Not all situations are created equal and most come with tradeoffs. When a title goes to Early Access it is, for all intents and purposes, a (soft) launch. The game is live, the players are real, and any money spent by those players will be real too. This is extremely important to note because many of these projects don’t have sufficient funding to get from Early Access to the “full” launch with accompanying marketing push and the like. The team may be [running out of runway] and in desperate need of cash to keep the lights on.
In these situations, Early Access effectively is the game’s actual launch. These teams don’t have the resources to get to the “full” launch, so they are banking on revenue from Early Access to keep the lights on. If the Early Access launch can’t hit its revenue targets, the company will likely take the usual cost-cutting measures – layoffs, scope reduction, or even shut down. It isn’t so much a question of “Should we go Early Access or should we do the full launch later?” so much as “If we don’t go Early Access by this date, we’re going to run out of funding and we’ll all be out of work”.
Going to Early Access like this is also a double-edged sword because the vast majority of a game’s marketing and user acquisition comes from when the game is new. Early Access followed by a “real” launch dulls the newness effect because the “real” launch is typically more like expansion content to the Early Access game than it is a whole new product. It’s much harder to pick up new players when taking an Early Access game to “launch” than it is at the initial launch. This is why Early Access means something very different for AAA games than it does for smaller projects that stay in Early Access for a long time. For AAA games, it is typically part of the marketing push up to launch as a reward for preorders – it allows preorders to play a week or so earlier than others. Small and indie teams don’t always have the funding they need to take this route, which is why they stay in Early Access for a really long time. It certainly isn’t the ideal situation, but it’s a lot better than layoffs.
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