So what does it mean? Well it means that we now have a build of SOMA that contains all of our desired features. There are still a few bits of art, a few sounds etc. missing, but the game is pretty much complete content-wise. We've sent this build out to around 40 people to test and once we start getting feedback in we'll discuss how best to spend our remaining development time. At this time in development there isn't much room to make big changes. If it turns out that something doesn't work at all, we need to figure out a not-too-drastic tweak that can make it work, or consider cutting it entirely.
Important to note is that we've already had two big tests prior to this, one vertical slice and one Alpha, so we're pretty confident on the major decisions of the game. We've already tried many different ways of doing things, and honed in on the stuff that works. So while the time for major overhauls is now over, we'll not end up in a situation where half the game turns out to be broken. I'm quite confident that we've created a very special experience, but before the verdict comes in, it's still scary to not know for certain. Especially now when we are at the point of no return.
Once we've decided on how to best spend our time, our days will be all about polish and improvement (and possibly some cutting here and there). In its current state, all of the game's big problems have been solved, so what's left is to make sure that what's there is as good as it possibly can be. Adding effects, improving the art, ensuring stability, making it more intuitive and so on. That's what just about all of our remaining work is about. That and fixing all those annoying bugs that are sure to crop up.
An interesting side-note on this Beta thing is how the number of bugs always sky rockets near an important deadline. Long-existing issues that have not been a problem for months (or years!) seem to pop up an hour or so before it's time to send out the build. Here at Frictional we call this "entering the event horizon". Just like approaching the singularity of a black hole, outside time goes increasingly faster, things frantically break and the known laws of physics cease to work. For instance, over the last week we've had two hard drive failures, geometry disappearing for no reason, SVN breaking, editors not loading updated files and several much-tested features starting to crash. It's exactly the same every time and yet you're always just as surprised when it happens.
Now that Beta is done, our next deadline is Release. Before we can announce that we have to wait for the Beta feedback to come in and then make plans for our remaining time. The time when SOMA is finally out is really close now, though, and we'll let you all know a date in the near future!
And now for a new piece of concept art and a screenshot: