Beta-culture has become an integral element of a large number of software products. From new combined services like Google+ and Minecraft, developers are releasing early, usually to test the waters before making the leap to a final release or, occasionally, cutting their losses. For their customers, the question is this: when does one decide to buy in?
Some might deride beta-culture as laziness, saying that companies release unfinished or untested software into the wild, solely to drum up extra cash and exposure for an undeveloped product. Consumers get early access to services and games, but in many cases that means bugs and sparse content. Whether you think this is fair or not depends a lot on perspective, but with so many developers moving in this direction, there does not seem to be any sign of it going away, and there are bound to be some bad apples in the ever-growing bunch.
This growing subset of the industry is good news for indie developers, and may also be good for users. Sooner or later, there will be something that speaks to your particular tastes—perhaps something from a niche genre, like managing a simulated prison, or a fan-made update of one of your old favourites. Upon stumbling across any given title, you’ve got to think about whether to commit to the early-access version or wait for the full release. This is easier if you are looking for something simple, perhaps a racing game prototype with some fun new mechanics, but if it is a fully open-world space flight sim you are waiting for, you may have to put your excitement aside and come back to it in a few months time, when you can get a more accurate idea of what the complete game will be like.
With an early-access game, you can dive in straight away and begin your adventure, but be aware that you might find that only a small number of features are fully developed or present at all. When contemplating a pre-release purchase, the best course is to keep your eye on the hard evidence. Which elements are properly implemented? Which placeholder assets and underdeveloped systems are likely to be polished for the beta version, and which are likely to be scrapped? If a game doesn’t have all of the bells and whistles you were hoping for, then hold off until you know for sure that they’re in there.
Some projects, even those that are playable and appear to be on track for a full release, can end up disappearing after a few months time. In cases where a developer is coming to a potential audience with just an idea, perhaps with some small samples or proofs of concept, the project can often encounter unforeseen (or intentionally concealed) obstacles. These types of games can be great for those who want to be a part of the game’s vision and have an impact on the product’s evolution, but it’s important to remember that your support won’t guarantee you get a return on the investment. Paying for pre-release access doesn’t provide full creative control, either—just because you bought in, doesn’t mean you get to put in a gun that shoots sharks.
Purchasing early is simply a show of support for a project. It tells the developer that their ideas and work have merit to a potential audience, and gives that developer a means of completing the project they have put forth. Not everyone is a fan of beta-culture, but if you love games and want to play games and support projects that are trying new things, then go right ahead. Just remember to manage your expectations.