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PS4 ‘Early Access’ – empowering gamers or just a cash cow?

Sony PS4 White 4

Early Access has been huge for Steam, and it looks like PS4 is keen to follow in its footsteps

Sony is seriously thinking of following in the footsteps of Steam by making PS4 games available to buy and play before they are even finished – what Steam calls its Early Access programme. It confirmed as much recently when Adam Boyes, VP of Developer and Publisher Relations in the US, did an interview with industry website Gamasutra.

To summarise Boyes said that the issue is a “massive conversation” going on every day at Sony. He said: “We don’t want somebody to stumble across that title and expect a full product, and have a negative experience.” And that they were working through how it would work, how quality control would be factored in, but that “it’s something on the top of my mind every day”.

It’s hardly surprising, Steam Early Access games are very successful, with fan favourites often topping the charts of the PC download service. However, PC gamers are far more forgiving of bugs, rough fan-made content and partly finished software in general, in comes with the territory. While console gamers are pretty much used to everything working all the time, bar the occasion bug in hugely complex games.

The idea of launching games that are unfinished clashes with Sony’s (and Microsoft’s) stringent quality controls for the platform, as I well know having previously been responsible (in a former life) for passing PS2 software through Sony’s stringent TRC (Technical Requirements Checklist). So this would be a huge change in the working practices of the PlayStation brand that date back right to its origins. Sony will have to be very careful this isn’t abused to sell half-finished software to desperate punters.

The most positive aspect could be early access to smaller, indie, titles from small or independent publishers, allowing for fan feedback into the development process. This provides invaluable testing and balancing, especially for smaller developers who may lack the resources for extensive testing and fine tuning.

Of course the game wouldn’t have to be running on the PS4 itself. Using the upcoming PlayStation Now technology, gamers could play a virtual version of the game on a distant server, which would allow for far easier technical feedback and bug reporting than a game run locally. It would also mean that any serious crashes or bugs wouldn’t affect the stability

A more worrying take would be that this could simply be a plan to sell access to highly-polished, and practically finished, beta tests such as for Destiny. This would provide publishers with a pre-release revenue stream and possibly tie consumers, who are desperate to play such betas, into a digital purchase through the service, rather than a disc-based one. Platform holders such as Sony could effectively remove a huge section of the secondhand market and up their profits by cutting out retailers, if they could increase their digital sales in this way.

Of course all of this is speculation, but Sony has done very well out of its push for better developer relations and independent publishing on the PS4. Microsoft is now catching up, with talk of making every Xbox One a development kit. With no one knowing where the next Minecraft is coming from, both companies may be finally willing to loosen the quality-control leash on developers in order to find that next big smash hit.

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