Understanding ‘Early Access’ (and Why Games Like Fortnite Battle Royale Use it)

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‘What is early access?’ is a question AskAboutGames gets asked now more than ever. That’s because the concept of ‘early access’ is currently increasingly common as a way to release a video game.

Currently some very high profile games are ‘early access’ releases; take Fortnite Battle Royale, for example. Battle Royale, of course, is the spin-off from Fortnite currently proving to be a global sensation; if you want to know more about that game be sure to check out our detailed parent’s guide to the game.

‘Early access’ is actually quite an easy concept to understand. An early access version of a game is made available to the public before the game has been finished. What’s a little harder to comprehend is why that happens. To understand that requires a dip into the recent history of game development.

Before the internet was everyday, games only really used be available as physical copies in boxes. That meant that when a game was released, it had to be entirely finished by the game developers. What the customer got on a disk or cartridge was how the game would stay.

Then it became possible to connect consoles and home computers to the internet, and games makers realised they could ‘update’ games remotely, after release. So even if you bought a game on a disk, an update might be made available over the internet, adding new content to a title, making subtle tweaks or correcting mistakes.

Next, downloading entire games became possible. Those digital titles could also be updated, often many times over, and for years after the original release. It became increasingly common for games to get modified over and over after the consumer had paid for their copy. Some observers even wondered if you could ever call a particular version of a game ‘final’.

At the same time, over about the past few years, there was a boom in smaller ‘indie’ studios making games on low budgets with small teams. Those indies couldn’t always afford the traditional method of making sure a game worked as intended; testing by large specialist teams that would take a great deal of time and money.

Inspired by the notion that games could be updated after the consumer had purchased a copy, the idea came about of releasing an unfished ‘early access’ games to the public, so as to use those early players as testers that would feed-back with reports of problems, ideas for improvements, and thoughts on what works well. Those ‘public testers’ wouldn’t be paid, but they might get a game free, cheap, or simply be thrilled to provide feedback and be involved in the development process. And, of course, they get the game early.

A lot of the most significant early access games initially saw release on crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter, where backers were already supporting a game before it was made. But now numerous games from studios large and small undergo early access, simply because it helps studios make the game their fans want, saves time and money in terms of testing, and assures a game’s quality before release.

It’s worth noting that you might also hear early access refered to as ‘paid-alpha’, or ‘alpha -access’; ‘alpha’ being an industry term to an early version of a game. There are also ‘private betas’, where only invited or registered players can get early access to a game.

There are challenges with early access, of course. For one, if a game isn’t finished, the press aren’t usually willing to review it, for fear of the final game being different from the one they critique. Similarly, early access games aren’t usually eleigable for many sales charts, simply because an unfinished game does not meet the criteria of a ‘full’ game. And many developers find their projects caught between their own vision for the game and conflicting perspectives from players.

Certainly, though, early access can make games hugely popular. Both Minecraft and PlayerUnkown’s BattleGrounds found their fame in early access – though both have now seen full releases. And Fortnite Battle Royale, of course, continues to captivate players across the world without it being fully released.

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