I wasn’t too keen on the whole “early access” craze that emerged a few years ago. I thought it was an untrustworthy way for developers and publishers to cash in early without having to fully deliver what players expected and deserved. I think there are games that prove me right and those that prove me wrong, but one thing is for certain: EA doesn’t understand how to take advantage of early access.
Within the last few months, EA has released two games into a weeklong early access period, and it’s backfired both times. Battlefield V and now Anthem both suffered from poor reception and disappointing reviews based on their respective early access, pre-day-one-patch versions. I was excited about playing Anthem after experiencing the beta, but after hearing nothing but negative feedback about the game over the last few days, I’ll probably just wait until it goes on sale.
The problem with the way that EA is looking at “early access” is that it’s basically holding games hostage for a week in order to get players to subscribe to Origin Access Premier. It’s not like EA is the only publisher that uses these early access periods to sell subscription services or “deluxe” editions. Pretty much every major publisher does this. But EA is the only publisher that makes its pay-to-play early access period so long while simultaneously forgetting what the point of releasing titles into a true early access period is.
True early access titles, like PUBG, Kerbal Space Program, or Deep Rock Galactic, use their early access periods wisely. Good early access experiences come out of nowhere with little expectation, create hype, nurture communities, and build momentum while improving what should already be a solid game. Heck, it seems impossible that Fortnite is still technically an early access title, considering the amount of money that it’s made, but it is.
Maybe it’s impossible for a publisher like EA to fully adopt what makes early access a beneficial release strategy for smaller studios. Games like PUBG and Star Citizen definitely blur the line between early access and full release, and they both benefit from their own mythologies. They both started as scrappy, self-made titles with dedicated fan bases, and while PUBG has given up some of its independence to partner with the monolithic Tencent and Star Citizen has become an uncontrollable monster, their humble beginnings are partly responsible for their popularity. Everyone loves an underdog, especially when those underdogs change the video game landscape.
Early access titles aren’t even limited to indie developers. Major studios and publishers have integrated or are successfully integrating early access models into some of their more untested, experimental properties. Rare and Microsoft gained some early momentum with Sea of Thieves by utilizing multiple tests and a Founder’s program, and Ubisoft is doing something similar with its “Space Monkeys” program for Beyond Good & Evil 2. Now, Sea of Thieves might have launched with some disastrous connection issues, and BG&E2’s quality is still undetermined, but plenty of Anthem’s biggest problems could have been worked out with a more extended, early access period similar to the way these titles operated or are operating.
Anthem is the perfect candidate for a more extended early access period, for multiple reasons. It’s an untested property from a major developer with exciting new mechanics that are begging to be buggy as heck. It’s a live-service game with, ideally, an unending gameplay loop that’s unfinished by design. It’s highly anticipated—or at least it invokes curiosity. There was, of course, the recent public demo, but BioWare was adamant that this demo wasn’t a beta test. There was also a closed alpha in December, but it took place over the course of two days in a couple of extremely exclusive sessions. This just isn’t enough time to develop any sort of hype or get any real feedback from players at-large. A more extensive testing period would have benefited BioWare and EA in getting real-time feedback from players while using the extended testing period to gain some hype.
Even from the most cynical, capitalistic perspective, EA extending Anthem’s early access period would have made financial sense. I’m not going to sign up for yet another subscription service just to play a game a week early. But I am much more inclined to do so if I can play that game several months before everyone else. Origin Access Premier members pay top-dollar for the service. Why not give them something truly exclusive that’s actually worth their money?
Lately, two of the biggest publicly traded publishers—EA and Activision Blizzard—are seemingly sacrificing long-term ideas for short-term gains. It’s a philosophy that’s making them a ton of money right now (thanks to microtransactions), but consumers are becoming frustrated with cynical, short-sighted cash-grabs. If they’re going to pull this early access baloney, giving players more time to see a game evolve and stress-test these titles in a more extensive, incentivizing early access period could benefit EA in the long run.