Steam's Early Access model is a great way to support small game developers and fresh ideas, as long as you don't expect to play the finished product anytime soon.
According to EEDAR analyst Patrick Walker, only 25 percent of Early Access games on Valve's Steam gaming service have graduated to "full game" status since the program launched in March 2013. Although a glut of recent Early Access launches have skewed the numbers downward, even last year's games stand at just 42 percent finished.
Early Access lets players buy a game before its official release, and in exchange they get to play the work in progress. The idea was popularized by Minecraft, whose alpha version became a runaway hit in 2010, nearly a year and a half before the finished product came out. While Valve claims that Early Access is "the way games should be made," it has also added disclaimers to every product page, noting that the games may never be completed.
An unfinished Early Access game isn't necessarily a bad thing. Some examples, such as Kerbal Space Program and DayZ, have become hits despite having no final release date in sight. But those are just the ideal scenarios, where lots of sustained interest can fund lengthy development cycles. In other cases, players can become stranded as funding dries up and developers lose interest in chasing bad investments.
That's what happened recently with Double Fine, which released "version 1.0" of Early Access game Spacebase DF-9 without many of its planned features. As studio head Tim Schafer explained, the project was losing money, and "it became clear that this was looking like a year and a half of production instead of five or so."
Why this matters: As EEDAR's Walker points out, the number of Early Access games has exploded over the last year, reaching a peak of 39 new releases in July. That means there are more opportunities than ever to buy a game with little chance of living up to its promises, and even the occasional scam. While it's certainly possible to get your money's worth from an Early Access game if it's enjoyable out of the gate, it may be best to avoid bare-bones releases--especially if there's not enough buzz to fuel another year or two of development.