Traditionally, a beta is period before a game’s official release where developers can squash bugs, test server loads, and ensure general playability.  Long ago, many betas were off limits to the public or only accessible by invite only.  This is still very much true, but it is becoming more traditional for betas to come in two phases, a closed beta and an open beta.  While most beta access is invite only by registering through the developer/publishers site, some are offering guaranteed access through pre-orders or paid access.  This brings up a very important question, should players have to pay developers to play a bug-riddled/lag-infested/broken version of their game?

Many will, and have, cried out a resounding “No!”  A beta is a period where a game may be far from complete.  It’s a chance for testers to find minor to catastrophic bugs that negatively impact a player’s experience or affect the balance of the game.  It’s also a period for developers to stress test the servers with hundreds of concurrent players.  On top of all of that, many betas see character progress wiped when it moves into final release.  There is also the possibility that a studio may close their doors before a game sees final release or halt production on the project entirely.  Why would anyone pay for access to an incomplete version of a game that may ultimately never see release?

There are a few reasons that one might.  The first, and most prevalent, is fans.  If a person is passionate about a title, they’ll want to play a game as soon as it is available.  They understand that most, if not all, of their progress will be lost before the game sees final release.  They realize that it is incomplete and some features will be added while others are removed.  For a fan, it’s about experiencing a project they love.  It’s more about the journey than the destination.

There are many different forms a beta may take shape in.  There are typically three phases to a game prior to release.  They are alpha, closed beta, and open beta.  Alpha is almost always closed to the public and is only available to others outside the development team by special invite as the game is usually in early development.  Closed beta is early access to a game that still isn’t complete.  This beta is also invite only, or as has become increasingly common, available to those willing to pay.  Open beta follows closed beta and is typically available to all who want to sign up and play.

Now, 99% of closed betas can be participated in for free if a player signs up for early access.  However, many developers/publishers will limit access to those that signed up during a specific period.  For those that missed the registration period, there is generally an option to pay to get into the beta.

Like the different forms of beta, there are different forms of paid access.  These can be pre-orders from the site or retail shops.  Pre-orders allow players to pay a small entry fee (usually $5) or whatever amount they prefer towards the final total and includes early access to the game.  Another form of access comes with purchasing “founder packs”.  These packs guarantee access to closed and open beta periods and typically include other goodies like in-game items.  It will vary from game to game, but there are usually several different packs to choose from, but all grant guaranteed access to the game while it is still in beta.

Minecraft offered beta access to those willing to pay with the promise that all future releases and updates would be included into the initial entry fee.  This, along with the compelling gameplay, won over millions who gladly handed over their hard earned cash.

Steam has just released their own beta program, called Early Access.  After fully purchasing a game through Early Access, players have immediate access to a game whether it be in alpha or beta.  The belief is that “This is the way games should be made.”  It gives developers additional funding, players the ability to advocate their new game of choice, and fans early access.  Much like Minecraft’s model, this is a full purchase.  Players own the game from their time of purchase through final release.

An example of founders packs recently released by Neverwinter.

If players were paying for access to beta and beta only, then they would be idiots.  And I can’t think of any development studio so abhorrent to charge players for beta access with no long-term reward.  Many titles offer many other incentives with the guaranteed beta access being just one part of that.  In the end, it comes down to what is being offered to the player.  Because a majority of paid betas aren’t just that, there are many that don’t have an issue in investing in a game before its release.  So, while there isn’t anything inherently wrong with it, it ultimately comes down to the player.

I’ve personally invested in several games before release.  While early access was an incentive, it has never been my primary reason for purchasing a game before release.  For me, it’s fun to play a game early on and experience it, but losing all of my progress keeps me from getting seriously invested from a time perspective until I’m guaranteed that character progress isn’t lost.  What entices me is the extras that usually come from pre-ordering a title.

I believe that’s the case for many others.  If the developers make the pre-order enticing enough, there will be those that will buy it and not just for the beta access.  Back to the original question though, “should players have to pay for early access?”  No, they should not.  And in most cases they don’t.  There’s always the opportunity to sign up for a closed beta ahead of time and play for free.  The option to pay to gain access is there for those that missed the registration period and don’t want to wait for their next chance to play.  And in most cases, there’s other goodies included that sweeten the pot, making it worthwhile to those that may not have considered investing otherwise.  Ultimately, it’s up to you.  Invest wisely.

~ by Christian D, Author of ZeroAnd09 Blog

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