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Steam Updates Early Access Rules, Guidelines For Developers

Valve appears to recognize Early Access has burned some customers, and it needs to clarify what the platform is really for.

Monetization of the development process has proven controversial. While Steam's Early Access program lets players participate in creation, it's led to confusion and anxiety when games go off the rails. Valve issued new documentation to developers about Early Access today, suggesting it knows it's an issue.

No Caption Provided

Several developers confirmed the existence of these new guidelines to me this morning.

The updated documentation is broken up into sets of "rules" and "guidelines," and opens with Valve trying to define exactly what Early Access is. It's mostly familiar, but written with the benefit of experience.

"Steam Early Access is a way to invite customers to get involved with your game as you develop, so that you can get the feedback you need to make better informed product decisions and to ensure the best outcome for your customers and fans. When you launch a game in Steam Early Access, there is an expectation by customers that you will continue development to a point where you have what you consider a 'finished' game. We know that nobody can predict the future, and circumstances frequently change, which may result in a game failing to reach a 'finished' state, or may fail to meet customer expectations in some other way. We work hard to make sure this risk is communicated clearly to customers, but we also ask that developers follow a set of rules that are intended to help inform customers and set proper expectations when purchasing your game."

First up, rules. This aspect is non-negotiable for Early Access participants. Valve now asks developers to specifically brand games as being in "Early Access" when Steam keys are being distributed off-site. This makes sense. Nobody should be buying a Steam key for a game without knowing it's not quite finished yet. Besides branding, Valve also asks developers to communicate the current status of the project.

"We work really hard to make sure that customers understand what they are buying when they get an Early Access title on Steam. But we've seen that many of these titles are sold as keys on other websites where there is no explanation of what Early Access is or what the current state of your product is now versus what you hope to achieve."

Interestingly, developers are now asked to avoid "specific promises about future events." This is likely to avoid developers bragging about how their game will eventually have co-op and other features that might be axed. This could lead to projects being more vague but more realistic about can really happen.

"For example, there is no way you can know exactly when the game will be finished, that the game will be finished, or that planned future additions will definitely happen. Do not ask your customers to bet on the future of your game. Customers should be buying your game based on its current state, not on promises of a future that may or may not be realized."

Next, Valve requires developers to launch on Early Access as the same time it's unlocked on other storefronts or web sites. Furthermore, sales have to be consistent, and developers cannot charge more on Steam than they're charging elsewhere. Consistency is key.

"We expect Steam customers to get a price for the Early Access game no higher than they are offered on any other service or website. Please make sure that’s the case."

What follows next are a series of guidelines, recommendations borne out of Valve watching some developers crash and burn on Early Access. We've all witnessed this. When it happens, it hurts everyone. Consumers begin to distrust Early Access (and the idea of participatory development more generally), and become wary of buying into the promise of new games, even if the circumstances are very different.

Since this section is so interesting, I'll just quote the whole thing.

"Don’t launch in Early Access if you can’t afford to develop with very few or no sales.

There is no guarantee that your game will sell as many units as you anticipate. If you are counting on selling a specific number of units to survive and complete your game, then you need to think carefully about what it would mean for you or your team if you don't sell that many units. Are you willing to continue developing the game without any sales? Are you willing to seek other forms of investment?

Make sure you set expectations properly everywhere you talk about your game.

For example, if you know your updates during Early Access will break save files or make the customer start over with building something, make sure you say that up front. And say this everywhere you sell your Steam keys.

Don't launch in Early Access without a playable game.

If you have a tech demo, but not much gameplay yet, then it’s probably too early to launch in Early Access. If you are trying to test out a concept and haven't yet figured out what players are going to do in your game that makes it fun, then it's probably too early. You might want to start by giving out keys to select fans and getting input from a smaller and focused group of users before you post your title to Early Access. At a bare minimum, you will need a video that shows in-game gameplay of what it looks like to play the game. Even if you are asking customers for feedback on changing the gameplay, customers need something to start with in order to give informed feedback and suggestions.

Don't launch in Early Access if you are done with development.

If you have all your gameplay defined already and are just looking for final bug testing, then Early Access isn’t the right place for that. You’ll probably just want to send out some keys to fans or do more internal playtesting. Early Access is intended as a place where customers can have impact on the game."

Every single one of those bullet points has been echoed before. Being able to see how a game goes through the ugly, often frustrating process of development is amazing, and the benefits certainly outweigh the problems. Game development has previously been mysterious. Now, less so. Yes, players will occasionally get burned on a game that doesn't pan out. That sort of risk is just inherent to these kinds of ventures.

Nonetheless, it doesn't absolve developers (or Steam/Valve) from making sure consumers are aware of the leap they're making. Failure is always a possibility, but if everyone is communicating, that's okay.

