The long beta program draws to a close. This has been the most challenging game I’ve worked on yet.
The biggest part of the challenge has been the evolution of betas in the PC game industry. Stardock has been doing public betas of its games since 1993 when the OS/2 version of Galactic Civilizations went into beta. We’ve always done it the same way – we put the betas out very early, very buggy, very non-fun and incorporate feedback into the game.
For many years, no one else had these beta programs. But in the last couple of years, someone decided (wrongly IMO) that a public beta program would be a good marketing exercise. The problem is that when people joined the Demigod beta, many of them had only experienced those marketing betas which weren’t true betas.
Stardock betas have worked like this for eons:
Beta 1: Buggy/Sucky.
Beta 2: Less Buggy/Sucky.
Beta 3: Less Buggy/AWESOME.
When we did Sins of a Solar Empire, a lot of the beta testers came from the Galactic Civilizations world so they already knew how we worked. The Sins betas were actually a lot rougher than the Demigod betas because we had far fewer resources between us (Stardock/Ironclad). But most beta testers understood it was a beta and the game came together in the last month before release and has gone on to win tons of Game of the Year awards (like Galactic Civilizations II did before it).
With Demigod, however, being a very different game than GalCiv or Sins, we mostly had people who had never been in a Stardock beta. Many had been familiar with Supreme Commander and its “beta” (which was a marketing beta where the game was largely done). So when they picked up Demigod betas, they found that the game was buggy and utterly sucked. In Beta 1 and 2, we intentionally messed with values in order to make the game not fun so that players would focus on the parts we cared about (beta 1 – engine, beta 2 – network).
So as Beta 3B has made clear, yea, it has all come together. Suddenly there’s a growing buzz that hey, Demigod might be the strategy game to beat this year (if we can get websites to quit listing it as an RPG <g>).
It’s not beta testers fault though. The PC game industry needs to stop having those marketing betas because they completely alter the perception of what a real beta is and what the goals. This Spring, we’re going to start the Elemental beta nearly a year before release. We are currently planning to not even have the graphics engine in Beta 1 but rather have players play on the cloth map so that we can drive home the point that betas aren’t supposed to be fun, they’re supposed to be solving specific problems.
Next week, we’re going to have a beta 3C. It’ll be even better than beta 3B but still, no where near as fun as the release date game will be. The thing to remember here is that Stardock and GPG are privately held companies. We’re in this for the game. We don’t have public shareholders to satisfy. We just want to make an awesome game. Hopefully, players are now able to see what our goals were with these latest betas and like where we’re going. And like all our other games, the release date version of the game is only the beginning.
Screenshots taken on my Thinkpad laptop (great graphics that don’t require mega hardware)