Betas are giving PC gamers headaches, but I've found the cure

A new system that's a bit more honest

The PC Gamer

Closed Betas are so frustrating, especially the ones I'm not in. It's not that I particularly mind not having access to Overwatch, Blizzard's upcoming mix of MOBA and FPS, so much as seeing so many people on my Friends list who do. It's pure childish jealousy, of course, but here's the thing about childish things that I think we should take a moment to remember: waaaaaaaaaaah!

Betas in general though are weird. The basic definition of them has changed so much over the last few years, going from a trial of a basically finished project to… let me just check this here… 'absolutely any bloody thing you want it to mean'. It's a little like how the words Game Of The Year have gone from a single triumphant moment of note, like a Half-Life 2, to include everything from Skyrim - allowable - to Two Worlds - laughable.

Originally the definition was that some site somewhere had maybe, probably said it was their Game Of The Year, in much the same way that As Seen On TV doesn't *technically* promise it wasn't on Watchdog's "Things That Will Explode And Kill Your Cat" segment. Now though, even that thin veneer of crap-giving has gone to the wayside, with the new definition being "A Game Of The Year", as in "It came out in 2015."

openbeta I m not a fan of open betas I prefer closed betas that I happen to be in Much more satisfying
openbeta: I'm not a fan of open betas. I prefer closed betas that I happen to be in. Much more satisfying.

Beta, not better

With betas specifically though, the slide has been gradual, beginning with Google deciding that Gmail was a work-in-progress for many years before removing the 'beta' flag, and other companies realising - oh, so we can do whatever we want then? Groovy!

From there it was a slippery but profitable slope to realising that betas could serve as amazing marketing, both by releasing them, and withholding them, to build up that good old consumer waaaaaaaah-factor, with the true nail in the coffin being the point where people started selling stuff for real money in their betas. Yes, it's unfinished, but… uh… we need to test the payment systems. Test. Yes!

There are of course many real-world uses for them too, like testing server load, and revealing the kind of problems and balance issues that can only happen when a game moves outside the hallowed halls of people willing to play it properly, and into the hands of the enemy.

The catch is that by this point it's often too late to make sweeping changes. If a combat system in an MMO sucks in beta or the graphics are terrible, well, spoiler, it's going to suck in release too, because that sucker's been baked in far deeper than beta-users' influence ever reaches.

For that reason, I think it's time to really shake things up, and break the beta hold over new games. The problem for the industry is that the updates go the wrong way. Alpha denotes an unfinished game, beta a complete one ready for that polishing stage. We need to flip that and take full advantage of the rest of the Greek alphabet. The new system will start a little like this.

Alpha: Finished game, just in need of testing.

Beta: Playable, but we're still adding content to it.

Then, we build on it with a set of new stages.

Gamma: Open, or at least not too tightly closed beta, as now.

Delta: Game is finished enough for Twitch streamers and YouTubers to help us market it, but not for anyone who might not be so excited about it that their socks routinely fly off.

Epsilon: Game not ready to be seen by human eyes, so exclusive to Hitbox.

Zeta: Game lacks a few key features like characters and music and graphics and controller input. Yet oddly, the shop is fully functional.

Eta: Game is only half-finished. Entire team dead from crunch, considering farting it onto Steam in its current form in the hope people will buy it anyway. Worked for Assassin's Creed: Unity.

Theta: Game is at that stage where everyone is desperately hoping it's fun, but all the pieces haven't come together yet and late nights are spent drinking hard spirits and praying to Chet, pagan lord of programming, that things aren't as bad as they seem.

Iota: Game only exists as a YouTube or E3 or Kickstarter demo video that everyone involved is now desperately hoping they can turn into an actual game on computers that exist.

Kappa: Game currently consists of the designer's notebook, with the art team regularly asking whether or not the scribbled boobies are there out of boredom, or character design notes.

Each of these stages is of course fully marketable by the right developer, as proven by Star Citizen. Note to the legion of humourless space captains with skins thinner than a soap bubble: That was just a joke, relax. The additional flexibility however means that any player knows exactly what they're getting into when they pay or download the beta, allowing them to get in at the right stage to influence development.

Star Citizen I AM SURE THAT STAR CITIZEN WILL BE GOOD PLEASE ENJOY YOUR SPACESHIPS
Star Citizen: I AM SURE THAT STAR CITIZEN WILL BE GOOD PLEASE ENJOY YOUR SPACESHIPS

If a game catches your attention in the upsilon phase for instance, there's probably enough to get a job at the developer in QA, work your way up the ranks, take over the company, and then personally ensure it has the resources that it needs. This is also, I suspect, the only way we're ever going to see Michel Ancel's Beyond Good And Evil 2.

It might sound ridiculous, but then it wasn't that long ago that people were laughing at the idea of DLC horse armour and the idea of Worms Reloaded: Game Of The Year Edition not being forced by law to specify that said year was - at best - 1999, for the last game in the series worth giving the faintest damn about.

Now though, we're at the point where games can sell everything from in-game currency to sexy underpants (though points to Vindictus for the term 'inner armour') without anyone batting so much as an eye. You redefine the words, you change peoples' feelings. We just need to redefine Beta to something more sensible, or at the very least, give me access to all of them so that I'm too busy playing new games to continue caring about semantics.

The rest of you can come too, if you like.

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