These guidelines and rules seem like a step in that direction, but the guidelines remain exactly that: guidelines. They're not rules, which means developers might still be tempted by potential Steam sales.

Patrick Klepek on Google+

72 Comments

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nophilip

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Edited By nophilip

It's quite a bit late, but I'm really glad to see Valve taking this step. Early Access isn't a bad idea, but it's caused quite a few problems in its current form.

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JoshuaShore

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Edited By JoshuaShore

Great article as always - makes me wonder who the audience for Early Access is nowadays?

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Rayeth

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Nice to see Vavle at least trying to clean up the Early Access mess. I doubt this will stem the tide of junk being shoved in there, but hopefully it will at least slow it down and maybe make some dev consider skipping it altogether.

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mbr2

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Great article as always - makes me wonder who the audience is for Early Access is nowadays?

People who are interested in game development?

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KogX

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Nice to see more rules also like the nods to what happened over the last few weeks. But to me it seems like it is still every vague.

I still feel like there will be people who will buy Early Access games even with all the signs saying it is not finished. I am also curious how many people who are demanding Valve to do this are actually tricked into buying the games or if they became disillusioned to the game is going to be down the road.

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BabyChooChoo

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Took 'em long enough, but good on 'em anyway

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Sil3n7

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These rules basically boil down to: be honest.

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hassun

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Edited By hassun

I hope this will have some positive effect on the games arriving on steam through early access. Even if they're just guidelines.

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Sin4profit

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I think all Early Access games should have to include a Steam controlled, "timed access" demo for consumers to get a sense of the state of the game.

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deathbyyeti

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What about treating your customer and games like crap then just farting out one last miserable update calling it "finished" and expect people to take it? Like Spacebase

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klragrmndfvrarg

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That one line seems like it might in reference to that incident with Spacebase DF-9. Sounds like a useful warning. I always wondered if funding development through EA sales were allowed. I guess it is, at the developers' own risk.

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hammondoftexas

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Edited By hammondoftexas

This is a good first step from Valve!

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forteexe21

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Edited By forteexe21

Now we just need Kickstarter to do something similar.

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Amikron

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Edited By Amikron

@sccdemir said:

That one line seems like it might in reference to that incident with Spacebase DF-9. Sounds like a useful warning. I always wondered if funding development through EA sales were allowed. I guess it is, at the developers' own risk.

The whole thing reads like Valve reacting to the recent Double Fine stuff, even though they are basically just reiterating what they've already said in the past.

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NicoTn

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"Don’t launch in Early Access if you can’t afford to develop with very few or no sales.

This feels like a direct action directed towards Double Fine's SpaceBase DF9.

Good job finally putting your foot down valve.

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gbrading

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This is a really good set of rules Steam have come up with; the question is will they actually enforce them?

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zeroasher

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The guideline or "advice" about having a game with gameplay reminds me of the recent release "Dragon" and how all the videos I saw showed that there was basically nothing actually in the game yet.

Honestly I don't think that's a good way to start showing off your game and I hope that this guideline and the one above about not expecting sales from EA will make developers more cautious about releasing games in such a state.

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vhold

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Edited By vhold

"We expect Steam customers to get a price for the Early Access game no higher than they are offered on any other service or website. Please make sure that’s the case."

I wonder if Valve will enforce this by running sales on a developer's game if they find them selling it for cheaper.

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koolaid

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It's so strange to me that early access as a "bad trend" even came up in GOTY discussions last year. But I'm all for policies that manage expectations and reduce unhappy players.

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archangel0183

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Maybe what needs to happen here is give the developer a designated time to shoot for to finish the game. If this seems unattainable then maybe the deadline can be revisited. Not giving a deadline, in my opinion, may lead to games never being finished and always in a state of "Early Access."

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DieHappyGames

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The key is in the first sentence: "Steam Early Access is a way to invite customers to get involved with your game as you develop" - it is NOT intended as a means of funding your development. If your game is at the point where development is going to crumble without $X revenue from early access sales, then it's already doomed. They're also right to assert that an Early Access game should be selling the game as it is in this moment, not based on the promise of what it hopes to be. I wish they could standardize the expectation that all reviews of Early Access games are based purely on what they are at time of review, rather than how excited the reviewer is about the direction it's heading. I appreciate that GiantBomb has always been very cautious when it comes to covering games that are still under-development.

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TehPickle

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Edited By TehPickle
@nophilip said:

It's quite a bit late, but I'm really glad to see Valve taking this step. Early Access isn't a bad idea, but it's caused quite a few problems in its current form.

I couldn't agree more with this.

I'll be interested to see how the guidelines are 'enforced.' I realise that's something of a paradox, but what if a particularly stubborn little upstart developer came along and defended itself with combinations (or indeed all) of:

'We thought we could develop the game with no sales. We still can, we put out a bug tiny bug fix 4 months ago'

'We didn't think our game updates would break save files, every time it happens, it's an accident'

'We believe our game of being in an open field with a building and some trees is gameplay!'

