Friday, July 11, 2014

By Jamaal Ryan

From free games, to gamedeals, to indie titles, Playstation Plus has pioneered consumer friendly digital distribution for home consoles. Their direction has been so successful that it’s been a selling point for all of Sony’s gaming platforms, and has even pulled Microsoft into the fray, offering free games and game deals of their own.

Now, in spite of previous discussions with the press, and how uncharacteristic it would be for the console space, Sony is looking into Early Access.

Early Access on Steam has been a funny thing, controversial at best. The service allows players to access games while they’re in development for the purpose of providing feedback to the designers for a fee. It benefits the developer as a form of wide spread QA testing while reaping revenue, and it empowers the consumers with insight into what games look like as a work in progress.

But while Early Access best serves as a mutual agreement between developer and consumer, many criticize the model for its “anti art” development process, and “tricking” gamers into buying unfinished products even though disclaimers are provided. Some concerns are justified, as art is traditionally created within the mind of the creator and not its spectators, and some early access games have proven to be too broken to pass for legitimate purchasing.

It’s a model that suits PC gaming so well with its flexible and easy-access nature, and committedly engaged community.

…Something that console doesn’t necessarily share, or at least, not in the way PC does.

And yet, here we are. Speaking with Gamsutra at E3, Playstation’s VP of Publisher and Developer Relations Adam Boyes discusses the possibility of Early Access on Playstation:

“We're figuring out what's ok. We obviously have our tech requirement checklist that people have to adhere to. So we're internally discussing, what does that list look like this? What are the caveats? Stuff like this. So it's still a project that a lot of minds are considering. No details yet, but it's something on the top of my mind every day.

Ideally, Playstation’s version of Early Access will, as Boyes states, have a set standard of how far in development games will have to be before they appear on the store. Steam’s Wild West nature has let some real shit slip through the cracks. Nonetheless, popular concerns of Early Access fall solely on the responsibility of the consumer. If it’s labeled “Early Access”, then you should know what you’re getting into. It’ll just be up to Sony to ensure that the game meets that expected stage of development.

But how will the developer curate feedback? Early Access existing on a console instead of a PC immediately adds an additional barrier in terms of how consumers will deliver feedback. The expectation can’t be that gamers have keyboards hooked up to their PS4s. So what will you have them do? Run over to their computers and send messages to the developer? The whole notion of console/couch gaming is keeping gamers confined in one comfortable space. Perhaps implement a voting system similar to Assassins Creed IV on the quality of the content? Hmm… I think it needs to be more comprehensive.

This leads up to one of the biggest challenges of Early Access that directly interrupts the meaning of the service. Many consumers of Early Access titles simply dick around, take up space, and offer no meaningful feedback to the developer. Such a phenomenon has forced developers like Derek Smart to gate their Early Access games with high price tags ($99 for a free-to-play game in his case) just to ensure that those who buy in are serious about participating in the true Early Access process.

Much like free-to-play, Early Access is an easy idea to conceptualize, but harder to execute. The system bares its imperfections on PC as is with questionable development processes both artistically and logistically. Let’s just hope that Sony doesn’t screw this one up. 

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