Earlier on, I wrote that bad gaming journalism can only ruin gaming if we (in this context, game devs and audiences) allow it to. I still stand by these words. Now, there is a practice amongst many amateur YouTube game journalists I take exception with: Early Access reviews.
In all frankness, “Early Access Reviews” are a contradictio in terminis. The point of Early Access itself is to enable you to supervise the construction of a game. This serves many functions, including the opportunity for players to talk about bugs, but also for developers to prove traction. Owning an Early Access copy may also serve as a statement by the player, declaring anticipation for the final result.
Back in the good old days, printed gaming outlets would produce previews. These deliberately did not focus on issues specific to the builds they saw, so they would ignore placeholders and bugs. All they cared about was a title’s high concept and promised final result. Some previews would release only concept art or were text only!
The decline of the preview
Some print video game magazines still publish previews. For instance, I got to know about Stray and Deathloop from previews in Edge (which is how I stay up to date with the games industry, even if I often disagree with its writers).
Early Access titles deserve previews too. Why should Early Access titles already have reviews? After all, as long as “Early Access reviews” are regarded by players as credible, it places a heavier burden on smaller developers than on larger ones.
A negative early access review can stifle a developer’s ability to attract funding from investors. Ironically enough, it can also mean that the very points cited as criticisms become harder to address. For instance, addressing “criticisms” related to the environment art, may require a specialist, who in turn requires to be paid with funding from an investor. However, a negative “early access review”, can result in fewer wishlists, which may make it more difficult for studios to attract to funding needed to pay an environment artist.
The pointlessness of “Early Access Reviews”
EARs are a danger to narrative-driven gaming. It is a major grassroots propaganda tool for the big publishers. I’m not saying early access reviewers are paid shills of the big bois. Indeed, they are more like useful idiots. They destroy the credibility of aspiring studios in front of investors and players. Cui bono? Definitely not the players.
“But wait a minute”? Isn’t Early Access also about player feedback? Of course it is. Yet, feedback is about addressing specific issues, such as bugs, whereas reviews are evaluations of a work’s overall merit. And the problem is that an unfinished work cannot reasonably be subjected to evaluations of its overall merit when it has yet to be finished, for good or bad. This is especially true if the “reviewer” does not understand the process by which the developer operates. Playing an early build is not the same as playing the final build. Rather, an early build – when imagined without the bugs and/or placeholders – can provide a premonition of the final build.
Don’t reviewers protect consumers against cash grabs? You can try the current build of Total Rendition for free. However, it should also be noted that Early Access is not for everyone (even if we do encourage everyone to try it). As a company, we expect the bulk of Total Rendition’s revenue to originate from the full version. Completing the final version may take a couple of years from now, and look wildly differently from what you have seen so far. Probably better too.