Eyeing an Early Access Game? How to Tell if It’s Worth Buying or Not

The early bird catches the bugs.

Eyeing an Early Access Game? How to Tell if It's Worth Buying or Not

Key Takeaways

  • Look for a "vertical slice" demonstrating essential gameplay before investing in an early access game.
  • Ensure developers have a clear roadmap for the game's development and are actively communicating progress.
  • Consider reviewers' feedback and your personal reason for buying early access to avoid spoiling the gaming experience.

Many developers now make early builds of their games available as a paid "early access" or "game preview" offering. If you're truly excited or intrigued by a game, you may be tempted to pay for it before it's actually done, but should you? Let's look at the factors for and against buying an early access game.

Is There a Vertical Slice?

A "vertical slice" in the context of game development is basically the proof of concept for a game used to convince investors to put their money towards development. When developers put out a paid early access version of a game, then those "investors" are you. Except that your money isn't being invested at all, it's just being used to fund development and the only thing you (maybe) get back is a complete game—eventually.

This only really applies to games that are super-early in their development cycle, but at the very least, any early access version of a game should have a portion that gives you a demo of what the whole game is intended to be like. It needs to look, feel, and play more or less like what the developers intend. If there isn't anything that meets even this minimum requirement, steer clear just as any real investor would.

Do the Developers Have a Roadmap?

So you're happy that there's the bare minimum of gameplay to show you what the final game is aiming for, but do the developers have a clear idea on how to get there? Look for a developer blog, anything published on their website, and on platforms like Steam communications on the games page itself. Are there milestones? Do they have a rough idea of when the game will be finished?

Many early access games are developed by small, inexperienced teams or even individuals. That's not a bad thing by itself, but it makes it more likely that they aren't organized, or haven't planned realistically. While they do need funding to get the game done, it's important to make sure they actually have a plan for how the money will be spent!

How Active Has Early Access Been?

Before you decide to put your cash down, take a look at how responsive and active the developer has been. Many games (arguably most) never make it out of early access. That's not an indictment. Game development is hard. It's just the way things are. So if you want to maximize the chances that you'll actually get some sort of game then making sure there's actual active development and frequent communication from the developer is basic due diligence.

What Are Reviewers Saying?

Eyeing an Early Access Game? How to Tell if It's Worth Buying or Not

Despite being in early access, there will usually be plenty of reviews of the game in its current state anyway. So just as with a final release, have a look at what other people are saying about the game as it is, and their experience of its development so far. This is especially useful for early access games that already have a lot of content, and might be great in the first few hours, but really rough towards the ends. Which, again, isn't necessarily an issue outside of specific contexts, it just gives you better insight as to where your money would be going.

Do You Have a Good Reason to Get In Early?

The last and most important factor is your reason for wanting to buy an early access game in the first place. Is it because there's a lot of buzz around the game? Is it because it's particularly appealing to you? Do you want to be involved in its development? There are lots of excellent reasons to want in on an early access version of a game, but few if any of them intersect with the needs of most gamers. For most people, it's best to simply wait for the game to be finished.

For example, as much as I love CRPGs and the original Baldur's Gate games, I stayed away from the early access version of Baldur's Gate III. I didn't want the game to be spoiled for me, which is a huge issue with narrative-driven titles. On the other hand, I wanted to try Manor Lords right away, because this sort of sandbox simulator-style game combined with its time period is right up my alley, and being incomplete doesn't really do much to subdue the core experience.

In the end, it's less about the money and more about making sure you don't hurt your own gaming experience by dallying with something that's not been in the oven long enough. Few people like eating raw bread dough, not that there's anything wrong with that.

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