It was back sometime in 2010 when I first learned about the term “beta”. StarCraft 2: Wings of Liberty was still months from release, yet some people - not internal testers, but people from the general gaming populace - were already playing it and getting an early taste of the highly-anticipated RTS. I wasn’t too surprised by my discovery of beta tests, but I was certainly fascinated. A few years later, I was all too eager to participate in the betas of Battlefield Play4Free, Warframe and Dota 2 because it seemed cool. It was more about the fun of playing these games early than contributing to the flow of feedback back then; I discovered later that not all betas were smooth, demo-like experiences. Now, close to the end of the decade, the idea of playing a game in its unfinished state is hardly alien anymore. On the other hand, the idea that you can’t criticise it because “it’s just a beta” still manages to befuddle me.
Like many things though, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the statement “it’s just a beta”. With alpha and beta tests having long been joined by the existence of early access releases, it’s indeed more important than ever for the consumer (and reviewer) to remember that the full release may differ from his or her current experience. When someone goes on a rant about the state of an early access title that’s still in pre-alpha, it does seem right to remind that person that an incomplete game should not be judged the same way a complete one should.
But when the “it’s just a beta” line is used as the primary answer to every single instance of criticism, I find myself taking issue with it. In such cases, that statement transforms from important reminder to a problematic message; that message being that because a game isn’t released, it’s immune to criticism and feedback.
Insurgency: Sandstorm is a recent example, and is in fact the reason this article was written as it was one of the most absurd cases of “it’s just a beta” I’d come across. Before the recent and frankly wise decision to delay the release date to December 12, the FPS was due to launch on September 18. The problem? It was (and is) in its second beta, and it was a beta that was not exactly running well for many (though far from all) people.
That the game wasn’t performing well for a good number of players so close to release seems like justifiable cause for concern and, indeed, expressing that concern. Shockingly, not all thought so. About a week before its original release date, a Steam user worried about Sandstorm’s performance was told that “it's a BETA. If you are not prepared to be a part of that then wait until it's released.” A day before that, another was told off for having the gall to expect decent performance from a beta, despite the full release being so close. And a few days earlier, someone took issue with the complaints about the beta’s bugs. “WHAT DO YOU THINK BETA MEANS?”, demanded that someone.
Yes, Bugs are Expected To Appear, but so are complaints and feedback because surely that’s the point developers run betas to begin with? Are developers supposed to read people’s minds instead? Are players supposed to simply ignore issues they encounter and assume that all will be well come launch day? If these posts had been made just an hour before the full release, would the “it’s just a beta” argument been invoked? Perhaps not, but such overzealous defenders might turn to saying things like: “Don’t worry, the developers will continue to work on fixes after launch, so let’s let this slide for now”, which is another problematic way of thinking.
But what if the same sort of defending happened for the betas of Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 or Battlefield 5, which are still more than a month off from release? Or Sandstorm itself, now that it’s coming out in two months’ time rather than in a week? Is it right to use the “it’s just a beta” line when there’s certainly less reason to be jumpy about the current performance state? What about early access games that are in a very early developmental state, where less-than-perfect performance is expected? Or pre-alphas and closed betas? Is the “it’s just a *insert state of game*” line acceptable in these cases?
In PC Gamer’s own addressal of the “it’s just a beta” issue, they noted that “one dev’s final beta is another’s pre-alpha test”. That one beta test can vary wildly in performance compared to another is certainly a vital thing to note, and players should definitely not expect a particular title’s beta to perform well simply because that was the experience they had with another beta. Neither should they expect amazing performance from an Early Access game simply because it’s being sold. The knowledge and expectation that a game still in development - whether in beta or some other unfinished state - may most likely run less-than-smoothly should definitely foster a sense of understanding. Crucially however, that understanding shouldn’t turn into a free pass for developers, especially when, to quote PC Gamer again, “plenty of high-profile games linger in pre-release form while being on sale for long periods”. Warframe, though free-to-play, is a good example, as it has ostensibly been in beta for half a decade now. Or Squad, which has been in Early Access since December 2015. It would be silly to withhold commenting on these games for years simply because they haven’t properly launched yet.
Ultimately though, it doesn’t matter how long a beta lasts or how far from release a game is. At the end of the day, Early Access releases, alphas and betas are done mainly so that developers can receive feedback from players during development (although cash may play a part too in some cases). That feedback also benefits fellow gamers who are curious about the state of a game. The “it’s just a beta” way of thinking simply stymies that feedback. Even if some comments end up sounding whiny or unconstructive, even if it sounds silly to talk about an alpha’s rough performance, I’d rather have some discussion and information than none at all.