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The State of Betas
Betas have very much stepped into the spotlight in recent years. Once upon a time betas were entirely internal affairs but these day they’re hugely promoted and often open to public participation. Eric Watson and Fergus Halliday sit down to talk shop about the state of betas and debate their role in games development today.
Have Betas become more of a publicity and promotional exercise rather than a technical one?
Eric: For the most part, yes, but it’s not new. When The Great MMORPG Rush was in full force about 10 years ago many began seeing betas as high-profile public demos, and that trend continues to this day. For actual technical testing most companies will get it done with an in-house QA team and a closed friends and family beta before opening it up to the public.
With Kickstarter we’re beginning to see indie devs take advantage of crowd-sourcing a passionate and vocal fanbase of backers into actual beta testers that provide valuable feedback. Of course, there will always be those that simply use a beta as a free demo.
Fergus: Given their propensity to ‘go-viral’ combined with their ability to give fans a more effective impression than a trailer or screenshot, I don’t think it’s surprise that betas have become as embedded into the promotional cycles surrounding games development as they have.
Previous eras of games development saw beta as an internal phase of development towards the final product but today’s publishers see betas as a minor products in their own right – and because of that, they’ve definitely to become just as much a part of the promotional side of games development as they are the development itself. In fact, you only need look at the launch of the Destiny Alpha and Battlefield: Hardline Beta during last month’s E3 to see the extent of this shift.
Betas are far more polished than they were ten years ago, is this a good thing or do you think it hurts the development process?
Eric: It depends entirely on the developer. A AAA publisher is more like to use a public beta as a chance to show off a small portion of the game, while at the same time being able to use the “It’s only a beta!” defense. As I mentioned above, indie developers are more likely to put out actual work-in-progress/ beta and even alpha builds to backers or early adopters (in the form of Early Access) and use the feedback while finishing the game.
Fergus: I think it’s difficult to say whether the increased level of polish betas demand as a result of their role in the marketing cycle has a good or bad impact on the development process itself. I have no first-hand development experience but I imagine it could help mitigate the amount of pressure during the infamous ‘crunch-time’ towards the end of a game’s development. On the other hand, could sinking a lot of time polishing an incomplete product end up hurting the finished product – very possibly. I honestly don’t know enough about games development to say.
AAA titles these days are more likely to get a beta than a demo. Do you think demos are being replaced by betas? Why might this be the case?
Eric: Sure seems like it. I hear the word beta far more than demo, especially in regards to big budget games. I think it’s because a beta always has that inherent excuse and caveat of technically not being the final product. Those pre-order, day one numbers have become more important than ever, and a public beta leading up to release is a fantastic PR machine to drum up awareness. whereas demo’s are typically an afterthought after a game has already shipped.
Fergus: I absolutely think this is the case. While I think that part of it has to do with the increased interest in multiplayer and social gaming, I also think that the metrics and stat tracking that today’s developers use has had a hand in this shift.
Titanfall was one of the biggest releases of the year – from Call of Duty alumni, no less – but included only the bare bones of campaign mode and no real single player whatsoever. The reason, Respawn explained, was that their experience at Infinity Ward had concluded that far too few people played the single-player component of competitive first-person shooters to justify the resources that went into developing it. Although this an admittedly cold method of games design, it’s the kind of approach that highlights how important multiplayer is to today’s gamers – and when you consider that popularity, why a multiplayer beta makes more sense as a promotional tool in today’s gaming landscape.
There was an incident earlier this year where EA accidentally started charging for demos. Do you think the future holds a world where material designed to promote the full game like betas and demos are held behind paywalls?
Eric: Not exactly. Betas and demos have been used in marketing with a lot of success – bundling an average game with the beta for a hot upcoming release for example. I don’t think they’ll ever straight up charge for them as they want to be used as marketing vehicles. However, the definition of a beta and a released product is becoming more and more murky. Hearthstone had the capacity to purchase card packs for real money months before it was officially released.
Many game genres, especially of the free to play variety, could easily benefit from simply enabling their microtransactions while still technically in beta. At that point you really have to wander at the difference between a beta and a final product, but that’s a whole other debate.
Fergus: On some level, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if gamers ended up being charged for access to betas and demos. As I said before, the promotional cycle seems to treat betas like a product of their own and I can easily envision a scenario where a publisher like EA or Activision could find themselves justifying such a paywall – particularly given the recent rise of early access titles on Steam.
Eric: Sure, depending on the game. A multiplayer-focused beta like Titanfall isn’t going to spoil anything, and most story-driven betas are limited for exactly that reason – not wanting to show the whole game and spoil everything. In this case the developer takes all the feedback from the amount of content they feel comfortable to share, then extrapolate that to the whole game. The Wasteland 2 beta is huge, offering about 25 hours of play time, but that’s only half the game. The rest will have to wait till the game’s final release next month.
Fergus: I think the relationship between storytelling in games and the rise of early and beta access to games is absolutely fascinating. For me, at least the concern I have is less centered on whether betas can spoil parts of a game and more to do with examining whether betas can demean storytelling in a game.
On some variable level, betas offer gamers the chance to look inside the world of games development and see a cross section of a partially completed product. I definitely wonder if this affects the way storytelling is experienced within a game – does the introduction of a character mean less if you know from playing the beta that his primary role is to introduce a mechanic? Would big twists or moments in games like Bioshock: Infinite, The Last of Us or Mass Effect have been ruined if they had been livestreamed and discovered through betas first? It’s an absolutely fascinating area of discussion in its own right.
Eric: Early Access is one of the most interesting aspects to affect PC gaming since Steam itself. Early Access is essentially a beta phase that anyone can buy into. On one hand it puts your beta behind a paywall but it also allows you to sell your game and start taking in much needed profits far earlier than normal, and for many independent developers it’s a godsend.
It can also be hugely problematic however, especially with Kickstarter games as many offered beta access as a higher-reward tier incentive, and thus must charge at least that much to the general public for Early Access. Early Access, like public/open betas, are more useful to mechanically driven games that can be tested and upgraded rather than emotional or story-driven content. Finally, some developers are far more adept at engaging with the community and implementing changes and fixes than others.
Fergus: I think in a lot of ways, Early Access is the literal accelerated monetization of the beta phase itself. There’s certainly an element of community appreciation when it comes to developers offering beta access as a reward to fans who support a game but I don’t think you can ignore or overlook the more pragmatic business implications of doing that. By offering betas and alphas as a bonus for pre-ordering or Kickstarting a game, developers are adding an intrinsic value to that stage of the game’s development and the selling of that through early access on Steam feels to me like the first step towards a world where paywalled betas are the norm.
Have your own thoughts on the current state of betas in game development? Sound off in the comments below!