Gamer's Notebook

Mo’ beta: How to play before official release

By Chris O'Neal 07/03/2013


Many PC games aren’t bridled by the unflinching timeline of a console release. Games that would take years and years to see the light of day might still take years and years to release in full, but can begin showing signs of life much earlier than their console cousins. Enter the beta test, a way for game creators to allow needy fans to get their hands on games long before they officially debut, while also allowing the developer to fix any issues that may arise before launch.


Let’s look at it this way: games go through three phases (sometimes more, but for brevity we’ll say three): alpha, beta and then final release. Alpha is your initial build with many known issues. Beta is better and growing more perfect for the final release. With that in mind, let’s take a look at a few alpha and beta releases.


Since 2009, eager fans have been watching creator Chris Hecker tinker and tailor like a mad soldier with his two-person espionage simulator SpyParty. One player controls a sniper with a single bullet while the other controls a character in a home, hosting a party, attempting to gather information. As he sleuths, the sniper must decipher who is actually the spy. With only a single bullet, his decision is final.


Hecker is a perfectionist, as is apparent by his long development time with SpyParty. His recent change of heart came when the game became available to play in beta, giving him the opportunity to fix problems as they arise rather than waiting for the day of release.


In this, the age of the massive multiplayer online (MMO) titles, beta periods are ubiquitous. World of Warcraft continues to have beta periods for its latest updates while other, under-the-radar titles such as Snail Game’s Black Gold are just learning how to walk.


Black Gold is an MMO with a unique twist on storytelling. Several factions exist within a world separated by two fiction tropes: Wild Wild West-esque steampunk and Lord of the Rings-esque fantasy. Players choose between the sides on which one can be a tinkering mechanical mage or an earth-loving, jaded Elf.


At this year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), I was able to get hands-on with Black Gold and an explanation from one of the game’s lead writers. Imagine a world in which modern comforts and technology have come against the mythological world as envisioned by Tolkien or Pee-Wee Herman. Everyone’s out for that black gold, a material that makes both magic and steam-powered technology work.


The realms are beautiful in their own right, and the detailed character creation is intuitive and unique. In the beta, players will learn the ropes and help the developers by doing their best to break the system. After all, an MMO is always on. When Black Gold launches in full, expect a smooth system in which player-vs.-player combat in giant robots and on the backs of wild beasts functions smoothly thanks in part to beta players.


If building a character isn’t your thing, there’s always destroying cities in Wildfire Worlds. Think SimCity only in reverse and also adorable. Cities are made of paper and crafts, citizens are little black and yellow caricatures. Only the point isn’t to make a working city, but to destroy it.


Dot Product has opened its alpha test for public play with the only requirement being that you pre-order the full game for $15. Players can elicit riots, burn buildings and watch madness unfold. After all, Dot Product’s initial pitch inviting players to take part in their own miniature version of the London riots says more than a demo ever could.


If you do take part, remember: these are early builds. You’re doing your part to make sure the final release will be worth the price of admission.


SpyParty (http://www.spyparty.com/beta/), Black Gold (http://bg.snailgame.com/) and Wildfire Worlds (http://wildfireworlds.com) are all available to play in alpha or beta stages.

Chris O’Neal is still in the alpha stage of his life, ready for open beta. Follow him on Twitter @agentoneal and at allthepretty.com.

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