Social games getting bolder with closed, open beta tests on Facebook

Closed beta tests and “sneak preview” open beta tests are getting more popular with social game developers on Facebook. Tetris Online Inc. and EA PopCap provide two recent examples with Tetris Stars and Solitaire Blitz.

Betas on Facebook are tricky. Open betas run the risk of “losing” users that have no patience for unfinished games; several developers have told us releasing a game on Facebook before it’s optimized is a death sentence compared to other social networks where you can get away with less-than-perfect. Closed or limited betas, meanwhile, usually can’t be monetized and sometimes aggravate potential users when friends in the beta bombard them with invites that won’t actually get them into the game. Past examples include MetroGames’ Auto Hustle (launched before it was ready), EA2D’s Dragon Age Legends (unstable invite-only beta lost player data) and EA PopCap’s Pig Up! (which doesn’t seem to be going anywhere).

Despite the risks, betas are crucial for social games because they provide early feedback on core gameplay, presentation, monetization and retention. It’s easier for developers to make changes or roll out fixes with a smaller user pool than it is to redo an entire early user experience while serving 100,000+ daily active users. Even without monetization implemented, a beta can buy the developer the time it needs to take a game from mediocre to successful.

Take, for example, Tetris Stars. Developed by Blue Planet Software and published by Tetris Online, the game entered an open “Sneak Peek” beta sometime in winter 2011.The game updates the classic puzzle game with a “digging” feature where each line of the puzzle cleared removes a layer of dirt or rock. The goal is to unearth as many buried Stars and power-up items in 60 seconds with Stars freed and special moves earning the player points. The entire game is controlled via the mouse rather than keyboard buttons.

“We’re doing a fairly quiet release at first so we can work with [Blue Planet Software] to optimize the code and balance the gameplay,” Tetris Online VP of Marketing Casey Pelkey tells us. “We’re also anxious to see how users respond to the mouse controls.”

From what we can see, the mouse controls haven’t changed much in the past two months. We have seen, however, the number and price of power-ups have been adjusted, the flow of gameplay tweaked and bonus time has been added for each Star freed. The overall impact is the game went from being too easy in December to too hard in January. As of now, the game is somewhere between the two points and Tetris Online still isn’t ready to officially launch the game.

EA PopCap’s Solitaire Blitz, meanwhile, is off to a stronger start than Pig Up! Neither title has ever been officially announced by the developer — PopCap only owned up to Pig Up! after it was reviewed by Games.com — although Solitaire Blitz at least has a cross-promotion bar with other EA games on Facebook. It seems like the developer learned from the lack of response to Pig Up!’s bare bones beta, however, as Solitaire Blitz had monetization and viral sharing features up and running when the game entered open beta late last month. We actually found the game entirely through invites.

Solitaire Blitz is a variation on solitaire where players are racing the clock to clear as many columns of cards as possible to uncover treasures hidden underneath each column. An EA PopCap spokesperson declined to comment on the game, but it seems as though gameplay tweaks are still being made.

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