Early Access Is My New Favourite Way To Play Games

I’ve been dabbling in Valheim lately and it’s brilliant. I love punching trees to death, except for when this leads to death by tree. I’m a big fan of building houses, except for when I see that other people have put together bonafide strongholds that are slightly more impressive than my four-by-four half-shack with no door and a thatched roof made up of enough different-sized cuts to make it asymmetry incarnate. I think it’s really cool and also really unfair that somebody was clever enough to construct a functional sundial that accurately tells the in-game time. Someone who is both cool and clever? Illegal. You can only be one of those things.

A lot of these dichotomies – where I love something but soon discover that, actually, I know nothing about it and it’s far more fascinating than I originally thought – are because of the fact that Valheim is in Early Access. If it were completely polished and had launched in its final state, I don’t imagine trees would collapse like Jenga towers, or that people would be trapping trolls in little towers to keep them as still-hostile but incapable-of-actually-touching-you pets. Well, I’m not sure if a troll is a pet, but is it a friend if it’s still, like, murdery? Acquaintance. Incapable-of-actually-touching-you-acquaintances, like when you work in retail and your anime rival equivalent gives you the daggers for having to help an old lady with her shopping while they clean up baby puke (reader, I was the one cleaning up baby puke).

Anyway, enough baby puke. There’s something really special about Early Access. I think it has a prominent effect on how a game’s community develops – it’s like growing up alongside a game as it continues to expand, and refine itself, and, given the nature of Early Access, tailor itself to the interests of you and the community around you. By the time a new update rolls around, you’ve had time to master everything that came before, which makes any new systems or additions all the more exciting.

In that way, it kind of reminds me of the joy of playing games when I was a kid. That sense of discovery, where you’d be playing the same game you’d already played ten times before – I’m not sure about you, but I only had about three games – and all of a sudden you find something interesting and boom! It’s a whole new world. I didn’t know the Old Amber existed the first time I played Pokemon Blue – or the second time, or the third. And so, during my umpteenth journey through Kanto, figuring out how to finally resurrect Aerodactyl completely revitalized the game for me.

I think Early Access’ content additions resemble that same sense of wonder all too well. They’re based on looking at the same game from a different perspective. Whether updates are tiny or massive has very little to do with the experiential aspects of this – sure, more new content probably means more hours of play, but even the most minor change can have a major impact when it alters something you’ve become intimately familiar with. It’s like a live-service game with the sensibilities of a content-complete one.

Over the last year, I’ve been spending a huge amount of time with Early Access games. I got into Temtem last January and still tune in every so often. To be honest, I’ll probably invest another 25 hours within the first week of Cipanku dropping in a few months’ time. I’m also incredibly excited about the future of Baldur’s Gate 3. I’ve already rinsed the Early Access build twice, and I’m dying to see how my Tiefling warlock fares on the other side of the Underdark. I felt pretty underleveled during the last couple of sections given how frequently I’d been using deception checks to avoid combat, so, honestly, I’m ecstatic about the premise of being able to lie through my teeth again, as opposed to having them kicked in by a nasty gray dwarf.

Hades is one of my favourite games ever made. For what it’s worth, I genuinely reckon Supergiant’s roguelite hit is in the process of revolutionizing Early Access. Yes, it’s been launched in full now, but how many devs saw its model and thought, “Wow, that was handled brilliantly”? I’ll never forget finally being able to see the true ending. That music, that dialogue, that context that had been buried for so long beforehand… Hades wouldn’t be the game it is without the fact that it was released in sections, and I think Supergiant’s recognition of that is what ultimately led to it become one of the best games in years.

Obviously there are loads of other Early Access games as well. I’ve heard great things about Griftlands. I had a lot of fun when GTFO launched, and have been meaning to round up some pals to have another go at it soon. I have several friends who are incapable of going four seconds without talking about how good Risk of Rain 2 is. Rust, Phasmophobia, Deep Rock Galactic – all games I’m dying to play that have absolutely reveled in their Early Access status. I haven’t even mentioned Slay the Spire, which I started playing recently and have been completely blown away by. Fighting monsters with cards? It’s like medieval Yu-Gi-Oh!

I understand the scepticism some people have when it comes to Early Access – that they’re going to get an unfinished game that’s broken in places, or that they’re going to exhaust the content too quickly and be left without a satisfying conclusion. I get it! But I also wonder if this is a concern based on experience with the format, or if it’s literally just scepticism based on the overall premise. As someone who is more than willing to check out Early Access titles, I can confidently say that getting in early and watching them grow is a real pleasure. Also, I can see this formula being adopted by loads of devs over the next few years – it just makes sense.

So, if you’re still unsure… Well, why not give Valheim a go? It’s a pretty great example of Early Access done well, and it will give you a taste of what it feels like to travel alongside a game from beta to launch. By the time you reach the end… Well, it’s only just beginning, isn’t it?

Next: Why Pedro Pascal And Bella Ramsey Are Perfect For The Last Of Us

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Cian Maher is the Lead Features Editor at TheGamer. He’s also had work published in The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Verge, Vice, Wired, and more. You can find him on Twitter @cianmaher0.

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