There’s a thing happening at the moment. Some people are currently playing Titanfall. Lucky buggers. I bet they’re enjoying it, since Titanfall is pretty damn awesome. But that’s beside the point.
The point is that people are playing Titanfall because it has been opened for public beta testing. Basically, if you were interested in participating in the closed beta, you had to put your name and email into the pot and get pretty lucky. And so many people did, and some got to participate.
Betas are important to the development process. They allow the developers to receive a whole bunch of feedback both technical and gameplay wise. Betas help iron out any bugs and tighten up balance and gameplay, which is essential in providing the perfectly polished finished product. And, in the case of multiplayer games like Titanfall, it helps estimate the ultimate server load that the game will generate.
Like I said, betas are important.
Aside from the issue of potential pre-release gameplay fatigue, there are issues with betas – specifically with public betas, and even more specifically closed public betas.
First the public beta issue. Members of the public are not beta testers. Believe it or not, people get paid to be beta testers. They sit at a screen for days at a time, replaying the same tedious sections of game over and over again with slight variations, and take copious notes. They know what they’re doing, and they know how to specifically “break” a game in ways that will reveal bugs. And they know how to replicate and report their findings to streamline the fixing process. Random public gamer person #14, however, has no such experience. They’re generally people who enjoy playing games, and that’s about it. No offense, of course.
In fact, pretty much the only thing random public gamer person #14 has going for them is that there are a couple of thousand other people out there sharing the workload. Allowing large numbers of people into the beta generally ensures a bunch of bugs get caught and sufficient feedback is received.
But it brings with it a perception problem. While a good deal of beta players accept that the game is not feature complete, there are some who don’t. For example, Titanfall had a bunch of servers go down, rendering the game inoperable for a number of people. There were rumblings – unfair rumblings – that the game was rubbish and broken. There were rumblings – entirely reasonable – about whether the server infrastructure on final release would be sufficient to ensure a relatively smooth launch.
Basically, opening a beta up to the public has its benefits and its potential downsides. Feedback and performance benchmarking data vs people who don’t quite fully understand the quality difference between beta code and release code and express that negatively over social media. In Titanfall’s case, there was also plenty of very positive word of mouth, since the game (so far) is excellent. Public betas open up the game for potential unfair judgement. It also can be a way to show trust in a product and consumer base, as well as development process transparency. But I do think it’s a very fine line that developers walk when choosing to provide public betas – it has the potential to go very wrong, very quickly.
But, as a whole, I think public betas are generally great opportunities for developers and communities. But, betas need to be treated as betas, and not as demos.
There is a more substantial issue with closed betas, though. I do get that public betas need some discrimination in who is able to play them. Certain locations and platforms need prioritising. There is a technological limit in who can access the beta. And there is a human limit in the amount of feedback that can be processed. Yes, public betas generally need some way to “close” it off to certain target groups. That’s not my issue.
My issue is the way access to closed betas is commonly framed.
Closed betas are frequently framed as being a reward or prize. It’s a competition to be included. If you get chosen, you’ve been chosen. The developers have given you a special gift – the gift of game. But that’s not how it is really. In reality, you’re a guinea pig. You’re a typing monkey. You’re doing work essentially for free. You’re cheap labour. Sure, you get to play a game you’re excited about early, and there is value in that. But it isn’t a gift. There is a transaction of time for data being undertaken here, and it’s being framed as a gift. Closed betas are not a reward. Closed betas are not a prize. Closed beta access should not be incentivised. Let me make this clear – closed betas are primarily a tool for developers to improve their game.
Being involved with a closed beta can be fun, but you’re getting a whole lot less out of it than the developers are.
I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with enjoying being in a closed beta. It can be a good experience. You can have a lot of fun. And there is value in entertainment. But incentivising beta access as a prize just doesn’t sit right with me. It feels a bit scummy, like companies are manipulating the value of their game through manufacturing scarcity. I guess what I’m trying to say is I like closed betas, I like people enjoying closed betas, but I don’t like the PR spin that surrounds closed betas as a prize. In the end, the developers are supposed to be getting the most out of a public beta, not the marketers.
Beta tests are great. I love them. I think more games should have huge open betas – especially if multiplayer is involved. But I also think that there is a bit of an issue with the way they are idealised as a reward.
But hey, at least closed betas are completely free. Some games are being released in alpha for money.
But that’s a whole different article.