Perpetual Betas: The New Early Access


With the increasing popularity of early access games on Steam, more developers are using open betas to test their content. Once, open betas lasted a month or two at most, but now many early access games are drawing out their betas longer than ever. Some last for several months or years, giving rise to a new form of beta testing: the perpetual beta.

Indie developer Chucklefish began Starbound’s current open beta on Dec. 4 of 2013, and they continue to add new content regularly. In the span of a week or two, players may hear about tweaks to monster animations, new areas, quirky items, and promises of bigger and better content that is, for now, still conceptual. Starbound is beautiful, playable, yet nowhere near its final release. The complete game promises major differences in how progression, armor upgrading, exploration, farming, and quests are carried out. In Starbound’s case, the open beta is not necessarily an accurate representation of the projected final product.

If an early release drags on for too long without forward momentum, the players will lose interest and support. By the time the game is fully released, its loyal fans may have moved on.

For Starbound, the perpetual beta only adds to the excitement of the game itself. Bored? Take a break for a month or two, come back, and there’s something new. Chucklefish listens to the players: they fix bugs, regularly reply to feedback, and have even turned popular mods into regular game features. Starbound’s perpetual beta plays more like an MMO with the next patch just around the corner. Instead of using a beta to release an almost-ready game with a few bugs, developers such as Chucklefish are releasing games that are playable, but are still missing major features.

One of the most popular examples of a game that is perpetually unfinished is Dwarf Fortress. Officially, the game is still in early alpha, and developer Tarn Adams seems skeptical that it will ever be complete. Yet its players treat Dwarf Fortress as a finished product with a steady stream of new content; it is highly complex, very popular, and, to first-time players, complete.

A quick browse down Steam’s “Early Access” page in the Steam Store reveals many titles not just in beta, but in alpha or pre-alpha. For example, DayZ has the following disclaimer: “WARNING: THIS GAME IS EARLY ACCESS ALPHA. PLEASE DO NOT PURCHASE IT UNLESS YOU WANT TO ACTIVELY SUPPORT DEVELOPMENT OF THE GAME AND ARE PREPARED TO HANDLE WITH SERIOUS ISSUES AND POSSIBLE INTERRUPTIONS OF GAME FUNCTIONING.” DayZ costs $29.99 and is listed 3rd on Steam’s top overall sellers, making it clear that players don’t seem to mind serious issues and interruptions of game functioning if the game is good enough.

Other Steam games such as The Forest and Rust enjoy great popularity in spite of being months or years from completion. The games are fairly playable, and their beta testers enjoy regular patches full of new content; content that would exist already in a full release.

But perpetual betas are conceptually troubling. Players may lose interest before the game is complete. Even excellent, finished games are generally not meant to hold our attention for months or years on end. If an early release drags on for too long without forward momentum, the players will lose interest and support. By the time the game is fully released, its loyal fans may have moved on.

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Furthermore, while the best early access games pay close attention to technical support, every alpha and beta carries a disclaimer. Damned, a multiplayer horror game whose alpha early access opened on Steam in September of 2013, was full of errors. It regularly crashed, could be difficult to play, and the multiplayer worked sometimes. In cases like this, players are expected to simply accept the errors and try again later. After all, the game is “still in alpha.”  Yet those who purchased it paid $19.99 for a game that barely worked at the time. While the beta version that appeared on May 26 of this year solved most of these problems, there are no guarantees. If a game is too buggy, or a flop, or if for whatever reason it doesn’t make it past the alpha or beta, Steam does not offer refunds. Players are out $20 and stuck with a half-finished, unplayable  game.

Currently, Steam is the primary medium for purchasing these early access games, and promotes them well by offering regular discounts, featuring them on the front page, and categorizing them together in the Steam Store so fans of early access games can seek them out. Sony, too, has taken notice of their popularity. Early access passes for in-demand games may soon be available on the PS4.  Some early access games have won awards–Starbound was No. 1 Indie Game of the Year in Indie Game Magazine. Space Engineers was No. 4, yet neither is a finished product. With this kind of support and their growing popularity, it seems likely that more and more games will be released early, with longer alpha and beta periods open to the public.

The perpetual beta is a double-edged sword. Longer test times allow developers to listen to the players, and add to the game features that they actually want, instead of what developers merely imagine they want. Perpetual betas increase publicity and hype, and allow novelty to be spread over a longer period, meaning players are hooked on a single game for longer. But there is risk involved too: long open betas or alphas make it easier for newer developers to take money and run, and can expose unfinished games to heavy, unwarranted criticism if they are not immediately successful.

The use of perpetual betas may change game development, not only for PC games, but also for consoles now that Sony has stepped in. How do you see extended early access periods affecting gaming in the next few years? Leave a comment and let us know, or follow us on Twitter @GamesidedDotCom.

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