A Parent's Guide To Early Access Games

Posted by | January 20, 2015 | Tips for Parents | 8 Comments
A robot plays a game while another tells the developer that the game needs more dragons--an illustration of how early access gaming works.

Years ago in the heydays of cartridge games and early disc-based console games, buying a new game meant you were paying for a finished product. Sure, you might still find a bug or glitch now and then or discover the game itself wasn’t what you expected, but such games were designed to be a complete experience at the time of purchase. A huge shift in the industry towards digital products has changed all of that, particularly for PC gamers of all ages.

These days many developers are offering players opportunities to purchase games on PC that are in an early, unfinished state. Often called Early Access or a Paid Beta, these work-in-progress releases offer great ways for players to try out a game early and help support their favorite developers, but they also can also pose a few added challenges that all parents should be aware of.

So what is Early Access?

Early Access games are most commonly offered by indie game studios. For developers, releasing a playable but incomplete work-in-progress version of their game to the public lets them build visibility for their project, get valuable feedback from players to help drive development, and generate some initial sales to help fund its creation. Many early access games can be quite polished-looking and can be a lot of fun in their current state, though bugs, glitches, and missing elements are equally common too, since the games are in a constant state of development.

For players, it can be really exciting to dive into an upcoming game before it’s finished and offer feedback, knowing that you’ll help the developers make the game even better. Who knows, you might even inspire them to create a cool new feature based on your suggestions! Plus, when you’re really interested in an upcoming game, it can been really hard to wait until it comes out. Early Access lets you buy a game and enjoy it immediately. The popular indie hit Minecraft is a prime example, as it was initially released as a free demo, then a paid Beta before undergoing a massive number of updates over the course of several years before getting a more final release on different platforms.

Minecraft is an example of a game that started out in an Early Access state.

Minecraft is an example of a game that started out in an Early Access state.

Where can you find Early Access games?

Steam is one of the biggest platforms for Early Access games, though other popular portals like itch.io, Desura, and GOG.com also let developers release Beta versions of their games for early purchase. Also, you can often buy Early Access and Paid Beta games directly from developers, though not all studios choose to offer their upcoming games in this way.

At present, the vast majority of Early Access games are found on PC and Mac, though in rare instances some studios will make early access available on consoles.

The most common place to find Early Access games is on the  digital PC platform Steam.

The most common place to find Early Access games is on the digital PC platform Steam.

How does Early Access work?

Once you buy an Early Access game, you can download and play it in its current state. Developers will frequently roll out updates on an ongoing basis as improvements are made, new features are added, and additional content is woven into the current build of the game. Many of the platforms you can get these games from will automatically download the latest updates and versions to your computer, so you rarely have to worry about manual updates.

Eventually, once the game’s development is officially complete, you’ll be given access to the final finished game, which developers may even decide to continue improving or add bonus content to after official launch.

The Challenges of Early Access games

As cool a concept as Early Access games might be, they do pose some important concerns and considerations for parents and families with younger players. While these might not be deal breakers in every household, here’s a rundown of key things to watch out for as a parent when considering allowing your kids to play Early Access games.

1) They’re usually unrated.

Early Access games are, by their very nature, unfinished. As such, they often don’t have any sort of ESRB or recommended age rating attached to them. It’s important to really pay close attention to game descriptions, supporting gameplay videos, and even player forums to get a sense of the content before you buy these games to play with your kids.

2) The content can change dramatically from update to update.

Because these games are constantly evolving with regular updates, the content can change in major ways from one update to the next. While most developers will stay on course and add features and content that fits with the vibe and scope of their earlier builds, some may occasionally make radical changes. This might mean that your kids could be exposed to mature content or other situations in-game that you may find objectionable.

3) Online play (and player communities) can be added.

Many Early Access games first launch without multiplayer components but then add them in with future updates, which means your child can go from suddenly playing solo to playing online and interacting with other players if an update adds that gameplay feature. Early games also rarely have the same level of online content filters that you might find in some other AAA games, which is something to be aware of.

In other instances, the game itself may initially be a multiplayer-only experience, with the single-player campaign to be added in the future. Whatever the case, be sure you carefully monitor an Early Access game’s latest updates and check in with your kids to make sure everything is on the up-and-up. Many developers will post update logs on their website or the game’s pages, specifically indicating the different changes implemented in each update. This can be an invaluable resource to parents.

4) They can be buggy and unpolished.

This is perhaps less of an issue for younger players as long as they’re having fun with the game, but the fact that some Early Access offerings can be a bit rough around the edges spurs some players to avoid them and instead wait for the finished game to launch.

5) There is always a risk the games may never get completed.

Game development can be a dynamic industry full or fluctuation, changes in scope, and even delays or cancellations. Though it’s quite rare, there is always the possibility that developers may not 100% finish creating their game, or the “finished” product might not closely resemble the full scope of the experience that was initially promised. Just something to be aware of even if it’s not a major concern.

The Positive Side of Early Access

Despite these caution points, Early Access games can be a ton of fun and a great experience for families who play together. The important thing to remember is these games are works in progress, so just go into the experience being aware of that. If you pick your games with the same care you would any normal family gaming experience and pay close attention to big updates as they come out to make sure they’re appropriate, you should be fine and free to enjoy these unique experiences together with your kids.

On a positive note, Early Access is a great way for parents and families to support the games they want to see completed, while taking a hands-on role in the process by providing invaluable feedback and financial support to smaller developers. That, in and of itself, is a really cool thing to be a part of and a great way to empower your kids to contribute in the process.

Nathan Meunier

About Nathan Meunier

Nathan Meunier has been slinging words about video games for close to a decade, writing for more than 40+ publications ranging from IGN and Nintendo Power to What They Play and Official Xbox Magazine. Now he makes games, too! You can read more of his freelance writing, check out his books, or scope his other assorted creative projects over at NathanMeunier.com.