In a trend that’s becoming far too common in the games industry, Betas are being used to promote a game rather than their proper form of stress-tests and bug finding. Three high profile games this year, Battlefield 3, Gears of War 3 and Uncharted 3 have all used Betas to lure people into pre-ordering the games or buying a different title.
While all of these games did make good use of their respective testing phases (Gears 3 had a lot of map layout changes, for example) the fact still stands that Betas are increasingly becoming a marketing tool, one that may harm the industry if overused. How can we fix this?
The first thing that needs to be done is the immediate halt of Betas as pre-order incentives. This is flat out wrong, mostly because a large percentage of the user base doesn’t know what a Beta is. Betas are unfinished, buggy games with a lot of balancing issues and user interface stuff that needs to be fixed. Using Betas to test dedicated servers is also pretty popular as was the case with Gears 3. The average video game player probably (we’re the exception here at GamerSushi rather than the rule) doesn’t know that this is part and parcel with a testing experience; you’re there to find bugs and report them. If you think a Beta is a sneak-peek, you’re going to be sorely disappointed.
Take the Battlefield 3 Beta as a great example of this. DICE was so eager to get people testing the game (and Battlelog) that they and EA doled out a Beta key with every chance they got. Bought Medal of Honor? Beta key. Pre-order? Beta key. Battlefield veteran and a news-letter recipient? Heck, test the Alpha. Despite the fact that I understood that I was testing a work-in-progress, people seemed shocked that the Battlefield 3 Beta was in such a sorry state and the Battlelog forums were flooded with posts. This half worked to DICE’s advantage as a lot of user suggestions were implemented (like squads), but how many people do you think stuck around to actually see that their complaints were being addressed? I’d wager that quite a few of them left after the first few rounds of them falling through the earth on Operation Metro.
Betas should be reserved for people who understand that what you see is probably not what you’re going to get. True, if a company is going for massive stress-testing, the more the merrier, but this seems counter-intuitive. If DICE or Epic were to open up Beta registration on their forums with the understanding that things will go wrong and the game is not finished, I’d bet that there’d be a lot of people who’d sign up and properly test the game.
Don’t get me wrong, early testing does have its place, but more often than not it backfires. Not to go back to the Battlefield 3 well, but how many of you were put of by that lackluster Beta (especially us PC players who couldn’t join our friends in game and had to put up with that lousy Battlelog)? DICE chose a really strange map for the Beta too; instead of giving us classic Battlefield with combined arms warfare, they gave us a Call of Duty map.
I’ve made my thoughts on the Battlefield 3 Beta clear before, but that was one test that blew up in their collective faces. The Gears of War 3 Beta back in April could have been just as big a disaster if the game wasn’t in pretty good shape already. Again, packaging a Beta invitation with Bulletstorm was a really shady marketing move; I can guarantee that Bulletstorm moved a couple extra thousand copies because of that, at minimum (I would know, I bought it for that reason).
Betas are being used to nab early pre-orders and aren’t being clearly explained. Eventually it will get to the point where Alpha tests are being handed out and that will really affect gaming. Minecraft also falls under this category, having been in Beta for a good long while but being available for full purchase (true, you do get the final version and this sort of thing helps indie devs stay afloat).
So what do you guys think of this recent trend? Is this a bad way for the industry to be heading? How should Beta tests be handled?