Access to upcoming games has been around for years in the form of alpha/beta access and preview builds, but recent years have brought about an extended and formalized version in the form of paid early access. From the Xbox with its Game Preview program to Steam Early Access, game retail and distribution platforms are increasing gamer access to in-progress games by enabling developers to sell their games during active development. Providing early builds and input in exchange (plus a healthy amount of pride in supporting passion products as early as possible), the ability to purchase games over a year before planned release has upended the video game industry.
This model allows developers to design and publish a single title in multiple iterations: preview, beta and release builds are each discrete versions that make up part of the overall experience in the game from conception to publication. The ability to make sales earlier than ever also allows independent developers the ability to acquire funds sooner and use the early access offer as a promotional tool to garner interest without having to engage in crowdfunding. While launching campaigns on Kickstarter, Indiegogo or Fig have worked for some projects, they can also be a significant drain to market successfully and fulfill rewards for.
Buzzworthy projects like The Long Dark and We Happy Few have recently used the early access model with substantial success. As the game development industry continues its explosive growth in release volume, early access is an important distribution model to garner attention, raise funds and engage players in the games that choose this innovative method.