On Releasing a Beta & Not Shooting Yourself in the Foot

Sometimes I like to write about game design and development in general. This isn’t necessary directly Wayward-specific, but the content pertains to my feelings and choices on developing Wayward. Hopefully it’s useful to some game developers out there.

When you put something out there for consumption, people will hopefully comment and respond. The content of that response can be negative or extremely positive. The people that feel somewhere in the middle don’t usually comment. People that play and feel positively about a game usually don’t respond in any way either – it’s only the people that sit somewhere above that in their feelings for your game.

Take that in contrast with negativity. The threshold for negative comments set a very low bar. It’s easy to say: “sucks”, “terrible interface”, “bad graphics”, “boring and stupid”. It’s also easy to read these and dismiss them entirely as they don’t actually criticize anything. There’s nothing you can take away from it.

But sometimes, negative comments and feedback are good, meaningful, and important. That’s the best kind.

The difference between a good game designer/developer and a bad one is listening to criticism and improving your product.

Most People Don’t Know What Beta Means

The majority of people don’t know or don’t care that you game is beta and will take it at face value. People are used to playing games that are released as finished products. The concept of playing something that is unfinished is generally a foreign concept, especially outside of the computer gaming world.

What can you do to solve this? You need to convey that this is a pre-release to the player. You also need to provide a proper feedback-loop. Make sure you can report bugs easily. Make sure your game is playable and visual presentable. Otherwise, expect a higher ratio for that negative feedback. Sometimes it’s a necessary evil to get your game out there to get the criticism you need, even if it’s not exactly ready. I would recommend testing with a smaller group of people at the start.

Example case:

I get so sick of these games. Promise a great, immersive, deep system, and then slap the shiattiest graphics and gameplay you can on it, and top it all off with a zero learning curve…
I probably would have enjoyed this back when DOS was new and shiny, but these days I expect the Aspie code monkeys to actually talk to some graphics and game designers to make sure the game looks and plays as well as the crafting system works.

This player didn’t consider the game was a beta or that the game/gameplay was intentionally, aesthetically, retro. Most people would consider this type of thing a “troll” comment considering he even begins using personal attacks. Not cool man! You can expect these thoughts from most players, even if they aren’t this harsh or vocal about it.

That being said, is there something you can take away from this? Absolutely. In this case, it would be a hint at improving the interface. The rest of it is mostly subjective and opinionated. You can’t please every one after all. 8-bit all the way!

Most People Don’t Understand What Alternative Game Mechanics Are

Making a niche game? Using mechanics and gameplay that are foreign in comparison to mainstream gaming? You are automatically setting yourself up for negativity in some form or the other.

Example case:

I wandered around for 5 minutes, occasionally running into animals and killing them. Then I came here to see if anyone else had the slightest fucking idea what I was supposed to do or what the point of the game was. Then I closed the game and did something that made sense to me.

You could apply this quote to any open-ended, free-form game. You can expect this to be a common feeling as well. Most games provide direction and goals from the get go. Is it impossible to do the opposite? No, but don’t expect everybody to “get” your crazy-out-there game concepts.

Again, you can’t please everybody. But even this comment provides some value in improving user-experience.

Why Release a Beta?

To get feedback. To get the harshest of the harsh comments, to use that and make your game better. To give yourself a boost if you have spent too long developing and not enough time soaking in the enjoyment you are giving to players. To create an initial community. All these reasons and more is why it’s a good idea for large-scope games.

Don’t be angry or frustrated, learn from your mistakes, and improve your game.

Obviously these ideas and theories are not a catch-all. I mean, this all could fail miserably for a commercial project. Or not work at all for smaller, less involved games.

25 thoughts on “On Releasing a Beta & Not Shooting Yourself in the Foot”

  1. Let me offer a counter argument from a players viewpoint though. Players assume “beta” means, “tell us what is wrong with this before we take it to Live.”

    I cannot tell you how many games I have seen, where people brought up things in beta over and over and over, were told “SHEESH people it is a BETA c’mon,” then when the final release version comes out — every *single* issue, every *single* bug, every *single* general gameplay concern brought up in beta and poo-poo’d, were all still there. Some of them still in the game 3 years later as it shuts down from the lack of players. Anything that usually GETS through beta, is usually there for good and players know this.

    Do you need to have 72 point IMPACT font saying “HEY THIS IS A BETA”…? Well maybe. Or maybe a click through page that acknowledges exactly what devs already recognize are weaknesses (“We are going to be changing the character models and the class skill sets — what we need help with during this current stage is to see if the starter area quests make sense and whether the general game mechanic feels “fun”.) That way players in the beta have some idea what is already recognized and doesn’t have to be brought up again and again, and what issues the devs are especially keen for feedback on.

