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Opinion: When A Beta Isn’t A Beta

Calling your game an “open beta” when the cash shop is open for business is disingenuous at best. When anyone can play your game and you’re ­taking their money for in-game purchases, that’s called "released."

The trend of releasing games in so-called open betas but with a ­business model indistinguishable from a live game has accelerated over the last year. Don’t be fooled: This naming convention is pure marketing illusion, ­designed to lower player expectations while opening their wallets. That’s not to say these games can’t be fun – I’ve had some good times with Neverwinter and Path of Exile recently, for example – but this naming convention is nonsense.

Traditionally, a beta period serves as a testing bed for a feature-complete game to make sure that the code can survive all the unexpected ways players beat on it. For online games, betas also allow the team to put their infrastructure to the test in something approaching a live environment to make sure that they don’t crumble once thousands of players start connecting in waves. Balancing can swing wildly from day to day, bugs run rampant, and servers crash without warning.

If everything is going according to plan, the beta period is complete when the developer has reasonable confidence that the game is ready for prime time. The game launches, and the developer starts asking for money. Players have the expectation that the game they’re paying money for will be available, functional, and fun.

Opening a cash shop during a beta is a naked attempt by developers to have the best of both worlds: the income from a live game with a blanket excuse for bugs, balancing problems, and other issues that the moniker traditionally implies. But once you’re taking players’ money for XP boosts and extra drops, you can’t argue in good faith that you don’t owe them a solid entertainment experience in return.

On the other hand, games that use Minecraft-like models such as Steam’s Early Access program (where a paid pre-order grants access to early, in-development versions of the game) don’t evoke the same reaction. Those are clearly communicated as unfinished, generally have specific launch dates in sight, and players get the full game for their money whenever it comes out. 

Introversion’s sandbox simulation Prison Architect is an example of a paid pre-release version done right. Anyone who purchases Prison Architect at its $30 price point gets access to the current alpha version of the game as well as the frequent updates the developers have been rolling out. Since it launched, the game has evolved from a directionless sandbox with buggy prisoners and a non-functional tech tree to a more fully-featured sim including prison jobs, riot cops, CCTV, and more. Though it has a long way to go to be considered complete, Prison Architect has already changed for the better as feedback from customers has guided Introversion’s development. Crucially, nobody is under any illusions about what they’re getting out of their $30: They know they’re supporting an early game that sounds promising and could pan out, plus getting the chance to tell the developers what they think while there’s still time for that to matter.

Neverwinter, on the other hand, is a prime example of an open beta called such solely to manage consumer expectations. A month or so ahead of being released, Perfect World Entertainment opens up the Neverwinter beta to the public with no discernible intentions of seeking gameplay feedback, stress-testing data, or other pre-release necessities. Progress has no threat of being wiped out, and the monetization scheme is in full force. I even like Neverwinter as a game, but I fail to see how anyone can claim with a straight face that this beta period had any purpose beyond deflecting criticism. Saying "but it’s still a beta!" after rolling back character states by a day or more because you didn’t fix an auction house exploit, as Perfect World did with Neverwinter, doesn’t hold water when you’re taking money for experience boosts and fancy purple swords.

I don’t have any issues with any publisher trying to make a buck off a high-quality free-to-play game like Neverwinter however it can. Besides, running online games is hard, and few companies exist in that space for long without any black marks like Neverwinter’s auction house exploit on their records. All I ask is that nobody spills their drink on my leg and tries to tell me it’s raining. 

This article originally appeared in Game Informer #245.

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