Quick to judge: in defence of beta tests

By Matt Martin, Thursday, 15 October 2015 13:18 GMT

Whether for technical tests, marketing or design feedback, betas are getting better and more enjoyable, says Matt Martin.


Betas have been getting a lot of stick recently. They’re not intentionally a game demo in the traditional sense, they’re a technical test to squeeze the game and see how it handles the pressure, to market it early and to get feedback on design choices. But once you put something out in the open it becomes whatever people use it as, regardless of the original intention. And at that point, the feedback begins.

I say “feedback” but I mean the ranting, the fury, the indignation that a developer would release such a thing for people to play. Sure, there is always good feedback, but it’s much easier to be negative. This seems unfair, or misguided, even spiteful. Betas are meant to be a bit busted. Because busted things can be fixed. But betas are useful, they’re good for us; for players, for developers, for our website. Why?

They knock down the barrier between developer and player


Bitching, moaning and pissing on Twitter won’t make a blind bit of difference. It’s impotent rage. Playing the beta will help things change. Everything you do is tracked and recorded. Only played for 2 minutes? That’s your protest or boredom or whatever it was noted. Did you fill in the short survey in the Battlefront beta? That’s helped. This is the price you pay for playing the game early. Sure, it’s a little bit broken or unbalanced. That’s the point. No matter how small, you are making a difference. Well done, you’re part of a game’s development process.

They force me to try things I normally wouldn’t


When you get Star Wars Battlefront on day one you’re not going to immediately fire up Survival mode. You want to play with the big boys. Lord Vader will be crushed under your boot. And quite right, too. But I reckon I put just as many hours into the Tattooine Survival mode with my best buddy as I did Walker Assault on Hoth. I’d forgotten how good couch co-op can be. I played the shit out of Terrorist Hunt solo in the Rainbow Six Siege beta. When I look at games I’ve played in the past there are whole sections I haven’t touched and that seems a real shame. I missed them or ignored them or just didn’t care enough. Now I’m looking at games differently.

They create an early sense of community


The press get to play betas the same time as you. There was a time we played early code for a game and wrote about it and you lot were all like “yeah?” but you couldn’t really relate. Now I can write about something you understand because you’re playing the same thing. You’re probably playing it differently to me. Better, no doubt. Now we can write about it and we can read your feedback on the game all at the same time. Anything that helps create a sense of community is good. Community is one of the best reasons to play games. Also, and this is a pure business thing, it helps our traffic. Writing about betas is much better for us than the traditional preview cycle. And it also helps us plan what coverage we’re going to do in the future. Rainbow Six Siege was a good hit for us, we’re probalby going to write a lot more about it in the coming months. Phew, I can stay employed.

A beta isn’t a demo


A rubbish demo will put me off the game. I know this because after the Crackdown 2 demo I never touched the game even though I rate the first as pretty high in my Xbox 360 top ten. But a broken beta will get me curious to how the game has changed when it comes out. That might be smart marketing or maybe I’m being naive. Am I being suckered into giving it a second go? I’m a grown up, I’m fairly aware how things work, I can make my own decisions. Betas are often broken in some sense. This is good. Broken things can be fixed. Fixing things before full release is what it’s all about.

They’re more than a technical test


Betas are primarily a technical test, then good for marketing, then useful to tweak the game design. In that order. No one expects the entire game to be changed a month before release. But we have to believe we make a difference. Battlefield Hardline got delayed and a whole bunch of changes before it eventually came out. You know how everyone said Battlefront’s Walker Assault was too harsh on the Rebels? That’s going to be change for release. You made a difference. And if they are used for marketing, so what? Maybe marketing isn’t evil, but a useful tool. What are you going to do anyway, throw the console out the window and live in a cave? We’re all part of the marketing machine right down to the branded t-shirts we wear. It’s 2015 and our entire hobby is based on consumption.

And that’s it, that’s all I have. I wish more games would get beta tests, even if it’s just so they don’t launch with cronky online services. They’re free! And more often than not they’re pretty good. And I can play them at the same time as you. Video games are great. Hooray!

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