Early access reviews: Fair game or trolling?

Some gaming media outlets are reviewing early-releases and alpha builds on the same scale as triple-A titles and scoring them on the severity of their bugs and broken aspects, potentially harming small indie developers that choose a specific model of funding for development.

Paid alpha releases aren’t about delivering a polished product – they’re about folding the gaming community into the development process.

For example, when you buy a game from Steam’s early access program, you aren’t really buying a game. You’re buying an experience. You’re buying a voice and a venue to have your opinion heard. In short, you’ll have a say in the direction a broken game takes as it’s improved upon.

In fact, early-access games are usually disclaimed to have bugs and be broken prior to the point of monetary transactions. These alphas are certainly worth discussing to inform potential buyers of their varying states of playability, but they shouldn’t be scored against the same standards as finished triple-A releases.

Take the following scenario as an example:

Daybreak Game Company is offering an alpha version of their game, H1Z1, on Steam’s early access program for $20 with the following quote appearing on the description page:

Players should anticipate an evolving feature set, bugs, incomplete content, missing features, and potentially game breaking issues.– Daybreak Game Company, Steam Store

Polygon reviewed, scored and crushed Daybreak’s alpha because it had bugs and was broken, bamboozling me beyond belief.

Do you buy a Gameboy Color and criticize it because it isn’t in 1080p? No, because you knew what a Gameboy was before purchasing one. Have you ever returned a Toyota to the dealer because it wasn’t a Lexus? Life is just too short to be comparing apples and oranges.

H1Z1’s world is sparsely populated and attacks don’t always connect, but that was the point. Without bugs, Daybreak wouldn’t need player investments to develop their game, and players would have nothing to critique and be robbed of the experience they paid for. Daybreak delivered on its promise to include players on the journey of developing the game.

Furthermore, the alpha was apparently scored on the same scale the website uses for finished releases. I’m not even sure how to process such a misplaced score. And if I didn’t bother to read the article? Trust me, that will happen, too.

Some readers will simply glance at the score and move on, possibly shrugging off curiosity for the game. You could argue this is the reader’s fault, not the author’s, but many gaming journalism outlets know scores drive web traffic and employ them for that very reason, even in absurd situations like this.

Polygon argues that if a developer is willing to take consumers’ money for their game, it’s finished enough to warrant a score. I agree that it warrants discussion of the state of the product, but a score carries a distinct connotation to resolute impressions, a final stamp of approval or denial, which just doesn’t make sense for a game that’s liable to change weekly. Daybreak’s H1Z1 could be a five today, a seven tomorrow and a four the next day.

It would honestly make more sense to score Daybreak on its willingness to listen to players’ feedback and its ability to implement changes they’ve requested. But, if the game must be scored, it ought to be scored for what it is intended to be: Broken.

To encourage genuine discussion of games that aren’t ready to be scored, IGN includes a sprawling title with the words ‘in progress’ and no score. And the only reviews I’ve seen are of commercial releases with certain mechanics or features that haven’t been publicly proven outside of test environments.

Polygon took the thorny road, including a small provisional review banner that only shows up after the jump to the article and a large score displayed on the homepage.

What would I like to see in early-access reviews is:

  • No scores
  • Large, visible banners denoting the temporary status of the review
  • A rigorous and meticulously followed update schedule

Are early access game reviews a stroke of genius or a lapse in mental stability? Sound off in the comments below.