    Among other things, “Beta” to me means “we actually -want- your feedback and we are not going to get oversensitive if you don’t like every aspect just the way we imagined it (or compromised on it). THIS IS YOUR LAST CHANCE to tell us overall, before the game goes live, if this game “works”. Both for bugs and general gameplay concepts.

    If you want very specific feedback in very specific areas — well, you need to specifically ASK for that. Players cannot be omniscient and know in advance what type of feedback that devs WANT to hear, and what feedback really adds nothing for them. We are not mind readers.

    Oddly though devs never seem to mind positive feedback ^_^

    Anyway I would say the best cure for frustrations on BOTH sides is, as a dev be upfront on what you are hoping to achieve in your beta. If you don;t want “general” shotgun critiques of all aspects, then define specifically what the goal of a particular beta phase is. Tell the players if models are placeholders and skilltrees are only 15% “polished” and that its quests and interfaces being tested (or game-breaking bugs, or stress test, or comparability with players hardware, or WHAT it is that you hope to achieve in any particular stage of a beta.

    Give players an easy place to report privately so it doesn’t spill out all over public forums. Give them a way to /report issues while ingame. Don;t make them search in 17 places for where and how to pass on the information that they ASSUME they were INVITED in order to provide feedback on.

    • Great points about providing the proper tools to request/submit feedback/bugs! That is a great idea and will be sure to amend my post. That being said, adding on yet another auxiliary system seems to distract from the time and effort in actually making the game, instead, curbing user experience during every transitional phase. Perhaps there is a good middle ground I have yet to find.

      It seems like I may have come off a bit negative in my post. Because, I actually tried to make it sound like I like the negative comments. I actually like them better than the super positive ones. Which is the same reason I am replying to you and re-wording my post 🙂

  2. Even those who are aware that a game is a Beta can easily forget that if the game plays well with little or no errors, so at least that can be a good thing (even if you never find that out).

    As for players who constantly need guidance through a game, that’s where UI settings come in – in Wayward, theres little you could do. Maybe tell them to go punch a tree, make a furnace and get some metal equipment, then keep bugging them to find treasure.
    Anyone who knows what they’re doing/doesn’t want any hints can simply disable this option in the settings. It wouldn’t be too hard to add as there’s already a game message window.

    Also I agree with Brash’s last paragraph of an EASY way to report a bug. Too often do Betas come up with a bug. I WANT to report it, but I don’t want to spend 20 minutes to stop playing just to do so.

    Finally, just a quick one, I’m having the message (And so are a few others) “An error has occurred, please report this” – That isn’t at all helpful to the player, and I can’t see how anyone posting “There’s errors but they do nothing!” is helpful to you.

    Anyway, I look forward to the resource gathering changes and best of luck with the game, loving it very much! 😀

  3. To be fair, that was straight from FARK where most people are just trolling, or idiots. You’re always going to get someone who doesn’t get it, no matter how clear you make it.

  4. I think the biggest issue comes when as a Dev you have a certain expectation as to where your product is at, but the users have a completely different view. This happens all the time, an unfortunate aspect is there is always someone who’s going to miss all the warnings, all the notices, and all the rest.

    Take what you can from each comment good bad or ugly and keep on from there. Be aware of what the overall feeling is towards your software but don’t get caught dwelling on all the crazy comments.


    Must go code now.

  5. I have seen a few times when devs put a fair amount of work into a FAQ, and actually DO answer “frequently asked questions” about their game. What IS the general purpose of this game? Dwarf Fortress will tell you — just to learn that “Losing Is Fun” — ie, there *is* no “win condition” and not to get too caught up trying to find one. The fun is in the process and not in “beating” the game. There are not even superficial “lets pretend there are winning goals even though there aren’t”, because that again just frustrates both sides.

    Then there was the “annoying” comment you cited from the frustrated user who had no idea what to do, went to the forums to ask, and finally uninstalled. That’s a lose-lose condition for BOTH sides, so rather than get exasperated with them for being stupid, explore ways to avoid that type of “everybody is exasperated” situation. Encourage your more enthused fans to maybe put together “Beginner Guides” (and really its sometimes best to have several from different people — I generally read up to 3-4 beginner guides when I feel flummoxed and confused with a new game, because sometimes one “clicks” more than the others. Another helpful thing — have a clearly marked “NEWBIE QUESTIONS” section of the forums where people can ask seemingly dumb questions, and get patient replies. Again, a game’s “hardcore” fans are generally happy to do this, it gives them a greater sense of “helping”.

