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An empirical study of early access games on the Steam platform


“Early access” is a release strategy for software that allows consumers to purchase an unfinished version of the software. In turn, consumers can influence the software development process by giving developers early feedback. This early access model has become increasingly popular through digital distribution platforms, such as Steam which is the most popular distribution platform for games. The plethora of options offered by Steam to communicate between developers and game players contribute to the popularity of the early access model. The model is considered a success by the game development community as several games using this approach have gained a large user base (i.e., owners) and high sales. On the other hand, the benefits of the early access model have been questioned as well. In this paper, we conduct an empirical study on 1,182 Early Access Games (EAGs) on the Steam platform to understand the characteristics, advantages and limitations of the early access model. We find that 15% of the games on Steam make use of the early access model, with the most popular EAG having as many as 29 million owners. 88% of the EAGs are classified by their developers as so-called “indie” games, indicating that most EAGs are developed by individual developers or small studios. We study the interaction between players and developers of EAGs and the Steam platform. We observe that on the one hand, developers update their games more frequently in the early access stage. On the other hand, the percentage of players that review a game during its early access stage is lower than the percentage of players that review the game after it leaves the early access stage. However, the average rating of the reviews is much higher during the early access stage, suggesting that players are more tolerant of imperfections in the early access stage. The positive review rate does not correlate with the length or the game update frequency of the early access stage. Based on our findings, we suggest game developers to use the early access model as a method for eliciting early feedback and more positive reviews to attract additional new players. In addition, our findings suggest that developers can determine their release schedule without worrying about the length of the early access stage and the game update frequency during the early access stage.

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We are grateful to Sergey Galyonkin, the owner of Steam Spy, who generously gave us access to all the historical data of Steam collected by Steam Spy for this research. We also thank professor Jennifer R. Whitson from the University of Waterloo and Mr. Patrick Walker from EEDAR for the inspiring discussions about the gaming industry.

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Correspondence to Dayi Lin.

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Communicated by: Massimiliano Di Penta

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Lin, D., Bezemer, CP. & Hassan, A.E. An empirical study of early access games on the Steam platform. Empir Software Eng 23, 771–799 (2018).

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  • Early access games
  • Computer games
  • Steam