Valve has reportedly issued brand new guidelines and rules to developers hoping to put their games on Early Access, in the hope of bringing some consistency to the system. Plenty of decent games have emerged from the Early Access system (Endless Legend is probably the most recent success I can think of,) but every PC user can probably rattle off a list of trainwrecks and shovelware as well.
These new rules appear to be Valve’s response to the evident quirks and problems with the system. Not having access to a copy of these myself, I’m going off the segments picked out by Patrick Klepek in his article at GiantBomb.
First of all, there’s a distinction between rules and guidelines. Valve’s new rules are non-negotiable for anybody wanting to release their game on Early Access. The guidelines are more like recommendations.
So, on the rules side of things, developers can no longer distribute off-site keys for their games without clearly branding them as Early Access. I’m amazed this was allowed in the first place, but (like the legal system) things move slowly in Valve world.
“We’ve seen that many of these titles are sold as keys on other websites where there is no explanation of what Early Access is or what the current state of your product is now,” the company says. That’s going to stop.
A second rule tells developers to avoid over-promising on features. “Do not ask your customers to bet on the future of your game. Customers should be buying your game based on its current state, not on promises of a future that may or may not be realized,” this section reads.
Third, Valve is requiring developers to offer consistent pricing on their Early Access titles: “We expect Steam customers to get a price for the Early Access game no higher than they are offered on any other service or website.”
Those parts all have to be adhered to. These next bits are the Early Access guidelines.
Don’t launch in Early Access if you can’t afford to develop with very few or no sales.
There is no guarantee that your game will sell as many units as you anticipate. If you are counting on selling a specific number of units to survive and complete your game, then you need to think carefully about what it would mean for you or your team if you don’t sell that many units. Are you willing to continue developing the game without any sales? Are you willing to seek other forms of investment?
Make sure you set expectations properly everywhere you talk about your game.
For example, if you know your updates during Early Access will break save files or make the customer start over with building something, make sure you say that up front. And say this everywhere you sell your Steam keys.
Don’t launch in Early Access without a playable game.
If you have a tech demo, but not much gameplay yet, then it’s probably too early to launch in Early Access. If you are trying to test out a concept and haven’t yet figured out what players are going to do in your game that makes it fun, then it’s probably too early. You might want to start by giving out keys to select fans and getting input from a smaller and focused group of users before you post your title to Early Access. At a bare minimum, you will need a video that shows in-game gameplay of what it looks like to play the game. Even if you are asking customers for feedback on changing the gameplay, customers need something to start with in order to give informed feedback and suggestions.
Don’t launch in Early Access if you are done with development.
If you have all your gameplay defined already and are just looking for final bug testing, then Early Access isn’t the right place for that. You’ll probably just want to send out some keys to fans or do more internal playtesting. Early Access is intended as a place where customers can have impact on the game.
All of which seems like good stuff. Its come too late to prevent some of the Early Access disasters we’ve already seen, but should help keep a bit of a lid on future troubles with the system.