Free for All: The continued confusing misuse of the beta tag

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Free for All: The continued confusing misuse of the beta tag
Wurm Online beta screenshot
I was thrilled when I read a recent news post about one of my favorite MMOs, Wurm Online, finally releasing to the public. Wait a second, releasing? I've been enjoying the game, spending money on it, and forming a Massively village over the last few years. I also know that the game was running -- and charging -- before that. So how do the developers explain the game's recent switch to "released"?
What it means is Wurm will contain the (improved) features that we consider make the game marketable. We will finally have character customization, visible armour, multi-story buildings and nicer looking creatures.
This is the kind of statement that leaves players like yours truly a bit baffled. I think that posts and delayed "releases" like this are actually damaging to the game in a subtle way. In fact, this week I decided to look at games like Wurm that coast along under the "beta" banner for a long time, for good and bad.

Glitch screenshot
Obviously, I have no issues with paying for a "beta." I've done it before in many games, even in games that I knew were going to go through a major wipe. To me, paying for any game -- beta or not -- while I get hours of enjoyment out of it is not a bad deal. I am not a "normal" player, though, and I often want or need to spend money on a game just to see what happens. You know, because journalism. I also know the real reason many MMOs use the beta tag -- as a safety net -- and so I am more free to make a decision about spending cash on a game.

The fact is that many developers use the beta tag as a sort of insurance plan, like a doctor uses an insurance plan as... an insurance plan. After all, if a player is dissatisfied with an experience, the community and developers or publishers can simply say, "Well, it's in beta, so..."

I'm calling B.S.

First, let's look at how Glitch developer Tiny Speck possibly made the worse mistake ever, not by creating a hard-to-understand Flash-based game but by sending mixed signals about the state of the game. I've done a few interviews with members of the Tiny Speck team, I followed the game since the beginning, and I wrote more than a few stories about it. Even then I was confused about how to describe the state of the game to people. It started out in closed beta (invite-only), then launched (still invite-only?), then stepped back to invite-only closed beta to accommodate changes so massive that a live game could not handle them, then later opened without re-launching but still only for those with invites? Well, something like that.

Salem screenshot
The point is that a game must be clear in its message. That doesn't mean the game needs to be simple, but clarity is key. Glitch was already an unusual game that was embedded in a browser, one of the only words left in the gamer language that still draws sneers from tech-heavy gaming crowds. Add to that its unusual lore, funny artwork, and sandbox gameplay. Would characters be wiped as in most other true betas? We knew through interviews that there were no real plans to wipe characters, but people who happen to miss those interviews -- yet who were still interested in the game -- would have had no idea and would have passed over the game. And did.

Let's look at Salem next to get an idea how charging for a beta might still be a bad idea. I say "still" because I think the tide will eventually change. Thanks to services like Kickstarter and the abundance of independent gaming, players are growing more and more used to the idea of the beta tag floating around. Beta used to mean testing, but I hardly know a soul who actually looks at beta as anything else but "early release." We've all seen developers who basically give away or sell access to a beta. Once again I am not completely surprised by this, but it's very possible that all of this beta talk and the practice of charging for beta cash-shop items or subscriptions will lead to a cry-wolf scenario. Eventually you'll be left with a more pessimistic community, and using the beta tag will no longer have any power even for those who truly need it.

"Beta used to mean testing, but I hardly know a soul who actually looks at beta as anything but 'early release.' We've all seen developers who basically give away or sell access to a beta."

At the time of my Salem Rise and Shiny, the developers were unsure whether there was going to be a character wipe after this "closed beta" (a standard practice), but they were very sure that they needed to charge for in-game funds and services. Both Wurm Online and Glitch charged for many items, including in-game coin, clothing, and subscriptions, during these "betas."

While many players have no issue paying for these items, consider how many do. Salem is known as a "hardcore" sandbox, but it allows players to pay for in-game coin and services that literally allow players to buy new skills and items that will help them starting out. How odd that we now live in a time when a game can be considered "hardcore" while charging for services that have an impact on gameplay while still in beta. (For the record, I gladly paid for these services... because journalism.)

Look back at Wurm's statement. What does it really even mean? On one hand, we can see how these massive improvements allowed the developer to finally give the thumbs-up to a true release after several years in actual business. On the other hand, we can see how the developer doesn't want to poo-poo the past game and past players by saying that these new features were "improved." In other words, the developer is trying to tell those players who have been paying for years that they were not getting shafted this entire time, that these new features are just improved over the fantastic features that existed before. I can come up with other examples. Look at the fact that Taikodom has been in some sort of beta state for literally years now. I actually covered it over three years ago.

The truth is that many indie developers use a beta tag as a safety net. These development teams consist of a handful of people doing much more than a handful of people can do, and testing can last for years on a tiny budget. And the larger developers? They use the beta tag to build excitement and lust for an upcoming title.

"These development teams consist of a handful of people doing much more than a handful of people can do, and testing can last for years on a tiny budget."

But even with the good that can come from a beta tag, most of us aren't falling for it anymore. To many gamers, the beta tag creates at best some confusion and at worst a fear of the game. A good rule of thumb is that if a developer is charging for services, you're not playing a beta no matter what the label says (that's even the rule we use here in Massively's Betawatch roundup). If these developers need to make money while building a game, that's understandable, but they also need to understand that they might scare off more people in the long run, resulting in not only less funding but fewer players.

Look back at Wurm's statement one last time. Does it mean that development will cease because the game has finally released? Of course not. The game will be a different game in two years. MMOs change constantly, just as they do in beta.

So developers should stop with the confusing use of the word and start trusting players to understand that MMOs change over time.

Each week, Free for All brings you ideas, news, and reviews from the world of free-to-play, indie, and import games -- a world that is often overlooked by gamers. Leave it to Beau Hindman to talk about the games you didn't know you wanted! Have an idea for a subject or a killer new game that no one has heard of? Send it to!
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