Two part question that needs answers. If the wall of text is too much, refer to the bold sentences.
More and more we're seeing games that aren't finished being sold. Beta's you can buy into, pre-orders that allow early game access and even games in alpha being sold with early access privileges. A much used excuse, especially for the last one, when facing any issues is: '....but the game isn't done yet and therefor it isn't released'.
1; When is a game officially released?
A friend of mine bought an alpha game of Steam that has such poor frame rate performance that it is unplayable. The excuse I described above was given to her. It has nothing to do with her system, it is a common issue with this game. I'm asking, is this really an excuse that can be made?
My view: I think people need to let go of the idea that 'released' is a term that must go hand in hand with 'finished'. Saying the game isn't done and therefor not released is not an excuse for anything. I believe a game can be released, but not finished. I will buy into the idea that if you allow a certain set number of people to play your game you could argue the game isn't officially released. But when anyone is able to play your game in exchange for money; you can say it isn't released all you want, but it really is because their is no transaction difference between your game and any other game. Paying for something means it is a product available for purchase and certain expectations come with buying a product. Of course we can read and know that a game isn't finished yet and we are accepting that. Bugs, glitches, incomplete feature set... we acknowledge we are buying into this when we buy a 'pre-release' game. But I do believe we can expect the game to function properly. That criticism shouldn't be dismissed by pointing at the 'pre-release' label.
2; How should the answer to question 1 affect review scores and GOTY lists?
This is something I have been thinking about lately. I am really into Don't Starve. I think it is a great game. I've been playing that game ever since last year, 2012. The game has changed a lot since then and it was in pre-release state at that time. It has officially released this year, 2013, in February. I was playing the game back when Sanity wasn't even a concept in that game, which seems crazy right now.
But if the game changes so much and it is acknowledged that it wasn't finished, should the game be reviewed when it was pre-release? We can argue about the purpose of a review, but the one thing it definitely is, is purchasing advice. Is this worth my time and money? If a game is being sold for money and requires time to play, even if it is pre-release, shouldn't a review be logical to inform people? If so, how should the verdict be affecting, seeing as a game can go from 'shit' to 'great'?
Also, how should it affect GOTY lists? Can a critic take Don't Starve for the 2012 GOTY lists? He did play it back then and everyone could. It could have been the best experience he had, but not allowed to take it because a single line read 'unreleased'? If so, couldn't devs exploit this just by sitting on 'unreleased' games until they see the right time to release it for maximum awards and criticism?
I have no answer for this second question, it is a tough one.