The idea of having a beta test program for a video game is becoming more and more common among big franchises throughout the industry. Some beta testing initiatives give gamers and fans of a franchise the opportunity to provide feedback on a particular piece or pieces of an experience a developer wants feedback on, while most are infrastructure tests to make sure on launch day, things go as smoothly as possible. Whether they turn out that way or not is another issue all together, but the idea of betas are very appealing to gamers these day, and for big games and diehard fans, it’s almost demanded. When gamers have a voice that can affect the outcome of a final product for a highly anticipated game, it is usually a win-win situation for the developer and for the gamer, but in a limited setting.
Through Podtacular, I am affiliated with Ready Up Live, a community website based largely around the Xbox platform with major focuses on games like Halo and Minecraft. They recently made a post for a Halo 5 wish list and a common theme that seemed to be shared amongst the staff over there was not just the need for a beta test, but an open beta test. While this post is more about beta testing in general, the term open beta I believe is misunderstood and should be avoided in the context that most people perceive an open beta program’s purpose is.
Let’s start off with what a beta test can do for a developer. There are two kinds of beta testing outside the studio I am most familiar with or have been exposed to with my time in the gaming world. The first and more common is stress testing of back-end services that will supplement a game’s online component, typically multiplayer matchmaking or massive multiplayer online (MMO) systems and services. These beta tests include things like bandwidth capacity, processing capabilities, infrastructure stability, network latency and quality of service. For person versus person (PvP) games like first-person shooters (FPS), racing games, strategy games and other heavy multiplayer focused games, these things are essential for a successful game and enjoyable experience. The second kind of beta testing, that can be tied in with the first in some programs is experience enhancement. Part of experience enhancement includes the stress testing I mentioned previously, but in this case, I’m using experience enhancement to define the element of an experience that is enhanced not by online services, but by changes to game mechanics, engine tweaks, weapon/ability balancing, etc. This is the kind of testing many people look for and expect from developers so that they can voice their opinion on what “should” be in the game.
When it comes down to beta testing, there’s only a specific list of things developers are looking for to answer questions about how their game runs and what tweaks can and need to be applied before launch. Many times, when gamers get their hands on a beta version of the game, they expect it to be representative of the end result of the game being developed and not riddled with bugs and issues that the developers are looking for that will only crop up during a distributed beta test where hundreds, if not thousands, of people are testing the game. Beta testing allows developers gather statistics and feedback on their experience before shipping a game. Using their findings, they are able to make fixes and tweak a game based on a widely shared opinion on certain functionality when those kinds of tests are included in their testing objectives. There are those special few, however, who believe the developers will bend over backwards to listen to an opinion they have because they know how a game, that they have no real knowledge of, should run and work. One point I’ve had to argue on a few occasions, not just for beta testing but for development in general, is that a developer is making an experience they want to create, not a product of consumer demand.
When developers are creating a game, they are developing their own experience and means of expressing that experience how they choose. You don’t go to a book author or a movie director three-quarters of the way through their creation and say, “Hey, I think you should change this to that.” Now, that’s not to say that developers don’t have the interest of their consumers in mind, but people tend to forget that we are not paying for a service when we buy a video game; we are purchasing a product that is bought as is. We as gamers are not entitled to having our voices heard or our thoughts have a direct impact on development. They may choose to listen to it and implement commonly shared beliefs and feelings around a public beta test, but it does not put the consumer in a position of power over a game’s outcome.
Developers do not put together a public beta test just because fans demand it, but because they want to deliver their product with the best results possible. All developers want gamers and fans to enjoy their game, but they aren’t going to listen to everything people say, because at the end of the day, it’s their game, it’s what they have spent countless hours working on, and it’s what they want the game to be. With such a great demand for beta tests, developers are put in a corner of scrutiny that happens whether a beta test is released to the public or not. If a game has major flaws that ship without a beta test made available before launch, then people argue that there should have been one. On the flip side, if a game has a beta test and things change too drastically between the test and the end game, then people argue that it wasn’t the experience they were expecting, since they thought the test was exactly what the final product was going to be like. In most cases, a game is great when a beta test was made available and tweaks were made to the final product that developers and gamers are happy with. The two scenarios I listed are the two extremes that I can come up with when it comes to negative impacts on a game regarding the use of a beta test.
So why should beta testing be sought after in today’s gaming industry and how should it be perceived by the developers and the consumers? Let’s start with the developers. Beta tests help them isolate and identify issues not easily discovered in a small lab environment. It gives developers an ear into the community who is going to be purchasing their product. If there’s a general consensus that something is wrong among the testers, then developers can respond and implement a patch before, or seemingly more popular now, on launch day. It also exposes the games to the news outlets that will start to generate hype for a game based on experience in the beta testing. Just take a look at Titanfall at Pax Prime last year and the testing initiatives they had a month before the game and you’ll see how much community hype there was in the game. For consumers, it gives them a sense of what to expect with the game they are about to drop $60 for. Being able to participate in a beta gives them a sense of contribution to a franchise and solidifies ones satisfaction with the game. It also gives consumers a feel for the game, so when they launch it for the first time, gameplay features aren’t totally foreign and they can be immersed within the actual content and gameplay of the game the developer wants them to experience.
While beta testing is not required for a game to be successful, it proves, more times than not, that beta testing helps iron out the game and in the end provides a more enjoyable experience that will result in gamers’ satisfaction in the game. However, it’s important to be weary of some misconceptions about beta tests that consumers sometimes hold. First, a beta test is simply that: a test. There will be bugs and things in the beta test will not always represent the end product of a game. Second is that consumers feel entitled to make judgements and suggestions on how to change a game. Like I said before, it’s the developers game and we should let them do their job and develop the experience they want to give after months of them putting in hard work. Third, an open beta is not required to have a successful beta test that is available to the public. For infrastructure an distributed network testing, the more the merrier, but when developers are looking for feedback about the gameplay, it should be targeted to a limited audience. This gives people who are genuinely interested in the game’s or franchise’s well-being to provide valuable input when developers are specifically asking for feedback.
Suffice it to say, I believe beta testing has many benefits to a game that wants to do well and be positively received by it’s target audience. Consumers should understand the purposes of a beta test and what developers motives are when doing the test, not just assuming they are there to hand on every word we have about the test. Whether or not a developer uses a beta test for stability and bug checking or looking for community feedback, they should be up front on what they expect to take away from the test and consumers shouldn’t expect anything more. They are on a tight schedule, they have their best interests in mind, and we want them to craft their masterpiece for us to enjoy.