- [The fifth in a ragged series of 'Alex Handy Sez' missives, in which the former Game Developer editor and current Gamasutra contributor riffs on something or other, focuses on the evolution of Beta versions of video games.]

For game collectors, the skies are only getting brighter. But for us journalists and some lucky collectors, there is a potentially collectible item that poses us with a quandary: What of the betas?

Let me lay the ground work here. The NES collectible market is exploding. The Atari market already proved that prototype cartridges and unreleased games are the biggest bread winners for hardcore collectors such as Frank and myself. This is understandable, as unreleased games are only around in small quantities. Smaller quantity, higher demand. Higher demand, higher prices.

For the games industry of the 70's and 80's, prototypes came in the form of big cabinets with no marquees, bare circuit boards with handwritten notes, and blank cartridges with crude nametags. Therefore, it's easy ascertain the veracity of a proposed historical artifact. Sure, I could go down to the ACCRC and pull out some old circuit-board and write "Radarscope" on it, then pawn it off on an idiot on eBay. But if any of these items comes to Sotheby's in 2084, a historian trained in the ways of Electronics could easily tell if the pin-outs were properly aligned for the equipment of the day, or if the chips are all correct, or if the cartridge has the right handwriting on it.

Point is, fakes are easier to spot in the the prototype and beta market of the early videogame period. And I have yet to see anyone offering up floppies and claiming they contain beta code for Super Mario Brothers. [EDITOR'S NOTE: Although, as Lost Levels points out, there are certainly bootleg NES carts semi-masquerading as Betas nowadays, boo!]

But in the 90's, we begin to get into a tricky spot for the beta/prototype market. With the advent of the laser-read-disc systems, we're seeing 0-barrier-to-entry fraud potential. Instead of having to construct a crude NES game from assembly then loading it onto dummy hardware, Playstation fraudsters could easily burn something onto a blank CD, then scrawl "jumpingflash release candidate 1" on it.

Fraud, however, is not my key bugaboo for the post cartridge beta/prototype/unreleased market. It is the overall effect that such potential illegitimacy has on the market for beta software as collectible. Uncertainty aside, we're now in an era when the collectability of pre-release software rapidly descends to zero due to the artifact being basically nothing but bits.

I bring all of this up because I have, in my possession, some juicy betas of years past. Working at games magazines means you'll get a hold of preview builds. Sometimes the companies want them back. Sometimes they don't. You can't sell them on eBay before, during, or immediately after the game comes on sale, as that is illegal, and most companies claim ownership of the discs in perpetuity. So you hold onto them, thinking that some day, it will be something similar to an animation cell, or a prop from a famous movie.

So what happens in the Xbox Live era? When all these systems are offering games up as a subscription service, like GameTap, what then? Are betas done for? Will anyone burn this stuff to discs any more?

And this says nothing about the actual market for the hardware on which games were built. Many years ago, working at the ACCRC (A computer recycling Center), I had the misfortune of condemning an SGI workstation to death. This workstation had come in from Electronic Arts, where, I was told, it had been used to do some of the art work for the Road Rash series. Now, that computer has been recycled. Good for the environment. But what would it have been worth at auction in 50 years?

What does the future collectible market hold for these items? Was the Dreamcast the last collectable Beta-viable platform? Is the physical entity the collectable, or is the code a part of it? What about the hardware? If so, then is there any point to archiving historic game code, or historic machines? And, my god, man! Where would we put it all!?