    Minecraft is sometimes cited as an “easy” game that needs no tutorial, yet many of us actually turned to YouTube Lets Play videos to explain the basic beginning goals of getting started. Minecraft didn’t succeed just because it was simple and/or intuitive (and it certainly has never had a functional ingame tutorial), but because the community helped each other get a grip on the game. There was a sense of discovering a secret gem off the normal beaten path … and gamers love that!

    It’s easy for devs to feel annoyed with fans because sometimes the negativity *IS* way way out of whack and disproportionate in hostility. Especially if they are getting FREE games and entertainment! And STILL complaining! but in at least some cases the frustrated fans really WANTED to like the game, were prepared to like the game, put many hours of their own time into working through download problems and installation problems and confusing bugs, and only needed just a little help to get into it. Instead they feel that instead of “free fun,” all they got was several hours of very un-fun frustration.

    Certainly not all games will appeal to all players, and its the dev’s own vision for that game that should always be central.

    But if the fans have no idea what that vision is, it’s not going to be very surprising if they just can’t see it.

    • I really need to work on my tone, because never was I annoyed at anybody. Never was I mad or thought people were “stupid”.

      I realize that some people can’t enjoy Wayward, no matter what. That was the point I was making with the last quote.

  6. I played the game for 5 hours the first time around with error messages appearing for a few things and it didn’t affect how fun the game was but it did make me want to join in on the coding.

  7. Hi, I found this game while searching around and have spent about a day and half working with it. I love the game play and the design. It is very impressive that is runs all off of html 5. I have one major suggestion for voicing glitches, and that is a button to report right to you guys in the options pull down menu. I know you are looking for middle ground and this is right where both players can easily access, and you can set up a feedback system. I would also recommend a better guide to the crafting. It can be very confusing and distracting with no organization. It is well put together, and I like the game. Thank you guys for putting it up in beta 😀 I will post further as I try and break your game(best way to find glitches!)

    • As far as your crafting feedback, I think the main awkwardness is recipe organization. This will only get worse as new items are added to the game!

      My suggestion is a “hide/reset” button, where I pick some recipes to not show (unless I reset it) That way I can pare down my list and easily find recipes I use.

  8. I saw this on FARK and for what it’s worth I’ve really enjoyed this little game. I’ve spent the last 3 days playing around with it and I’ve yet to die once in that time. I’ve built two different campsites on two different island and that was after I swam to a couple of islands in the beginning trying to find a decent starting spot. And I was surprised to see the first feedback in this thread was from FARK as well. That guy is a jerk anyway so I wouldn’t worry about it since you can’t please everybody. All I have to say is great job and thanks for the welcome distraction it’s offered.

  9. The game is fun to play as is. Found this searching for Indi-Games. I will check back for improvements and look for ways to provide feedback if you’re ready for it. Most kids just want to Win & make highest score brags, not understanding Sandbox gaming is open-ended. Many of these projects stop abruptly when the Dev gets a real job and no time for hosting and dealing with the Trolls. Thank you for the game.

  10. I suspect the most issues with current use of ‘beta’ stems from the fact that many developers use it haphazardly and the use is generally inconsistent. By definition, beta is basically functional product undergoing last minor changes or additions but mostly being heavily debugged before going live. In many ways, it should be finished product. But too many, especially indie, developers barely will make a tech demo and they deem it ‘an early beta’ as it sounds nicer and suggests topic.

    I am not surprised that in some cases, an user who actually gets the term and is promised golden mountains may get disappointed and angry is he sees that so far, everything is still only halfway-done. Saying that it ‘this or that core feature will be finished later, it’s just a beta’ is not excuse them, as beta should already have those features in.

    Sometimes it’s just a wrong use of a term that may create mountains of excrements for a developer instead of positive reaction.

    • By definition, a beta is none of what you said. The definition a beta (in terms of technology) is: the last pre-release (or second) in the software release life cycle which Wayward follows very closely. This makes sense from an entomology stand-point considering it is the second letter of the Greek alphabet. Refer to Minecraft as a huge success story that used the term “Beta” in this way: http://www.minecraftwiki.net/wiki/Version_history/Beta

      Besides all that, when Wayward was still in “Alpha”, I got the same comments, so I don’t think that’s really a realistic factor as to why people are harsh. It doesn’t matter what I call it, it does however matter that I released it publicly and didn’t explain that it was a “pre-release” or that it wasn’t “complete”. Those are words I should of used as they are not open to interpretation or social perception.

