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Words to ban #3: Alpha and beta

By on April 27, 2019

I dislike words that confuse instead of clarify. Alpha and beta tests are two such words. In the days of boxed product development, or the release of online games on PC, the terms had clear meanings

  • Alpha meant “feature complete” All the features, systems and core technology were in place. The purpose of the alpha test was to eliminate the system design and technical risks.
  • Beta release meant “content complete.” Levels, characters, missions and narratives were all in the game. The purpose of the test was quality assurance, bug testing, load-balancing the servers with large numbers of players and so on.

Alpha and beta tests are relics of the era of production-centric design. They fit well with milestones, with deliverables, with contracts that specify exactly how many levels are needed, with what content and by what date. They fit well when the design paradigm is that a game is complete when it is launched. Updates come in discrete packages, like the dinosaur-themed expansion for Zoo Tycoon that was originally sold in physical packaging in retail stores, or the Wrath of the Lich King expansion for the most successful massively multiplayer online (MMO) game in the world, World of Warcraft.

We now operate in a different paradigm. We live in the era of the Minimum Awesome Product (MAP). We are continually releasing new updates for the game. We consciously aim to keep the initial product as small as possible so we can test the key performance indicators (KPIs) in a soft launch. We are never feature-complete. We are never content-complete.

We could attempt to adapt the words alpha and beta to this new world. We already have the distinction between closed alphas, typically internal only, and open alphas, which are (probably, possibly, I’m never sure) open to a limited number of members of the public, feature complete but lacking in content.

The danger is that when you use these words, every person listening hears a different meaning, usually the one that is more useful for them. You end up with a test where the team can’t agree what success looks like. I prefer to use new terms: technical test, soft launch and so on, which I explain in Chapter 14.

Use alpha and beta if you must. But make sure you define them, and check with your team often to confirm they are trying to achieve the same thing that you are.

This is an extract from Nicholas’s new book, The Pyramid of Game Design – get your copy here!

About Nicholas Lovell

Nicholas is the founder of Gamesbrief, a blog dedicated to the business of games. It aims to be informative, authoritative and above all helpful to developers grappling with business strategy. He is the author of a growing list of books about making money in the games industry and other digital media, including How to Publish a Game and Design Rules for Free-to-Play Games, and Penguin-published title The Curve: