The Failure of the Mainstream Beta
At some point during a board meeting, in between puffs of expensive-cigar smoke, jokes at the expense of the working class, and with classical music playing in the background, some head of marketing successfully pitched the idea of using a round of video game “Beta testing” as a marketing tool. The head of the company, clad in expensive threads and stroking a Siamese cat gave the matter some thought, tapping his ringed finger on the multi-thousand dollar mahogany oval table and, as he gave a simple nod of the chin, the rest of the board sits back with a grin on their faces. This man, nay, this genius has discovered an exquisite loophole in game development. This is, by the way, exactly what transpires in between board meetings. Except for the cat. Those are Persian sometimes.
The idea must have been an incredibly easy sell. Somewhere along the past ten years of game development the idea of closed betas became popular. Rather than paying a couple dozen lab-rat game testers to repeatedly play through games as the development cycle draws to a close, why not simply yield access to this coveted piece of code to many more gamers? Our work is their fun, and with closed betas gamers will lap up whatever half-finished code developers will throw at them and willingly dissect every last glitch, imbalance, loophole, and inconsistency within the game. Free testing, they thought.
Free testing eventually became free marketing as someone along the way thought that this exact practice could actually be used to advertise the game in its entirety. No, don’t call it a “demo”, those are far too simplistic and gamers know the ins and outs of those. Call it something else. Something…exclusive. Access to this walled garden where gamers can acquire access to ripe, exquisite fruit free for the taking. This amazing game that everyone is simply dying to play. Presenting it as the glorified commercial that is a demo is too inelegant and trite, but calling it a “beta”? And a “closed” one at that? That’s surely an idea that’ll get gamers ticking! Why, it won’t even be possible to accept any criticism of the game. Simply point to a big sign saying “Guys, it’s a BETA!” and all complaints will magically vanish. A PR man’s dream, and an incredibly easy sell for the gaming community. People bought random games for a “beta” code of an upcoming blockbuster, signed up for these rounds of testing as soon as humanly possible, and eagerly checked their e-mail to see if they had been given the keys to the secret vault of gaming.
…in theory. And publishers most certainly exploited this theory to its full potential. They ran this train through its tracks as fast as they could manage until the only thing they “managed” was to run it to the ground. Now, the concept of a “game beta” draws eye rolls where squeals of excitement used to be. What used to be a mad dash of salivating gamers to access to this promised land of unreleased gaming goodness is now a marketing stunt met with dismissive hand waves. Slowly but surely gamers are waking up from this dream.
It is due to the simple execution of this concept of a game beta, or to put it much more accurately, a “beta”. In this “beta”, developers really have no intention of using this round of gamer access as a way of improving or changing the game in any significant way, instead using this as a way of marketing the game to the masses. This is especially true of games that host so-called “betas” about a month or two before the game releases. With the game this close to going gold, it’s simply inconceivable that anything particularly fruitful would come out of this short period. And suppose that some fundamental problem is to be discovered during this round of “testing”. How would a developer be able to fix this issue when the final revision is due in a week? Just about the only thing that can be tested are things like server load, but let’s get real here. Big-name betas at this point are simply about marketing.
In theory, this would give developers the chance to a release a demo for marketing purposes without actually working on a demo. Indeed, it’s not something very many gamers think about, but demos actually DO require dollars, programmers, and designers thrown at them to make them happen. People have to pick and polish some small part of the game that shows just enough of the experience without spoiling anything. These bits of code need to be uprooted from the rest of the game, isolated, and made sure that they’re entirely autonomous. The developer simply must go out of its way to create a formal demo, but this is not exactly the case with game betas. With “betas”, the idea of an unpolished experience is inherent to the concept. After all, in theory the only reason gamers are playing is to test the actual game and report on areas that need to be worked on.
But how much of that is actually happening? How many gamers are actually playing a beta to be a part of the “game development experience”, and how many of them are simply playing just to get their gaming fix on a title that they absolutely cannot wait for? And in the case of open betas, how many people are neither willing to be a part of the “development experience” or anticipating the game at all, simply playing because it’s an upcoming game and hey, you can play some of it for free? With “betas” getting as popular as they are, the amount of people actually providing feedback is minuscule compared to the amount of people who are simply playing just to play.
Game “betas” are becoming increasingly more transparent as each year passes. Nearly every beta flashes some kind of advertisement at some point, urging players to pre-order on a splash screen or a banner. These betas almost always end right as the game launches, despite the fact that a lot of games actually require even more testing for changes and tweaks when the game goes live. Beta access is packed in other games for the sole purpose of boosting sales numbers. Even some Betas, such as the recent Uncharted 3 Subway Beta, aren’t even trying to hide the fact that they’re glorified marketing tools, going so far as to give away “exclusive” beta access through cross-promotions with other unrelated companies (like, for instance, restaurants) for the sake of dollars-n-cents.
But ironically, these betas are starting to actually do far more harm than good. As the concept of the “beta” morphs into a prolonged, limited-time, unpolished “demo”, gamers are starting to take away the wrong message from what the marketer intended. Indeed, the recent debacle of the Battlefield 3 beta is a perfect example of the potential issues that this marketing loophole has. Because a very large portion of the players of these betas are simply playing because they want to get their hands on the game, they enter the game with a different kind of attitude, expecting a much more polished experience than what they’re getting. First impressions are key in product marketing, and the first impression that gamers get, especially in cases like the Battlefield 3 beta on consoles, is one of an unpolished, buggy mess.
There are, of course, people who will say that this is indeed a beta, and that people who expect a fully polished experience are simply expecting too much. But the problem isn’t that gamers are setting their expectations too high, it’s the fact that marketers are scrambling gamers’ expectations in the first place. Publishers are trying to communicate two parallel ideas at once. They want to market some portion of the game as an advertisement for people to buy the game, but at the same time they want to give an unpolished portion of the game for people to “test”. But they can’t have it both ways, because the concept of a demo and the concept of a beta are fundamentally different. The beta is not supposed to be used as a marketing tool because an advertisement is inherently designed to give as best an impression of the product as possible, whereas game betas are supposed to be used to test unfinished and likely unpolished/buggy parts of the game.
In short, big-name “marketing” betas are trying to do two opposite things at once and failing at both. They’re poor marketing tools because they rarely, if ever, present the product in question in a polished, appealing state, and they’re poor testing tools because they’re executed in such a way that they don’t provide adequate feedback for the developer. A good beta is inherently a poor marketing tool, and a good demo is inherently a poor beta.
Ultimately, the big-name “beta” as we know it will not last long at all. I personally don’t believe that presenting half-finished, unpolished sections of a game as a marketing tool will last longer than a couple of more years. Of course, this whole concept of peddling access to an upcoming game for a couple of weeks is here to stay, it’s just that these “betas” will becoming increasingly more and more polished until they’re essentially just plain demos. These “betas” are fundamentally wrong, doing poorly on both of their purposes. Eventually marketers will have to admit to it.