation Blog last year that Early Access players could play on September 6, with the game going free-to-play in October. It seemed an inconsistent use of the term, and with only a month difference it felt more like a preorder bonus than Early Access. Now the game is in the process of closing down and I’m left with nothing but a mediocre avatar for the $30 I paid to play the game a month early. At least The Tomorrow Children was up front about exactly what you were getting with a Founder’s Pack.
The Tomorrow Children had major problems. Rather than fixing the game, Sony shut it down. If nothing else, The Tomorrow Children will be a good history lesson for how to not run an Early Access game on PlayStation. Communicate with your customers. Fix problems with the game. Make your game fun.
Now Fortnite is here. Fortnite announced itself on the PlayStation Blog and disclosed its Early Access status. Fortnite’s base game download page discloses its status. The Founder’s Packs do not disclose. But here’s the problem I have. If I go to the PlayStation Store, Fortnite has a big banner ad at the top. This is what it looks like:
The PlayStation Store seems okay with offering Early Access games, but only after clicking the link do I find out that Fortnite is neither a full game nor free. You need a founder’s pack; the game will be free in 2018. In any other media, a link that brings you with a misleading headline is reviled, so why is this okay?
Someone posted about this on the r/PS4 subreddit and the comments and voting were split. Not on whether Fortnite and Early Access should be on the platform, but whether it was misleading for the game to be presented as a full, free game but not actually to be those things. 39% of people (61% upvoted) are okay with the Sony store misleading customers, mostly because the game page outlines exactly what the game is.
Sony needs to introduce an “Early Access” category
A category would solve the problem. If Sony flagged Early Access games as such and kept out of the “free-to-play” category (where Fortnite currently is), players could choose to avoid or explore as they see fit. As more of these games come out, the free-to-play category will become a mess of games that aren’t actually free. Putting these games in their own section of the store is the only step that makes sense.
Hey @PlayStation, you think we could get an “Early Access” filter on the store so games like Fortnite aren’t shown as “free to play” titles?
— PlayStation Compass (@PSCompass) July 28, 2017