Betas: No Longer A Novelty, A Necessity?
I still remember my first beta.
As I hadn't been a PC player since the late '90s, it wasn't until Sony issued a beta test for Warhawk on the PlayStation 3 that I got my first taste of playing a game early.
Of course, the purpose of a beta test (or an alpha or any "test") is to give the developers valuable and often critical feedback. It's especially essential for multiplayer-focused games that will rely heavily on the performance of servers and other technical elements, which can really only be thoroughly tested if a lot of people jump in and give it a whirl. So, obviously, given the multiplayer explosion in the past decade, it stands to reason that beta tests have become standard fare. However, I'm wondering if they've ceased to become a novelty and are now more of a necessity...and beyond that, a very valuable marketing tool.
It seems like with every new beta, more and more people are diving in. Ubisoft says that "unprecedented interest" in the beta test for Tom Clancy's The Division means wait-listed players couldn't get in on Friday (and there's no guarantee for Saturday). And this is a closed beta; I remember when those were almost exclusively restricted to industry insiders and journalists. Last year's open beta for Star Wars: Battlefront saw over 9 million people test out the popular shooter (and we wondered if the experience changed the minds of gamers). In so many ways, gamers in this generation are starting to take betas for granted. The very idea of a multiplayer-centric title releasing without at least one test seems implausible.
Thing is, they might be more important than ever. We're seeing a string of unstable games releasing this generation, and one has to wonder just how unstable these games would be if developers didn't issue multiple tests. Granted, a lot of these unfortunately unstable products are single-player adventures, but let's not forget a lot of online screw-ups. Battlefield 4 was a trainwreck for a solid year, and both Metal Gear Online and Grand Theft Auto Online launched with significant problems. Maybe betas are just becoming too important. Furthermore, they offer publishers a chance to hype the hell out of a game well before it's available, and if the beta is great, it's good news the whole way 'round. If people love The Division beta, I guarantee it'll have a positive impact on day-one and first-month sales.
And how many times have we heard development teams say they were very thankful they held a beta? It basically allowed them to fix a ton of problems, problems we would've seen at launch, right? Yes, the novelty has turned into a critical part of the industry, wouldn't you say?
1/29/2016 Ben Dutka