If you were to ask an Xbox representative for the official release date of Starfield, they would tell you that the game was released on September 6th 2023. This is despite the fact that, by that time, the game had already been purchased and played by hundreds of thousands of players in the five days prior.
On September 1st 2023, Starfield was made available five days early to players willing to purchase the game’s premium edition, charging an extra fee for early access to the title. Players buying the game directly were charged nearly £100 for their copy to activate on that date. Players with Xbox GamePass couldn’t play the game on September 1st, despite it being advertised as being available Day One on GamePass, unless they bought a £30 upgrade pass to get that early access.
While we don’t know firm numbers on how many people purchased the premium edition of the game, or the upgrade pass, we know some numbers that indicate that this was a financially successful move for developer Bethesda and publisher Microsoft. On September 1st 230,000 people were concurrently playing Starfield on Steam. This doesn’t include players who were playing at times other than that concurrent peak, or who played between September 2nd and September 5th, or those who made their purchases on Xbox consoles. Still, it’s an indication that a LOT of people paid extra to get the game five days ahead of their peers.
Starfield is not the first video game to make use of this Premium Early Release format, but it is perhaps the most high profile, and its success could set the stage for other developers to follow suit. This isn’t even the only example of this trend that’s going to to occur in September 2023, with Mortal Kombat One due to release on September 14th for those paying extra, and September 19th for those paying the base price of the game.
So today, on Access-Ability, I want to take some time to talk about this trend of premium early releases for games from an accessibility perspective, because there are some definite accessibility barriers posed by the practice, particularly in its current incarnation, which we really need to discuss as an industry while this trend is still in its infancy.
I want to start by recontextualising how we think about these kinds of premium early releases for video games, because I personally find their current framing disingenuous.
If a game like Starfield is made available to higher paying customers on September 1st, and customers paying less on September 6th, then September 1st is its release date.
If any regular member of the public can purchase the game September 1st, play it on Twitch without getting banned for playing an unreleased game, and publish spoiler discussion videos without getting criticism, then the game is released.
These premium early releases are not making the game available ahead of release day as a reward, they’re delaying access to the game by five days if you don’t pay up. The game’s release is being held hostage, with an additional payment dangled tantalising if you want to be able to play the cool new game your friends already have access to.
I think this flipped framing is important, because when you look at these premium early releases through the lens that the game is on sale, just being held back arbitrarily from those not willing or able to pay a premium, it makes it easier to see some of the psychological manipulation involved in the practice.
If you don’t pay that extra fee, you’re going to have to spend five days dodging spoilers.
If you don’t pay that extra fee, you’re going to be considerably behind your friends’ playthroughs, and not able to discuss things with them.
If you don’t pay that extra fee, you’re going to be unable to watch your favourite streamers, because they’re going to be playing the game you’re waiting to play.
At its most surface level, selling a game early to those willing to pay extra fees creates five days of FOMO, fear of missing out, where it feels like everybody but you is playing this cool new game, and you have to tell them that you can’t join in yet.
While this kind of FOMO tactic has the potential to make any potential player spend more money than they otherwise would, disabled gamers are often particularly susceptible to impulse purchase based tactics, and more likely to make decisions that they later regret about these kinds of premium edition purchases. Much like randomised real money loot boxes, these premium early releases are particularly hard to avoid the allure of for players with conditions such as ADHD, Bipolar Disorder sufferers on a manic upswing, hyper fixated Autistic players, and more.
Generally, enticing players into spending more money on the exact same game by limiting access is manipulative, but it is particularly likely to impact disabled players struggling with impulse control, and is the kind of tactic that the video game industry is depressingly frequent these days in making use of.
However, the accessibility implications of this video game release model don’t stop here, and intersect with the way that video game reviews and accessibility information are disseminated.
Reviews for Starfield dropped mere hours before the game’s September 1st early release. No official information had been released detailing the game’s accessibility options, and to my knowledge only one accessibility focused reviewer was granted pre-release review code for the game. You should go watch Steve Saylor’s accessibility review for Starfield, it’s fantastic, it was incredibly helpful to many people, but it was the only source of accessibility information officially available for the game prior to release, and there are aspects of accessibility that it didn’t cover, just due to the inherent fact that no one perspective on accessibility will ever be all encompassing.
I bring this up because, in the case of Xbox, there was an amount of accessibility information about Starfield that was still not known by the time the game was on premium early access sale.
A lot of disabled gamers I know use Xbox Game Pass as a way to test if games are going to be accessible for them or not. It allows disabled players the option to download a new Xbox game on release day and find out either what accessibility options the game has, or in a more practical sense find out if the settings offered are sufficient to allow them to play. Sometimes reading an accessibility review isn’t enough, and you need to play a game yourself to know if you’re going to be able to progress through it.
This is why I find it particularly infuriating when Xbox 1st party studios make use of this premium early access model. For disabled players who want to check if a game is playable for them or not, who aren’t sure based on reviews whether they’re going to be able to play, they’ll either need to wait five days to check if they can play when the game comes to regular Game Pass, or pay a premium to find out at launch.
This isn’t the first Xbox game to make use of this early release tactic, and I can point to an example where I paid to get early access to a game, before regretting having done so.
Forza Horizon 5 was released on November 5th 2021 for those willing to pay a premium to access the game early. I’m not a huge racing game fan, but I typically enjoy the Forza Horizon games. I’m not such a diehard fan that I’d expect to pay extra to play the latest release early, but I did for this title.
In part it’s because I have ADHD, and find it hard to ignore that feeling of FOMO. It was also in part because I saw a news post from the developers that day talking about the game including Sign Language Interpreter support, which was really exciting to hear about and I wanted to see it in practice. I didn’t read closely enough to work out that Sign Language support wouldn’t be coming to the game until multiple months after launch. I would have saved myself £30 if I could have worked that out by just downloading the game on Game Pass and seeing that it wasn’t an option, but I couldn’t do that for another five days.
While I generally dislike this monetisation method, I do want to acknowledge that of all the current examples of this trend, I find Mortal Kombat 1’s situation a little less infuriating. I still think it’s capitalising on FOMO in a way that strongly impacts disabled players, and is manipulative at best, but the big difference is that Mortal Kombat 1 had a Beta test available a month before release. At the very least, a good variety of disabled players had a chance to test out the game in their own homes, without spending money, and share their varied perspectives on accessibility, lessening one area of inaccessibility for this monetisation practice. It’s still capitalising on players with low impulse control, but disabled players at least had an opportunity to try the game out before release day and before reviews rolled around.
Paying almost half of a game’s price to play it five days early is becoming more of a common trend in the video game industry, with Xbox 1st party studios in particular returning to the idea more than once. While I know it’s pitched as an exciting way to play the game early, I think it’s important we remember they could sell it to everyone on that early date if they wanted to, for the regular sale price of a game. They’re choosing to hold it back unless people pay. That’s a tactic designed to get you to pay more money out of fear you’ll miss the cultural moment of release, and that kind of tactic is particularly harmful to disabled gamers who struggle with impulse control and delayed gratification.