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The Open Beta Illusion

May 27, 2013

Dear Reader,

I’ve noticed a growing trend in games to go into an “open beta” cycle for months – or longer – before they admit that they’re “released.”  I’m don’t like this trend because I think it’s deceptive and cowardly.  Part of this feeling comes, perhaps surprisingly, from my background as a writing teacher.

When I discuss the writing process, I talk about the four “traditional” steps: prewriting, drafting, revising and editing, and publishing.  Three of the four are straightforward: prepare, write, fix, but my students always ask me about the final step.  Often they say it’s not really a step at all, that it’s just the end of the process, to which I reply, “The writing process never ends, you simply run out of time to work on your draft.”

The pervasive open beta releases remind me of some of my students who have no faith in their own writing.  Often that’s due to their years in school, having terrible teachers tell them they can’t write.  Often, their ideas are excellent and unique, but their actual writing needs work.  That’s where I, the developmental teacher, come in.  I see that kind of low self-confidence on a daily basis, and I work with the students to build their skills and their confidence throughout the semester, so by the end they can commit to a finalized draft without – and this is not an exaggeration – crying every time they turn something in (and she wasn’t even a particularly bad writer).

It seems that game publishers have started to emulate this behavior, to more and more often hedge their bets – against themselves.  Rather than simply release a game, they’re so unsure of themselves that they don’t release it; it just goes into a perpetual “open beta” cycle so that any complaints about the game can be responded to with “it’s only a beta” or the like.  However, as is true with Neverwinter and Warframe, if you’re taking people’s money for the game and clearly guaranteeing no more character resets, then what precisely is the difference between the open beta and the final product?

Their behavior is undoubtedly largely due to the response they get for every tiny bug that exists; thanks to the Internet, everyone who can write – and I’m using “write” here in the broadest sense of the word – can nastily publicize a vitriolic attack against the game for any real or perceived mistake that’s then seen by thousands of people around the world.  That’s bound to make publishers a little gun shy, but I still don’t accept the illusion of an indefinite open beta as a solution.

Part of being an adult, and a professional at that, is having to commit to finality.  We’d all like to get as many retries to do our work as we need, but when the time comes, we have to sign our name and turn in our work.  I don’t like that the game industry is beginning to think that they’re too good (or too bad) for that.  I want people to sell me a product that they stand behind.

I’m an adult; I understand there may be unforeseen problems with that product.  I would expect “unforeseen” to really mean just that; meaning they’ve thought of and addressed any major problems that might occur, unlike, say SimCity, but beyond what could be reasonably expected to be tested, I can live with small oversights.  Released versions of games have been patching for years and years, ever since the Internet really became prevalent.  Consider how many releases of Nethack there were (yes, that’s sort of a unique thing, but just go with it).  Nowadays Nethack would be 20 yeas into an open beta.

At any rate, I realize it’s not much more than a tiny distinction that shouldn’t bother someone, but those tiny distinctions can make huge differences.  It’s often a tiny distinction – or one being changed – that becomes a vanguard of a revolution: a small uptick in taxes, a more careful examination of the phrasing of words like separate and equal, or even the belief that since something’s not a finished product, less and less can be expected.


Stubborn (and distinctive)

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Polynices permalink
    May 27, 2013 10:31 am

    Heck, I remember downloading game patches from BBSes before there was a web and before the internet was widely available even to college students.

    But yeah, what you said.

  2. May 28, 2013 1:32 am

    It’s funny the way small distinctions can make a huge difference, like “buying” a game as opposed to buying a license to play, even if the end result is identical for the vast majority.

    There may be no practical difference between buying into a beta and paying for a completed game, but I don’t think any illusions have been created. Some players are that passionate about the game that they either don’t want to wait, or they feel a genuine compulsion to contribute that passion to the game’s development by providing testing and feedback, or they are inclined to actively contribute to the project financially as long as they get something in return.

    I think Minecraft is the perfect example. They charged a low price for a beta buy-in and increased it when the game was “finished”. Beta adopters are extremely valuable to the company because they partially fund development and tend to promote the game for free, and in the end they got the same game for cheaper, so it’s win-win.


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