'Our open field with a building and some trees is just the beginning!'

I'll be curious to see how much of this grey area Valve will tolerate before they step in, and how that might vary on a case by case basis.

While I applaud Valve for taking these steps (though I have to admit, it's slightly more /golfclap), I think there's a still a long way to go before it's even remotely safe for the average, less informed customer.

If any of you aren't already aware of it, Jim Sterling has a playlist of interesting examples of Early Access. It's a hilarious, horrifying and very rarely pleasantly surprising look at what developers are allowed to do with EA. Some of these games have since been obliterated by Valve, but I find it fascinating how others continue to 'get away with it' when the lines for what is and isn't 'acceptable' are so very very vague. They also makes me quite passionately angry sometimes too. Worth a look, for sure!

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RuthLoose

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Edited By RuthLoose

Does Steam have a feature for Early Access titles to have any kind of post-gameplay survey or bug reporting? I don't think the idea of Early Access is inherently wrong, but to make the whole thing more accountable on both ends should be ideal in the long run.

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MonkfishEsq

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Early access isn't the problem with Steam any more, it's that anyone can get absolute trash published to the store to quickly scam some quick money out of idiot consumers.

See The Slaughtering Grounds which caused a minor incident when the developer had a complete breakdown on youtube.

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lachrymoses

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Edited By lachrymoses

Wow, how will Doublefine make games now? Or not make them and just cancel them after taking people's money.

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spraynardtatum

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I wonder what DayZ will be like when it's finally out of Early Access. It's a game where most of the players are already comfortable with looking past tons of technical issues, I almost can't imagine it running well.

The idea for that game was so compelling but the development of it just seems so aimless.

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Slag

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Edited By Slag

Without any enforcement of these guidelines or curating from Valve, this won't matter.

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ripelivejam

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@lachrymoses: since when have double fine cancelled an announced game?

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bacongames

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There's a lot of assumptive and self-serving snark over Spacebase when in reality, the use of Early Access to fund games in development isn't something DF invented. If they came to the idea that it will fund development, then so did a lot of others. There are so many games that fit each and every problem on Early Access right now that it's a lot bigger than any one case even though Spacebase was one where it ran out of money partially from lack of sufficient Early Access revenue. Maybe it is the case that Spacebase was high profile enough to help push it along but I highly doubt this came just from that.

Indeed it's an interesting turn in the framing of it, that games not rely on Early Access sales to fund the development. I would argue that even more so is advising customers to buy the game for what it is now and not promises in the future while advising devs to move away from concrete promises. All of these but the latter in particular address the core "issue" with a lot of expectation management on Early Access; developers making concrete promises, largely because they genuinely think they can do them, customers who come with loaded expectations because many don't understand what can happen in development but they paid their cash either way and when any of those concrete promises don't make it, people get rightfully and wrongfully pissed.

Adjusting expectations and discouraging putting the bomb in the hands of the customers when Early Access revenue slows down is smart.

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Anytus2007

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I'm really disappointed that Valve has basically officially shut down Early Access as an alternative funding source. I always thought that at least part of its purpose was to be a sort of Kickstarter-esque alternative to traditional investment avenues. You buy into the Early Access product and if it fails to get enough sales then that's all you get. It seem like a totally reasonable model as long as you're upfront about it. (And I'm sorry for all the people who felt burned by Spacebase DF-9, but it was very clear to me from the beginning that this was the model they were going for. Doesn't mean they communicated it well, just that I can't empathize with your anger.)

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spraynardtatum

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Yogscast should try again. Maybe they can steal more money.

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BobBarker

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Edited By BobBarker

Spacebase is a prime example of everything that is wrong with Early Access. Double Fine alone has turned plenty of people away from Early Access after realizing that an established company can just abandon a project because the development costs were not going to 100% covered by early access purchases. It also sets a terrible precedent that early access games can just be abandoned at will over relatively minor set-backs, if you could even call it that in this case.

I'm glad to see Valve putting some guidelines in place to say "No, this isn't a real-time Kickstarter without funding goals".

I also appreciate the part about tech-demos, as in the case of Spacebase where there was minimal "game" and even now in it's "1.0" state still feels like a buggy vertical slice of a potential game.

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josheru

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A lot of this looks like a step in the right direction, but it seems like a rule set designed to incorporate more early access games without adding stress to the Greenlight process. It just feels like Valve wants to regulate with rules instead of professional evaluations.

For example:

If you have a tech demo, but not much gameplay yet, then it’s probably too early to launch in Early Access

This quote puts the onus of "when to release on Steam" decisions on the developer. I don't like that one bit. Many of the developers that these rules are meant for are the very same developers who don't follow rules.

