Before I start, I wanna give a shout out to Hunter’s Insight. He made a post on betas a few days before me and it’s definitely worth a read over here: To Beta or Not to Beta?
Second, fellow blogess Kaae of Way Too Serious and commenter Winter both offered some great input, some of which I already had in my head for part two and other points that I’m going to borrow from, so I thank both of you for the awesome. Kaae also did a great reaction / reflective post on her more positive experience in betas and why she feels they are not gonna die out: Concerning betas.
(As an aside, I also don’t believe betas will die out. My multi-post write-ups usually include a lot devil’s advocate, apocalypse conspiracy theories in part I, and I adress the issues and solutions in the later posts. So I’m not that crazy, really!)
So now that we’ve laid out the issues with what betas are becoming currently, it’s time to set the mold for how to fix it. There are several steps in this process and like mending any relationship, it requires compromise, communication, and respect from both ends: developers and gamers. We need each other through this process. Gamers need to game like crack-heads need their fix, and developers know there are some aspects of the game that just need that massive player influx to fully test. So, on that note, let’s hold hands and make up.
Developers. From Alpha to Release: Don’t forget the Demos
The process of testing a game once it’s playable generally follows the A-B-D-R format: Alpha, Beta, Demo, Release. Then each step usually has all it’s little sub-steps to go with it. Internal Alpha (Developers), Friends and Family Alpha/Beta, Closed Beta (Invite-Only), Open Beta (Opt-ins, pre-orders or open weekends), Private Demo (events/media), Public Demo (downloadable/dics/weekend events), Release.
How many instances of each and how long they last really depends on the game, progress, and the company producing it. One common problem, though, is that game developers are skipping the Demo parts, or in some ways confusing the demo and the beta step, and that’s where a lot of the issues with the abuse of actual betas come from.
As Kaae put in her comment, not everybody scrambling to get into a beta is doing it for the fame and status: many non-testers are either just fans of the franchise or wanting to test the game before it comes out, since it will often be the only real chance to do so. I’d put myself in this category more often than not. When I’m in a beta, I try my best to report to the developers as I see things, but I’m not actively looking to test most of the time. I just want to try it out. If I knew the game would have an open demo even if it’s close to release, I’d rest easy and skip the beta all together.
Let’s face it: dropping 50/60 dollars on a game you might not enjoy is a big risk, and with consumers of all areas being more money-concious, it’s not unwise to be skeptical about buying a game you didn’t really try (I, for one, very much regret buying Aion).
If developers invested some time into releasing a public demo close to release date, they’d get rid of a decent population of beta-players who really just want to try the game to bypass the beta stage. It won’t be everybody, sure, but a lot of them would.
Demos are both simple and not to create. Technically if a game is ready to ship, a demo is possible, but there’s usually limits that have to be implemented. Perhaps a low level-cap (usually before the game gets super grindy, haha) or a limited time (weekends). ArenaNet’s open beta weekends for Guild Wars Factions and Nightfall were basically demos. At the point of release, the games were pretty much done, with just later content being added and last minute skill balances. Many demos are available through pre-ordering and offer bonus’ to players, like reserving names and characters or getting a head start when the game releases.
There are many instances where a company will call a beta such, when really it’s a demo. The game is close to complete and all they want to see is last minute bugs and stress tests. This isn’t truly a beta, not in the full sense, so in a lot of ways we -are- getting demos already, just under another name. Another common mistake is using an early beta as a marketing tool. In my honest opinion: game companies should never, ever market a beta for promotion. Gamers will take that as a serious representation of a game, and will be in that mindset when they play it. Mistakes, flaws, and bugs will be frowned upon.
If developers want the players to experience the game at an early stage as a promotion / marketing tool, they should borrow from ArenaNet’s practically flawless Guild Wars 2 demo platform: a limited, dumbed down version of the final product that showcases the best and most developed aspects of the game.
What we got at Pax and Gamescon was a small piece of the pie, but it was the yummiest, most deliciously filled icing slathered piece they could offer. Two races out of five, four professions out of eight, and 40 minutes of two different leveling tiers. What we saw represented only a fraction of what the final game will offer, but it gave us exactly what gamers want to see in a early preview : beautiful graphics, intuitive mechanical gameplay, and insight into the leveling experience.
So for companies to insure that the beta will provide quality testers and rest easy about pre-mature conclusions, there needs to be a specific divide between the demo and the beta. They can overlap, for sure. Demos can come before open betas if done right. But by making the clear distinction of purpose between the two, they will effectively split the community as well. Those interested in testing and tecnical groundwork will opt-in for betas. Those that just wanna give the game a test-drive will go for a demo. As long as the company makes it clear there will be both, the community will do the rest.
Coming up in Part 3: Gamers. Loose the ‘tude and become a part of your gaming experience.
Anti-Lurk Q&A: What other aspects from the development side do you guys think could be used to further encourage actual testing in beta tests? Do you think the beta vs demo model would work and is realistic? And of course any other thoughts and comments.