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Report: Few Rules for Developers in Steam Early Access Program

PC Gamer obtained a copy of the private Early Access guidelines for developers on Valve’s Steam platform, which makes clear Early Access titles are as much a gamble as you thought, and Valve knows it as well as you do.

The Early Access guidelines combine to a scant 2,164 words, only 331 of which contain any actual “rules,” and even those are rather nebulous:

You must include Steam Early Access branding and information about the current state of your game on any third-party sites where you are distributing Steam keys for your Early Access game.

Do not make specific promises about future events.

If Valve is enabling your Early Access game we expect you to have the Early Access game available for sale on the Steam store.

Don’t overcharge Steam customers.

Two of those are merely technical, and two are very subjective — and rarely enforced in any observable way. But unless Steam specifically curates and monitors every single title granted Early Access release, it’s hard to see how else it could possibly go.

The Early Access model may be Steam’s most robust exclusive market. It’s hosted everything from promising freshman efforts like Unturned from brand new developers, to indie mega-hits like ARK: Survival Evolved and Divinity: Original Sin. Part of its success is the leeway granted to creators of all stripes, allowing unique ideas to flourish that would never have made it to the shelves of any retailer.

The other side of that coin is an inherent risk. Whether it’s the blatant exploitation of games like The War Z (AKA Infestation: Survivor Stories), the quiet abandonment of Towns, or Double Fine’s sudden cancellation of further development on Spacebase DF-9, it’s a market uniquely prone to risks. Games might appear on Early Access as barely-playable shells, or virtually complete experiences in need of the wider testing audience that few independent developers can afford to hire outright. Anything can happen, and usually does.

Valve absolves themselves of responsibility for this unpredictability with a very simple approach: What you see is what you get. It’s explained at the top of every Early Access title, stated plainly in the Early Access FAQ, and probably read about as often as an Apple TOS. In essence, it says that you should only pay for what’s available at the time of purchase, and not base your decision on “potential” content down the road in development.

And there are more wrinkles. Multiplayer-centric Games like H1Z1, Rust, or DayZ often reach peak popularity before they’re anywhere near complete. If you want to join in while the servers are still populated, you have to buy in whenever it’s hot. This leads to “fad” game projects that die off as soon a developers realize that people have moved on. Rarely do the few hundreds remaining loyalists see a completed product. Even if they do, it’s usually long after the release is relevant to the market.

While it’s easy to say that Steam should just make sure abuses don’t happen, it’s an almost impossible to quantify how exactly that could be done. Aside from cautioning users not to purchase an unfinished product with an uncertain future, how do you police individual developers as to where the line is between failure and abuse?

347 games are currently in Early Access, at all conceivable stages of development. Almost certainly, some of them will be great. Some already are. But there’s the rub: putting down hard-earned cash on “almost” is always going to be a gamble. Valve is very much aware of that, and you should be, too.

Follow Nate Church @Get2Church on Twitter for the latest news in gaming and technology, and snarky opinions on both.

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