I just think Steam's Greenlight process is allowing too many early access games, and with little to no supervision at all in the name of efficiency and increasing their income with as little spending on moderation as possible. I read an article on MOBAs in GameInformer last month, every single game mentioned was a barely functioning early access game. Reviewers need to stop giving so much page space to unfinished games; it's only going to encourage more terribads in the business.

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lowestformofwit

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Excellent spot Patrick.

It's encouraging to see Valve start to be a bit more responsible about their early access program. I'd personally like to see them go further though. If the focus of the program is to involve the community (who purchased the title) in the development process then I think they should set up official channels of communication between the developers and, let's call them the backers. Make the developers accountable for maintaining a level of dialogue with the backers and hopefully we would see some ideas taken on board. If this happened then I'd be happy to participate in early access again.

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telecommand

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Pro Wrestling X is the first game on Early Access I've seen which properly and clearly communicates exactly why they are on Early Access and exactly what you will get for your $9.99. It made me happy to see!

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Cagliostro88

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Edited By Cagliostro88

Having been burned in the recent past by DoubleFine with Spacebase DF-9, i'm very glad to hear these news from Valve :)

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chiablo

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Valve should blacklist Double Fine and prevent them from doing Early Access ever again.

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Slaegar

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@chiablo: They should probably blacklist any dev that pulls that sort of thing unless they are willing to go back and finish their game.

DF-9 looked pretty cool too, glad I held off.

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shodan2020

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Great article as always - makes me wonder who the audience for Early Access is nowadays?

I like early access for games i'm really interested in. If the game gets finished, you'll usually get the full version for whatever you bought into it.

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fisk0

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fisk0  Moderator

I'm really disappointed that Valve has basically officially shut down Early Access as an alternative funding source. I always thought that at least part of its purpose was to be a sort of Kickstarter-esque alternative to traditional investment avenues. You buy into the Early Access product and if it fails to get enough sales then that's all you get. It seem like a totally reasonable model as long as you're upfront about it. (And I'm sorry for all the people who felt burned by Spacebase DF-9, but it was very clear to me from the beginning that this was the model they were going for. Doesn't mean they communicated it well, just that I can't empathize with your anger.)

The problem then is that Early Access would need some kind of lowest number of sales (pre-orders?) bar to reach before steam hands over the money to the developer, since if they expect sales to directly fund the development, just selling a couple of copies won't do it.

If we look at the average kickstarter goals (around $75-100k) and the average prices on early access ($15-20), they'd need several thousands of copies sold to get the equivalent funds of a kickstarter campaign, and I think sales like that are unrealistic if there isn't already enough of a game there. Beyond stuff like The Forest and Rust, I don't think most early access games have sold more than a thousand copies.

I think they should already be sure to be able to complete the basic game they're aiming to create before getting on early access, and using the sales to expand on that game.

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Enns

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Patrick says the good outweighs the bad but I think there's too much snake oil type stuff in the early access market. I'm not saying all early access is bad though, it allows the chance for great and original games to exist and for the little guy to make it. I simply want the people selling it to be honest, the people in position to inform being critical of content, and the people buying to wise up. In my opinion steam early access is barely above the quality of the XBL indie market place.

A cool thing about our hobby is how wide of an audience it can appeal to. At it's core are those of us that love games and our inherent love and want of a game that strikes us is easily taken advantage of. To clarify, my enthusiasm for games has me subscribed to this site. In no way do I believe this site to be a sham or a ripoff. The content is entertaining and it's staff true to themselves. I just want to express the idea that it's similar to the enthusiasm for investing in something like Star Citizen or a "whale" buying more energy for their mobile game and the guy that shells out hundreds of dollars for a virtual reality helmet.

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jackburtonme

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Interesting and good to see that Valve is at least creating the appearing of working on this. Thanks, Patrick!

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lachrymoses

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eccentrix

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The "don't have sales or talk about your game in the wrong way on other sites" rules are weird. No more early Humble Bundle sales, I guess.

I hadn't heard about the Spacebase DF-9 thing and I own the game. Nor can I find any mention of it on the store page. They're still selling it. If you're selling a game, it's not canned. All I can see in their still-frequent updates is "We’ve learned a lot and are proud of what we managed to accomplish." "We are not silently pulling the plug" indeed.

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impartialgecko

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I have yet to see the benefits of Early Access for anyone other than the developer.

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Protome

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Being more up front and realistic about the future of the games definitely seems like the best way forward for this stuff. Will help limit overreactions like the Spacebase nonsense again.

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DAOWAce

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"Good" is all I can really say.

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Incar

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It's a step in the right direction, but I still don't trust early access in most cases. If a good price point is given for what's currently functional and enjoyable, I may consider, but that's the extent of it.