On alphas, betas, lambdas and releases
How often have you seen an announcement that some game is “going into public beta”? Or “we’ll be releasing an alpha for all our customers soon”? How about “sign up now for exclusive beta access”? And that’s fine. If a game developer wants to put out an incomplete build to the public – paid or otherwise – well, great, go for it. Announcing that any criticism of it is invalid, or that the game must not be judged based on that alpha/beta/crappa, however? That’s BS.
For one, the names alpha, beta, v0.something have absolutely no meaning whatsoever. Yeah, maybe someone is calling a game that works but isn’t tested a beta. Someone else will use beta to mean a game that has 75% features done. Someone else will use beta to mean that the game is done and the servers just need testing. The point being, there is no unified global meaning for this term in the gaming industry. What it really is, it’s just an irrelevant word that you put up along with game title in your announcement, and that’s it. Yeah, sure – if alpha, beta is used, it generally does mean that the game is not finished. So? It doesn’t stop some developers from releasing it to public. It doesn’t stop some other developers from taking money for it. In terms of meaning, one could apply “unfinished” with exactly the same merit. In terms of public perception, however, alpha/beta terms are even more loaded and potentially troublesome.
Suppose there is an avid fan of game company X, and that game company has always used “beta” to imply a game with all features finished, all bugs fixed, but not yet polished and not tested for server-performance. Now that fan is checking out a different game from a different company – and there, “beta” is used to mean.. say, no bugs fixed and about 8/10 features finished. Clearly, that person will have a very negative impression of the latter game due to mistaken expectations. If the second game’s developers are particularly unfortunate, this incident will be the start of a new thread of negative publicity for their game. The lack of concrete meaning for alpha/beta, and the multitude of expectations associated with them is, in one way or another, hurting developers and players alike.
Next up, these terms are used (with gusto!) to imply that the game should not be judged or evaluated. Somehow, because it has the magic word alpha/beta on it, any and all criticism of gameplay, or story, or stability, is invalid – even when people are playing the game! And, who would have guessed it, players giving positive feedback or publicity is somehow considered OK at the very same time. Thing is, it doesn’t matter what names are placed next to the title – if a game is released, it is released. No doubts about that. Is it accessible to a random gamer for playing? If yes, then the game is released, end of story. People will base their opinions on what they see, on what they can play, on what their experiences are like.
Moreover, because the game is publicly playable, is it even fair to say that the game’s not finished and this current state should not influence the final results/judgement? After all, there are people out there, right now, playing the game as-is, and they are actively experiencing the available content. Should those gamers be ignored? Swept under the rug, discounted just because they did not wait until the “final release” (whatever that means)? Game developers are, in a way, responsible for the experiences they have crafted and provided – and a public release of an unfinished product in no way lessens, or invalidates, the experiences people have with it.
Clearly, there are such things as alpha and beta tests (again – using the terms with ambiguous meaning ftw), closed betas, and so forth. This is actually all fine and dandy – the playerbase is clearly limited and selected, with the express intent of them serving as playtesters. One cannot apply the principle that the game is out – since it really isn’t, as far as “everyone” is concerned. Here, the true magic word is “closed”, however. That is what truly distinguishes a released game from an unreleased game, not some arbitrary moniker that’s abused by the industry. And if these alphas, betas, version numbers and whatnots are used internally for game’s readiness status indication, well, in that case, keep it internal!
~X2-Eliah has seen far too many people asking for free AAA games as “open public betas”. If you want to play it, pay for it.