Video Game Betas Have Lost All Meaning

I’ve only been working in games media for two years and I already feel like Grandpa Simpson yelling at a cloud. What is a beta? No seriously, what does it mean when a game is ‘in beta’? Back in my day (2019) betas were a legitimate way for developers to test network features and collect data and feedback for an unreleased game. Players could access the game for a limited time and experience something called a vertical slice, or small section of the game that didn’t necessarily represent what the completed product would be. It was a way for people to get a sample of an upcoming game while providing developers with valuable information. Nowadays, beta is just a cynical marketing term; a way to sell people early access or abscond from the responsibility of an unpolished game. If a game is playable in full right now, and there’s no meaningful change or progress reset at launch, then we shouldn’t be describing them as betas.

Early Access games on Steam started the corruption of the term. While plenty of Early Access games used the label appropriately as a way to generate revenue for a game that was still in primary development, many other such titles used it opportunistically and dishonestly. These games, by definition, deserve some amount of forgiveness for being buggy and unfinished, and lots of developers have used that grace to their advantage. Games like DayZ and Rust dragged on in Early Access for years without much meaningful progress, seemingly just to maintain the status, while other Early Access games like Atlas and Godus were never officially released. For others, Early Access is just an opportunity to leverage an additional launch date. Fortnite was in Early Access for three years, long after it was the biggest game in the world, but it was only in June last year that Epic announced Fornite’s official launch.

We’ve seen similar shenanigans from triple-A games, particularly this year, that treat betas and Early Access like a soft launch. There’s a growing trend with EA (that’s Electronic Arts this time) and Game Pass games releasing several weeks or even days early to people that pre-order. When Back 4 Blood or Battlefield 2042 launched on a Friday for people that pre-order and the following Wednesday for people that didn’t, I have to wonder what the ‘pre’ part of the pre-order was. You can spend $60 and play the full game now, or you can spend $60 and play the full game on Wednesday. Is there a meaningful difference between early access and launch? Why do publishers get to decide that ‘Day One’ is any day other than the first day a game is available to play?

This isn’t just a full-price game phenomenon either. When Halo Infinite’s multiplayer surprise launched three weeks before the release of the campaign, developer 343 Industries called it a beta, which seems disingenuous considering there’s no progress reset or additional major features for multiplayer releasing alongside the campaign. The one purpose the Halo Infinite beta has served, whether intentional or not, has been to foster a group of players that dismiss all criticism of the game by blurting out that it’s still, technically, in beta. If this was really so, wouldn’t it be the exact right time to provide feedback? Ironically, the way Halo fans have been conditioned to dismiss criticism during the beta reveals exactly how meaningless the term has become.

There are no clear-cut rules about what makes a beta legitimate, but it's obvious that a lot of games are using the terms ‘beta’ and ‘Early Access’ in bad faith. Betas are an important part of the development cycle for many games and we shouldn’t allow it to be twisted into another cynical marketing technique. Most importantly, we need to all come to an agreement that a game is out on the day you can buy it and play it, not when a publisher arbitrarily decides ‘Day One’ is. You can buy into all that Early Access nonsense if you want, but then I guess we know who the real beta is.

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