Steam Early Access: Invaluable Resource for YouTube Stars

Last winter, I wanted to buy a game. I’d been depressed; the shorter days and cold weather don’t exactly perk you up, and I hadn’t been doing the things I typically enjoyed. I wasn’t watching movies or reading books, hadn’t played a new game in ages, and I knew if I just forced myself to start something, I could make myself feel better.

So, I went online, and I found something. Something colorful and epic and all the right kinds of retro. It was a best seller on Steam, and, at the time, it seemed like everyone was playing it, making videos, sharing tips and experiences. It had action, emergent adventure and crafting, and almost universal praise.

But, I didn’t buy it. I couldn’t. Instead, I watched it. I watched video reviews and first impressions and entire Let’s Play series. I was looking for something. A guarantee. I wanted to be sure that this thing I was buying was truly worth it, and it had a higher bar to get over than a typical game. Because this was Starbound, and it was one of first games available through the then new “Early Access” program on Steam.

Starbound is a game of exploration and crafting. You start in orbit around a random planet, and then go down, build, learn, build some more, and move on to another planet, deeper into the galaxy. There’s limited story, because really, you make your own. Each play-through is different, with procedurally generated dungeons and randomized planets. It’s a game built around a feeling of progress, of learning how to build new things that make you stronger, more capable of moving forward.

So it felt pretty much like a deal-breaker that, every time the game was updated, a frequent occurrence given it was still being developed, they’d delete your character. This, more than anything else, was the reason I didn’t purchase the game. I didn’t want to commit hours to the thing just to have it all zeroed out like it never happened. Character wipes have since ceased, but the game continues to see active updates, and, for whatever reason, that’s prevented me from picking it up, to this day.

And yet, think about all those videos I watched. I wasn’t much for Let’s Play at the time; I’d go watch the occasional first impressions or bloopers, but it wasn’t something I spent a significant amount of time with. But, I spent hours watching people play Starbound, seeing what it had to offer, trying to decide whether it was worth it. Because, while Early Access is a bit of a gamble for the consumer, it’s been a brilliant development for YouTube personalities, for a multitude of reasons.

My indecision, for example, was far from unique. Purchasing a game that’s still being tinkered with is always a risk, more so than dropping sixty bucks on a AAA title everyone’s already known about for months or even years. The developer is asking the buyer to trust them, to trust that the money won’t run out and the development will continue, and that means the buyer’s going to do more research than they would otherwise. They want to make an informed purchasing decision, and that means watching the game, not trailers or reviews, but the product itself unfiltered. This is a whole different category of viewer for content creators, one looking not just for entertainment but information. Different viewers means more viewers, a bigger audience, a stronger channel.

More than that, though, the opening up of the market to games still in-progress has very quickly created an enormous catalog of lesser-known games for YouTubers to play. Everyone’s looking for ways to give their fans unique experiences. I mean, let’s face it, you’re only going to watch so many people play the same game before you want a little variety, and if someone’s playing a game you’ve never even heard of before, maybe you’ll give them the ol’ exploratory click to see what it’s all about. It’s all a part of the same mutually beneficial relationship between indie developers and YouTubers that we discussed last week; playing the lesser known game can bring in new viewers, who might, in turn, purchase the game, improving its reputation and increasing its notoriety, which can lead to even more views of the initial video, and so on. It’s a positive feedback loop that benefits everyone.

And, it’s true, the open development cycle of Early Access has often led to games almost perfectly tailored to the Let’s Play medium. In order to provide something fun and playable, the unfinished product is often built more as a platform than a linear experience. That way, the game works from day one, but they can constantly add to it, new mechanics and features, new items, and so on. This leads to games that play differently every time, built around player choice, often with no clear end-point. Starbound is just one example. Day Z, Rust, Space Engineers, The Forest, Kerbal Space Program, these are all sandboxes to play in more than games to play themselves, and that’s perfect for creating an extensive, interesting, unique series. Sure, it helps that these games are also good, and constantly being updated. It’s an issue that some games are simply abandoned, never truly finished, or even worse slapped together money-grabs using the designation as an excuse (see above), but those that use the system honestly and update regularly can deliver a great experience.

And even those that don’t can still give you something. Some web personalities, I’m looking at you Jim Sterling (again, above), are at their best when they’re playing something so terrible they can’t even believe it. You can’t get a whole series out of something like that, but individual videos featuring awful games can be hilarious, and provide the added service of warning away any unsuspecting consumers.

It’s been a been a bit of a mixed bag for the gamers themselves. Some people simply won’t buy an Early Access title, no matter what. I, myself, would have to be convinced. But it has been, and will continue to be, a source of great value to content creators and the indie developers looking to get games in their hands.

Originally published at Oct 22, 2014.

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