When Free To Play Isn’t Free To Play: A Steam Early Access Conundrum

Two business models which have been increasing in popularity in recent times have now collided together on Steam, and in my mind there is a problematic aspect of how they’ve been implemented. Free To Play and Early Access have the potential to radically alter how games and made, sold and played, but currently there is a lack of transparency in how Valve have implemented them, that is potentially misleading customers, and the onus is on Valve to fix this.

First lets consult with Valve’s definition of these terms.

Valve say Early Access means the following:

Get immediate access to games that are being developed with the community’s involvement. These are games that evolve as you play them, as you give feedback, and as the developers update and add content

And of Free To Play:

Free-to-Play games are available to download for free and can be played without a subscription or a credit card. Your Steam wallet allows you to purchase items and content in-game to customize your gameplay.

So far, so good. Personally I’m not a fan of playing Free To Play games, and I think Early Access is a smart idea for some games, but not without it’s own pitfalls. But I’m not here to debate the merit of these individual systems, but how they’re being combined on Steam.

Recently, games such as Snow, Steam Bandits: Outpost & Hawken have released as Early Access games. All of these games are to be Free To Play, but in order to get access now, you are required to pay a certain amount for in game items upfront, £11.99, £11.99 and £22.99 minimum. I don’t actually have a problem with this model, I can think of plenty of reasons as to why a developer might want to have a paywall around a title that is in development, even if they plan to remove the paywall down the line. What I do have a problem with is Steam not currently making it explicitly clear to customers that this is what they are paying for.

Steam Bandits: Outpost and Snow both make it fairly clear in the item descriptions what is is that they are charging you for, and what their plans for making the games fully free to play down the line are. Hawken does not. In fact, the only mentions of the term “Free To Play” on the Hawken store listing aren’t from the developers or from Valve, but from community sourced “user-defined tags”, and in customer reviews. If that tag wasn’t in the five most popular, and if no user reviews had mentioned “Free To Play”, then nowhere on the store listing would “Free To Play” be mentioned at all.

I am suggesting that this is not acceptable. I don’t think Valve should be giving developers a choice over whether to overtly disclose this business model to customers, and I don’t think relying on their community to moderate this is acceptable either. Under the current set up, it’s entirely feasible that if a customer has no prior knowledge of a game, they could be directed to spend money on a game which they would not have done if they had been made aware that the game would be Free To Play at an unspecified date in the future.

I don’t have a problem with developers using this model, but Valve should be making it unequivocally clear to customers when developers are choosing to use this model. A simple entry on the store listing for any games doing this would adequately resolve this situation for me. Under the current system, we’re relying on either developers or the community to inform customers about this. The community is not infallible, and there’s no reason to assume that all developers will opt for transparency if they are given a choice. Fix it please, Valve.

8 Comments Leave yours

  1. Adam B #

    I’m not sure I agree. As far as I’m concerned, when you buy into anything; a car, a movie, a game, a computer, a steaming service, etc. etc. It is up to the customer to do the research on any of the above items. And that includes “Early Access” games. How many times would you blindly buy into any of the above items? I’d wager the response to be, rarely.

    The basic information on offer is usually enough to decipher what early access means. Most people with common sense will say, “early access means unfinished.” And since this is a reasonable assumption, what more does a person need to know?

    If this article is referring to developers that can’t deliver, well, that’s different.

    • Lewie Procter #

      My complaint is that developers are not giving customers the information which they need to make an informed purchase decision.

    • Alex #

      I agree that customers have a responsibility to do research. However, at the same time, publishers have a responsibility to present key information about their game.

      It’s not one or the other – it’s both!

  2. RiptoR #

    Now that you mention it, Hawken’s store page does not mention that it will be free-to-play anywhere. While I’m almost certain this is an unintented omission from the devs, it is indeed something that should not be allowed when they are selling access to the Early Access version.

  3. Guido #

    another problem with the Early Access model is that it encourages explotation. It serves as a “license” to sell unfinished products and basically for developers to be lazy; but it also can be used as a manipulation tool making customers believe that the product they are paying for will “improve” or get more content over time or that they will get something special out of the deal by buying before release as if it was a pre-purchase.

    Something similar to F2P games released by big publishers which even after a year of being out charging microtransactions are still in “Beta” stage. Basically they are saying we don’t thrust our product and if something goes wrong you can’t make us responsible.

    • Crash #

      Saw this recently (exploitation?) with Realms of Arkania – a greenlit game that has released $$ DLC prior to the game even being finished.

      I used to think Steam was pretty awesome, cleanly integrating a reasonable DRM scheme; seeming to integrate Multiplayer (servers); awesome deals, etc etc.

      I’ve recently started to come to a different opinion:
      1) No oversight of the dev’s allowed on Steam: come-one-come-all and sell your drivel on Steam.
      — Allows for “Android/iPad”-ports to PC – with no requirement in the game listing to state such.
      — Allows for “greenlit” games in which the Dev’s don’t even need to finish their games. (worse than KickStarter).
      2) Multi-player games can have their servers shut off.
      —&& Older multi-player games released on steam may or may not have multiplayer still enabled.
      3) No refunds.
      4) No guarantee the game will actually work.
      5) Worst support I’ve ever seen from any company.
      — Example:
      :: I had a password issue. I couldn’t get the Steam client to recognize my password – even though online (browser) access worked.
      :: I started the support request with asking why this might be, and requested they NOT change my password.
      :: Nearly a day later, Steam support resets my password. Steam password reset is the most run-around I’ve ever had in trying to reset a service password.
      — Game Support:
      :: Provided by Users in the forum. Rarely a Dev drops in to help.
      6) No way to sell/or trade a game license. Even though Steam could easily enable this.
      7) No green-lit game oversight. Browse through the greenlit games sometime… a slew of 5-10 year old games are listed there. A slew of Android/PC ports. Basically a whole bunch of dreck mixed in with some newer devs.

      Among many other things…

      It seems Steam is anti-consumer. Sometimes a game’s Metacritic score is presented, sometimes not. You have to dig though user reviews and a given games forums to gauge what Steamers think about a game, as there’s no “Steam-User” rating either.

      Steam hides bad games in with good, makes no differentiation between them. Makes no differentiation between an actual PC game and piss-poor console ports or android ports.

      Doesn’t allow you to sell or trade a license. Yet sells new games for nearly the same price as a physical CD/DVD based game – that you actually own. And provides no guarantee that your game will work, nor give you a refund if it doesn’t.

      I think a game like Magicka represents the worst of what Steam(/digital distribution) has to offer. The game costs $10-$20 and has $70 of DLC…

  4. aDrySandwich #

    This is nothing new, Dota 2 did this years ago.
    I bought into it for £22.99, which granted me a load of in game cosmetic items but also access to the game (in beta at the time). This in spite of it being a free to play title was the only way I could get into the game at the time.

    • Lewie Procter #

      And the store listing made this perfectly clear. I’m not arguing that this is a bad model, I’m arguing that it needs to be made clear to customers.

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