Early access to video games and why you should be okay with it.

Today on Twitch.tv a select handful of popular streamers were given access to Dark Souls 3, with permission to stream certain portions of it. The game is not yet released to the general public (at least not in the West) and this caused a number of people to cry foul. “If streamers can play it then it must be finished, they should just release it” seemed to be a common attitude. There was also some people upset about who got access and who didn’t. I think people feeling this way might not share the same perspective as I do about what’s happening in this situation so I felt prompted to share some thoughts.

Twitch as a major player in the games industry is a relatively new kid on the block and is still in the process of coming into its own, however the press media related to the games industry has been around for decades. From the very beginning, pretty much since there was anyone in any kind of publication willing to write about video games, game companies have been giving early copies of their games to the press so that they could play them and write about them with the hope that perhaps it would help them sell more copies of their games. It is not just common, it’s standard practice. It’s also standard for the articles about these games to be published just before the release day so that people will read it and say “that sounds awesome, I think I’m going to go buy that tomorrow”.

But…but…Twitch is different!

One of the many reasons why people fall in love with Twitch streamers is that most of us are not stuffy corporate types in a cubicle somewhere, but real people, real gamers, just playing and having fun, and giving genuine reactions to things. I agree with this sentiment 100% and it’s one of the reasons that I love Twitch so much too. But let’s not lose sight of a very important fact: the top streamers on twitch have more unique visits than most of the top games publications. The twitch viewership is BIGGER than the press. If a company can convince the right streamer to play their game it can sometimes secure the financial success of launch day. Not only that, but more and more we are entering a world where people don’t Google for articles about a game when considering a purchase anymore, but instead will open up Twitch to see who is streaming it, or open up YouTube to look for gameplay videos, and will never even see all the articles that the old guard of games media is writing. Game companies are figuring this out and more and more are giving Twitch streamers the same kind of treatment and access that they have been giving journalists for years.

Early access is exactly what we should want.

There are many reasons why the process of early access for streamers is healthy for the games industry, including increased sales for companies and game buyers being better able to make more informed decisions, but above all else the most important reason in my opinion is that it means that we matter. It means that the game companies value steamers and want to work WITH us instead of against us. Any partnered game broadcaster on Twitch makes money by playing video games that *someone else made*. This opens up the door for legal departments to say “hey that violates our EULA” or “hey, you should be giving us a cut of that” (which is exactly what Nintendo is currently doing on YouTube). When companies instead view streamers as a valuable part of their marketing arm, then instead of fighting about intellectual property, we instead get things like early copies of the game, or direct communication to development teams for reporting problems and giving suggestions for improvement, or game key codes for doing chat room giveaways. In other words, instead of getting sued, we are getting used. Which is much better, as far as I’m concerned.

Why didn’t MY favorite streamer get access? It’s not fair!

This question is among the worst in terms of the amount of angst it can generate among the people who feel someone has been wronged. Here’s the dirty little secret about how this industry works: it’s not fair. When it comes to things like free copies, early access, invitation to events, sponsorships, or pretty much any other type of industry activity, it’s never about what is or isn’t fair. Not everyone will get access or get invited to things. The people not included might get upset about that. Sometimes people will be included that don’t make sense to you, such as a smaller streamer when a larger one was left out. That’s just how it is. There are limited opportunities, and the process of deciding who is “in” and who is “out” is a convoluted mess of inside politics, number crunching and nepotism. It might sound cynical, but for the companies trying to sell games this is about business, not about equality. By nature “fairness” isn’t a factor.

But why can’t I just have it now?

In much the same way that early access has been a thing since the beginning of the industry, so has the gap of time between when a game is “finished” (the proverbial golden master copy) and when it is actually released. The origins of this are mostly physical, although the practice is still relevant today in the digital age. Once the release version of a game is finished it then heads off to the manufacturers to get printed onto disks, and stuffed inside of boxes. Those boxes then have to get shipped all around the world and arrive at various stores so that they can be there in advance of the launch day. This all takes time, and a massive amount of global coordination. Games are sometimes finished months before the public release. This all happens for a number of reasons, which include avoiding spoilers, so that one area doesn’t get it too soon and ruin the game for everyone else and therefore hurt sales. Streamers who are given early access are very commonly under contracts which prohibit them from playing certain parts of the game and specify the exact missions they can play, and what day and time they can start. Another important reasons is the promotion of launch day sales. Game companies learned ages ago that most of the sales of a game happen at launch and within the first week or so, and then once the game is no longer “new” sales trail off dramatically. Imagine making something for years and spending millions to make it, and knowing that you have a week or a month at most to make it a success or the whole thing will fail miserably. You’d be a control freak too. Once the launch date is set, the marketing and PR departments (often the same department, depending on the company) spend the time between game completion and launch doing their best to build public anticipation for the title. This includes giving the game to the press, and Twitch/YouTube content creators to get the public to see and want to play the game. Yes, what I am saying is that the frustration you feel when you see someone playing a game that you can’t have yet is a fabricated marketing strategy. And it works. It makes people want to buy the game. And they do. And the game companies use that money to make more games. Everyone wins.

Early access is here to stay.

No matter how much nerd rage might be tossed in the general direction of game companies on this issue, the fact is we are going to see more and more early access opportunities on Twitch as time goes on. Streamers on Twitch are becoming a valuable part of the marketing strategies of game companies, and that will lead to an increase of sponsorships, early access, review copies, and all sorts of other opportunities that were formally only reserved for the games press. I personally believe that this is a good thing for Twitch and for everyone involved. Companies will sell more games, broadcasters will have more ways to make a living, and viewers can see if a game is good before they go buy it. It will lead to new types of events, new kinds of content, and a healthier industry overall.

~~ Bacon Donut