SofaBlog #7: The New Beta

The New Beta

Perpetual Development and Half Finished Games

    It’s no secret that if you intend on creating a product, you should test it before calling it finished. Whether you are creating underpants or the next AAA video game it gets checked and double checked before it leaves your office. In the video game and software world testing is often broken up, primarily, into two stages; Alpha Testing, where the very basic version of the software is tested for bugs that may be easier to fix if caught early, and Beta Testing, Where a close to finished product it inspected and abused to find any possible bugs that were missed in the development process. Alpha and Beta testing has typically been conducted within the confines of a software developers office, perhaps including select outside individuals, and can be very effective. However a recent trend has seen Alpha and Beta testing move from fixing a game before it’s released to releasing a partially finished game and simply calling it a paid Alpha or Beta.

    It’s worth noting that a large reason for internal only testing was due to distribution methods. Until very recently the best way to get your software in someone's hands was to give them physical media such as a CD or DVD. It meant that in order to distribute your game for beta testing you had to create game discs and physically send them to testers. This was much less convenient and more expensive than just conducting the testing within your own office. In the last several years game distribution as changed though. Instead of delivering physical media to your customers hands, more and more publishers are adopting digital distribution services. As a publisher you can launch a game and reach a large population of consumers without ever having to create a physical copy of the game. This makes Beta testing on a large scale much faster and easier than in years past. Now instead of having customers pre-order a game, you can just have them purchase a Beta version of the game and send updates to them as they are created. Although being able to easily distribute your game for testing can be a good or bad thing for the player.

One of the first games to really take off as a “paid Beta” was Minecraft by Mojang. Minecraft was distributed exclusively digitally and quickly gained popularity even when it was in Alpha testing stages. This strategy was extremely effective for the independent developer Mojang. Allowing players to have access to the game as it was moving through Alpha and Beta testing enticed considerably more players to pre-purchase the game then a simple pre-order alone would. Minecraft quickly adopted a perpetual development model that brought in even more players due to the promise of continuous new features after only a single investment. Each update to Minecraft generated an enormous buzz on the internet, from players eager to see the new features, helping to spread the popularity of the game. Keep in mind that the studio Mojang was originally formed expressly to create Minecraft. This means they had no prior customers and attracting investors was next to impossible. Asking gamers to purchase what they had so far with the promise of more was probably their best bet to be able to make it to the next update, financially. It’s certain that Minecraft would not be the game it is today without the advantages of paid Alpha and Beta and perpetual development, and we are thankful for that. Though for other companies this isn’t the case.  When we look at game publishers with a well established customer base and game catalog it is much easier to wait until after Beta testing to release a game.

More and more big name publishers and developers have jumped on the paid Beta band wagon. It would be a feat to be able to open Steam, Valve Software’s popular digital distribution platform, and not see a game for sale labeled as “early access beta”. It makes sense that even successful game studios want to monetize their product as soon as possible, but is it really necessary? From my perspective it appears that this attitude of releasing a Beta version of a game has moved beyond even those that openly call their game Beta. In the past years several major game publishers have released games plagued with bugs. Each publisher has never failed to eventually release a patch or update that resolves the problem, but these can take weeks to be released. This also doesn’t change the fact that a game was released by an enormous game publisher that contained bugs that should have been caught with proper testing. These publishers appear to have the attitude of just get the game out there and we can fix it later. Personally I find this extremely frustrating and cannot believe how often it occurs. I then ask myself, is it upsetting because a semi-complete game was released and I had to wait for the update, or is it that it was called finished? Does simply calling your game Alpha, Beta, or early magically make it okay to put out a half completed game?

    I’ll be the first to admit that when I hear about a new game from the developer Double Fine I want to play it right away. I also understand that in order to have an enjoyable experience, countless hours of work need to be put into making sure the game is ready to be called finished. Take a look at the game Spacebase DF-9. Double Fine studios is creating a space simulator game that has you creating and managing a small space colony. It’s a really neat idea and I can tell you with certainty that at a basic level it’s really fun. I say “at a basic level” because that’s all I really know. You can go onto Steam right now and buy into the Paid-Alpha of Spacebase DF-9. Double Fine has labeled the game’s current state as “Alpha” meaning it should be a barely playable version of the game to test out basic features. For the most part it really is. The game’s controls need much refining, half the buttons and features are just useless placeholders, the available parts to build with are extremely limited, and many of the parts you do have don’t actually have a function. My time spent with the game now is mostly waiting for a new update so I can play a slightly more finished game. I’ve had a lot of fun playing Spacebase DF-9 and greatly anticipate the finished product, but I can’t help but feel like Double Fine put together a very rough unfinished game and put it on Steam just to see if it would sell. I keep telling myself “it’s only in Alpha, once it’s complete this game is going to be awesome!” Until then the game might as well not exist because I’m not playing it at all now that I’ve exhausted what it has to offer at this moment. Looking back I much rather wait a year or two and get a completely finished game where I can discover everything the game has to offer all at once rather than in broken up segments. I, like many others, have played Double Fine games in the past and am confident that they will produce an excellent game. Double Fine has a well established customer base that are willing to wait until a game is released to purchase and many will even pre-order. This sets them far apart from companies, like Mojang, without a customer base or previously completed games.

The rise of digital distribution as made launching a game a carefree experience, allowing companies to easily put out whatever is ready by their deadline. Releasing an incomplete game and patching it later feels lazy and inconsiderate to the player. Though, it’s hard to say paid Beta’s are inherently good or bad. For the independent developer having the option to generate revenue while working on completing your game may be the only reason the game gets completed. On the other hand, for well established companies, asking players to pay for a partially completed game, when they are already willing to purchase the final product, can be frustrating and ruins the sense of discovery around learning all a new game has to offer. Looking purely at gameplay, not having access to all of Spacebase DF-9’s features at once is no different from when I first picked up Minecraft years ago. The only difference is with expectations. I had never heard of Mojang when I picked up Minecraft for the first time. I had no preconceived notions of what they could produce. The fact that I got a game that was very fun for any amount of time was impressive on it’s own. With Spacebase DF-9, I’ve played Double Fine games for years and they’ve produced some of my favorite titles. I expect Double Fine to not only produce a game that’s fun, but also a great game overall. I can’t really say it’s fair to hold this double standard to small and large companies alike. Just as a paid-Beta allows no name companies to produce fun to play new games, it also allows big name companies to experiment with new different kinds of games. Most of my frustration lies with companies that have taken what allows paid-Beta’s to exist as an excuse to release a broken game. In years past playing a game meant playing a complete game that would likely never change. Digital distribution has changed all that. I’m not entirely upset with the concept of a paid-Beta. In my eyes as long as a game carries the Beta tag, I know I can expect new features and bug fixes in the future and I guess I’m okay with that.

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