Steam closes refund policy loophole, finally comes up with a name for the thing where you can play a game early if you pre-order

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(Image credit: Valve)

Few videogame marketing terms are more aggravatingly ambiguous than "early access." Most painfully, it can refer to two very different scenarios: Sometimes it means putting an in-development game on sale before it's done, and other times it means offering access to a finished game early, typically as a deluxe edition preorder bonus. Starfield offered several days of "early access" with its Premium Edition, for instance.

Steam, the platform responsible for popularizing the first meaning of early access, has had enough. It's now designating the latter scenario, when a developer offers pre-launch access to a completed game, "Advanced Access."

"Unlike Early Access, Advanced Access is not a unique model of development for a game, it's simply an opportunity to play a game before it fully releases on Steam," says the platform.

Is it just the exact same term, but with a synonym for "early" swapped in? Yes. But I don't have a better suggestion, so I'll take it. Please, EA, Ubisoft, and everyone else, do us a favor and play along. (Or, even better, stop it with that annoying preorder incentive altogether!)

I'm sure someone at Valve shares my irritation with the fluctuating meaning of "early access," but the new distinction probably has less to do with that, and more to do with a refund loophole. Apparently, when you got advanced access to a game in the past, your pre-release playtime didn't count toward the two-hour refund window. Now that Steam has formalized advanced access, it does.

Steam's updated refund policy still includes one exception to the two-hour rule, "beta testing," which refers to special beta builds of games that developers can make available for a limited time. So, if you accept an invite to a free playtest on Steam, it won't contribute to your playtime should you later buy the game. But if you pre-purchase a game, and then gain advanced access to it, your playtime will count toward the two-hour limit for automatic refund approval.

The potential for confusion still exists, because sometimes developers call advanced access periods beta periods, even if nobody thinks it's sensible to claim you're "beta testing" a game two days before its wide release. But it's progress.

The new Steam functionality also allows players to write user reviews during the advanced access period. In the past, you'd sometimes see games with thousands of concurrent players but no reviews, because they weren't technically "out" yet. (I still object to the idea that a game isn't "out" if you can pay a deluxe edition fee to play it, but that means rejecting the idea of "advanced access" altogether, and we'd be here all day if I tried to fully work that thought out.)

Tyler Wilde
Executive Editor

Tyler grew up in Silicon Valley during the '80s and '90s, playing games like Zork and Arkanoid on early PCs. He was later captivated by Myst, SimCity, Civilization, Command & Conquer, all the shooters they call "boomer shooters" now, and PS1 classic Bushido Blade (that's right: he had Bleem!). Tyler joined PC Gamer in 2011, and today he's focused on the site's news coverage. His hobbies include amateur boxing and adding to his 1,200-plus hours in Rocket League.