Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Is the Word Beta is Losing its Meaning?

When did a legitimate concept start to turn into a safety blanket?

Let me run a quick hypothetical by you: if I said right now, from the outset of this article, that this was a special "beta article", what would you expect? How would you feel if I released it with numerous spelling mistakes, half-finished sentences, incoherent thoughts, and a general drop in quality that is so low that it makes you consider dropping my blog? Would the fact that I said "Well, it's a beta," matter to you? I don't know your answer, but I'm fairly willing to bet it wouldn't.

I understand that the comparison might not be as apt as I'd like it to be. A game is an infinitely more complex thing than one article on a blog. Still, I think that even if you can inherently get a little more leeway because of that aforementioned fact that it does have its limits; limits that I sincerely believe are starting to be reached.

The most recent example that I have to gravitate to is the whole catastrophic War Z incident. Even though the excuse that "it was an alpha build" didn't fly, the fact that the developer even attempted to pass that off as a legitimate excuse speaks volumes to me. When a gamer hears the word beta, their expectations are almost automatically, reflexively lowered. People are more willing to forgive something for its mistakes if it's "not done baking" yet, so-to-speak.

I'm not saying that a beta, even a public one, doesn't have a legitimate use. A beta, like many things, is just a tool that can be used or abused depending on the situation. There have been plenty of successful betas, and ones that do serve a point. Simcity is going through a closed beta right now, and of course the more people that get on board and play it the more errors that can be found and eliminated from the true release (although these days it's of course not uncommon for patches to be released weeks, months, and even years later depending on just how things play out), and everyone appreciates a smoother gameplay experience.

Still, even with good games, the question still remains, are some things in beta that shouldn't be using that word or term? I mean, look at Defence of the Ancients 2 or Dota2 for short. Dota2 is still currently in beta, and it has been in beta for over a year now, ever since the first keys were handed out in November of 2011. That's not to say that the game has a lot of bugs or is an unplayable mess, quite the opposite, from what I've seen and heard it all runs rather smoothly. Hell, there's a real money shop in the damn thing. I know that Valve has gone on the record as stating that the game would not leave beta until all the various playable heroes had been released, but at this point does it really matter? Anyone can buy into the beta, the game is free-to-play and will remain so even after it officially launches. Hell, there's even been a huge tournament for it!

The point I'm trying to get at here is why the word beta is even necessary for this case? Access is not limited, it's not going to change significantly unless something really strange happens. Surely they could just say that after heroes are released that testing and re-balancing may be needed. So why keep the beta? Even though this is arguably one of the more innocuous uses of it, it still doesn't sit right with me. It looks ready, it feels ready, I doubt that anyone looking from the outside in would think it's anything but ready, so why?

I admit that I may be overreacting, perhaps I'm just being paranoid. Still, right now we're seeing more and more games crop up with the idea that "well, right now it's not finished, but it will be ... sometime!" and while in a lot of the cases there hasn't been any harm to it, I'm extremely worried that the wrong people are going to start abusing the term for all it's worth.

People need to remain vigilant. The public not allowing the War Z guys to use it as an excuse for putting out a subpar game is a good indication, but we can't relax just because we caught one person in the act. In the future I can predict that more companies are going to use the words public beta as an excuse to release shitty, half-finished products at full price and then defend themselves when people are mad about it. If the game is in that kind of state, then there's no way it should be going public. A closed beta with x number of people is the logical thing to do. It doesn't surprise me for a second that people just get greedy though, and think they can get away with it.

I hope that we prove that they can't, because if not then beta is going to run into the same kinds of stigma that the term "free-to-play" has to deal with right now. It's not pretty, but if people are allowed to use it however they want, it's a sad inevitability.

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