      • I am afraid that our sources differ greatly. Among those I find somewhat reliable on daily basis, ones actually placing beta in the development cycle claim:

        As per thefreedictionary: “The version of a software product that is used in the final stage of testing before it is commercially released.”. Per wikipedia which as much as it may not be the final source of knowledge, is usually rather reliable: “Beta, named after the second letter of the Greek alphabet, is the software development phase following alpha. It generally begins when the software is _feature complete_.” (underlining mine). Dictionary.com: “The version of a software product that is used in the final stage of testing before it is commercially released.”

        And so on and so on. But it’s not about throwing sources at each other. What I want to point out is the fact that many people will judge the game based on the name of development stage. And I still uphold my point that traditionally, beta stage was the one of product almost finished. But I agree – people can be harsh even when the game claims it’s ‘pre-alpha’ – but then, they weren’t at least harsh because of the development stage and what they expected/was offered at that stage but just the elements the game was lacking in their opinion. I am willing to say that there’s no point in giving them another reason to be disappointed.

        As for minecraft example actually, it supports claims above – core gameplay elements were made by the time of beta, as was at the full ‘story’ (as in, The End location and the ending itself), the beta itself wasn’t ended till those came to be as the ending was felt to be necessary element of finished product. From then on till now, features are improved and new elements associated with those features added, but core gameplay mechanics, at least as far as player-side things look like, didn’t undergo any change.

        • Our sources are the same, each one of those sources also provides me the definition I used. That’s the trouble with open concepts. People can have different interpretations. What if I don’t interpret Wayward as a game? or as a software? What if I call it a service? What if it’s episodic content? What if it’s a new thing I just made up? What if I am going with the alternate Greek model where I name each entry throughout the alphabet, gamma, delta, etc. all the way to omega? Who cares.

          I’m pretty sure we agree fundamentally; however, if you are calling Minecraft entering Beta “feature complete” you are sadly mistaken. Things were also added during Beta also shaped and changed the core gameplay and mechanics. There was no “The End” or ending in the beta. Take a look for yourself. Some more notable examples that happened during the beta:

          • Combat mechanics were completely thrown out and changed.
          • Tons of new mobs and new items which have a large effect on gameplay.
          • Tons of new blocks including the piston and upgrades to redstone which shaped the end-game greatly.
          • Tons of new areas such as NPC Villages (keep in mind NPCs didn’t actually appear in the game until way after beta), Strongholds, Mineshafts, etc.
          • New experience system. Where did that come from? It didn’t even make sense and wasn’t finished until way after the beta.

          The amount of new content and features they added throughout beta is quite staggering. The amount of content they still add to the game even out of beta is insane. How does that fit in the traditional software model?

          What about Dwarf Fortress or tons of the other open ended games out there that continue to get updates and new features, sometimes reworking core mechanics… some in development for 10+ years? How does that work or fit in?

          But really, I’m already being too Jonathan Blow about this whole topic.

          TLDR: Wayward is a game/platform/service/product that will continue to grow, change, and evolve irregardless of open labels and concepts applied to it. The point of releasing a pre-release is to get feedback on to why or if players are disappointed, which I got, and it really helped, which is the point of this article. Well, that and what I would do differently.

          • You are right about the pitfalls of different interpretations – and that underlines the problem that remains. People will follow established ‘standards’ and if they differ, it may create some confusion. With Wayward though, I suspect that great majority will consider it a game and if term beta will be used, it will be expected to suggest what I wrote earlier.

            As for minecraft, according to the minecraft wiki, The End page, history section: The End was added in Beta 1.9pre4 on October 13th, 2011. It’s strange as I didn’t find it in the changelog on same wiki myself, but it had to be worked on at that time as it was completed and already existed in 1.0.0. Since then mobs, items, new red stone components etc were added and will be presumably, but they’re not completely new core mechanics.

            Although minecraft as (at least in the beginning) indie game not following traditional development cycle existing when the term ‘beta’ came to be, indeed may be a bit off.

            DF is officially still alpha or pre-alpha and going by version number, I’d believe final beta would be around 0.99.0 – 1.0.0 but hell, we’ll see (if I’ll live long enough, I mean – it will be many years).

            But anyway, I agree with you we take the whole thing too far for too long – guess it proves that “holy shit, terms can be touchy, people will debate”. While – as it shows – I may be somewhat touchy myself on the use of term ‘beta’ by indie devs, I find Wayward quite developed and plan to play it even if you’ll call it “Final 9.99 omega version Deluxe”. It’ll be.. just.. weird to me (or plain make wonder where did the versions between 9.99 and the one before it disappeared :P).

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