There are certain key words that have become natural triggers for people who are gamers: free, epic, loot, newb. But none have the lasting power or influence over our minds that that one, magical four letter word: Beta. Say it at convention and 20 heads will turn your way. Mention it online and your traffic boosts by 10%.
At PAX, I must have gotten 30 different invites and codes to sign up for them. But there is a huge loss that is hidden behind those enticing strings of digits. What has come lately is a huge shifting mindset regarding beta-testing from gamers, and more importantly, developers. Times have changed as gaming becomes more popular and mainstream. Infiltrated with twelve year old boys with tender egos and attention-whoring house wives, this sub-culture of the hardcore gaming comes with it’s own set of social rules, heirarchy, and bragging rights. Just like high-school all over again, everybody’s trying to be the cool-guy and forget the point of school is to learn. Well, once upon a time the point of betas was to test a game and improve on it. But that has been completely ruined: now betas are feared by developers and savagely sought by gamers, and for all the wrong, unfortunate reasons.
The issue is that Beta invitations have become a status symbol in recent years. As the popularity of PC gaming grows, so does the desire to be “in the know” and on the inside of exclusivity. Everybody’s blogging about it, posting about it, tweeting about it, and they are driven to be the one of the firsts to get their hands on it. And no matter who you are, if you’re an online gamer, you have definitely experienced that uncanny urge to Beta. I know I have. I am part of this pandemic. And so are you.
“So why is this a problem?” you ask. Because when status among peers becomes a driving force behind something, that something loses it’s “something”. See: teenage sex. See: iphones. They do it just to do it, they buy it just to buy it, because they want to be the cool guy and the object of envy from their peers. The real meaning and merit is lost in this struggle for status. We forget sex is supposed to be meaningful. We forget iphones are supposed to have utility in day-to-day life. That’s what betas have lost. The “testing” got dropped and hasn’t been able to find it’s way back, and it’s killing this important part of online gaming.
“So what’s this about developers being scared?” you ask.
The first issue is that gamers don’t respect NDAs. NDA Stands for Non-Disclosure Agreement: that’s a binding pact that during certain phases of testing, no information or media regarding said game is supposed to be coming out. You will always inevitably have that guy, or those guys, who ignore this and post screenshots, videos, and bits of information.
In small amounts this isn’t too big a deal. In fact, it’s even a good thing. Small leaks often keep the masses craving more. In droves, however, it becomes dangerous. It’s kind of like the density of water. It shrinks a bit before expanding. Likewise, for a small moment in time, leaked info is ok but then it becomes a problem that leads to the next big issue:
Gamers prematurely base their opinions on betas, and developers have become all too aware of this. How many times have I heard “Ugh, is that armor clipping?”, “How come these animations are so glitchy?” “WTF? LAG ON MY BETA SEVER? I’m not buying this game.” and I cringe every time. One of the biggest reasons Betas are postponed closer and closer to release is because people decide before it comes out whether or not it’s worth time based on glitchy, laggy, incomplete versions of the game. Sometimes they haven’t even tested it: they’ll make conclusions based on a screenshot and some angry guy’s blog post. Soon enough, if not already, having an open beta early in development will be marketing suicide and companies won’t be able to do it even if they wanted to. The suits will forbid it.
Gamers don’t fucking test in beta testing. Seriously. While I don’t have any official numbers, just from experience alone I can safety bet no less than 75% of players who get into betas haven’t contributed an ounce of useful information to the developers. All they do is cry in public chat. So basically there’s these droves of people posting screenshots and videos and running around wasting data and sever space just to say they can, will, and have.
That’s like having painters come over to work on your house and all they do is sit around, eat your food, order porn on your TV, and kick your dog. Wouldn’t you be pissed? Can you understand why developers are fed up?
Once upon a time, the point of a beta was to break a game. Testers purposefully pushed the client to it’s limits, and the developers wanted this. They wanted you to overload an area, they wanted you to walk through walls and fall through the world. And once upon a time, the bragging rights wasn’t about who was -in- the beta but rather who was able to find and report the weirdest bug and best exploit. It’s called beta testing after all, not beta leeching.
The only company that can pretty much put out a beta whenever they want is Blizzard because if someone complains about something, they can basically say “Fuck you, it’s beta, if you don’t like it, there’s 3,000 other people willing to take your place.” Blizzard has a large enough following that by sheer numbers, there are enough reliable testers around to make it worth the 80% of others who do nothing but spout bullshit about low-res textures and nerfs to their class.
It’s a crying shame, too, because with technology and social networking being what it is, there has never been a better time to test out games and help developers dig up the sorts of bugs only players have the magic ability to find.
We’re likely to find in the next few years that game companies no longer release open betas at all. Instead, fans are likely to get a “demo” a few weeks, maybe a month or two, prior to release when the game is essentially done and simply needs the sort of en-masse testing for stress, servers, and population issues. And we only have ourselves to blame. Yes, our number-crunching, epeen evny-ing, status obsessed selves.
Anti-Lurk Q&A: Have you ever beta’d without testing (DO YOU FEEL GUILTY? J/K)? Do you think companies are right to worry? How do you feel about the impending Death of the Beta?