If you've played a new Facebook game in the past year, you know the word all too well: beta. Almost every social game to hit the network quietly makes its debut with those letters tacked onto the end of its title. Developers and publishers consider this a live testing phase of sorts, a way to gauge player interests, behaviors and (for some primarily) purchasing patterns.
You see, Facebook games in their open beta phase almost always allow players to spend their hard-earned cash on in-game items and boosts. However, developers often hide behind the tag "open beta" when something goes horribly wrong in the early phases of their game's existence. (A fitting example would be The Sims Social during its launch phase.) It took FarmVille nearly two years to drop its "open beta" tag.
This is why the editors of Games.com News have taken it upon themselves to consider Facebook games in "open beta" as simply "live". Granted, launching a Facebook game and launching a console game for retail are two entirely different things (though, with digital distribution growing in popularity, that line is slowly blurring as well). Facebook games are structured in such a way that they're easily updated and transformed. The game you play today might look or play in an entirely different way tomorrow.
Recently, games that launch in open beta later see a public launch, which in addition to press outreach and lots of advertising rings in huge chunks of game-changing content that arguably could change minds (i.e. reviewers' minds). But when your game is publicly available for all to play and, more importantly, spend money in, isn't it only fair for it to be subject to any and all criticism?
This internal debate isn't anything new, but was sparked once again by an exchange between Games.com News Editor in Chief Libe Goad and myself. Social games and console games for retail stores, again, are launched in entirely different ways and as a result their development times and processes couldn't differ more. But as these lines blur with the onset of digital distribution, the way in which games are reviewed on the whole could be put into question all over again.
Is it fair to give social games in the open beta phase an official review, given that they allow players to spend money? Or should critics wait until a game has dropped the "beta" tag and gone "officially" public? In this week's Social Space, I want to see what your take is on the issue:
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Joe Osborne is associate editor at Games.com News. Weekly in Social Space, Joe shares opinions and observations on the intersection of social gaming and traditional games. Follow him on Twitter here.