Producing a modern video game is no easy task. Games are no longer developed by three guys in a basement; they require thousands of uniquely talented individuals, all working in tandem to create one unified project. A blockbuster game can have a budget in the tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars, an entertainment allowance previously reserved only for Hollywood. Another thing that’s new to modern gaming are game experiences that connect thousands of people in one persistent gaming world, requiring extremely sophisticated online infrastructure and networking know-how. With all these moving pieces, it’s more difficult than ever to ensure that a game is ready for the public’s consumption.
Because of this, game developers have turned to something known as a “beta” test, which lets a select group of individuals test out a game before release. This is a sensible move for a lot of reasons, but it’s starting to cause some disturbing trends that are ultimately hurting gamers. I’d like to delve into how beta tests have changed over the years, and why I believe it’s turning into more of a marketing ploy than an earnest desire to improve the final product.
My first experience with a beta test was Halo 3 on the Xbox 360. The beta released about four months prior to the launch and was open to anybody who had the foresight to sign up for it ahead of time (which basically ensures a population of the most invested fans). As intended, the beta allowed the developer, Bungie, to ensure that the Xbox 360 network could handle large player counts. It also produced tons of data that gave insight into the proper balancing of different game components, such as weapon placement and map geometry. There’s nothing quite like turning thousands of people loose on a game to figure out what works and what doesn’t – fast. I remember having a blast with that beta, and it did a great job of getting me excited for the final product. It was a win-win experience for both myself and Bungie.
Now let’s talk about my most recent beta experience, one that I think says a lot about the state of modern gaming. I spent a lot of time over the past weekend playing the beta test for The Division, the upcoming online shooter from Ubisoft. I came away pretty impressed with the overall experience, but three key issues come to mind that make me feel like Ubisoft is going about the beta mindset in the wrong way.
1. Too little, too late
The beta came out five weeks before the final product. That means that the developer will have little-to-no time to process the wealth of beta information and turn it into something impactful. If the overall feedback on an essential component of the game is negative, there is no chance that they’ll be able to make an earnest effort to improve their product in time for launch. What we see is basically what we’re going to get. Contrast this with the beta for Halo 5: Guardians in January of last year. While it is guilty of my next criticism, it was extremely successful at implementing data from the beta into the final product. Do you know why? Because it came out 10 months before final release, allowing the developer to fine-tune the experience based on data and user feedback. Halo 5’s launch was smooth as butter because of this, and is arguably still the most balanced and refined shooter on the market today.
2. The beta is not “open” so much as “open for business”
Not long ago, betas were open to the first group of people interested enough to sign up for them. But after recent blockbusters like Destiny and The Division, it seems to me like the beta itself is a product. You can’t escape the advertisements letting you know that you, too, can experience The Division five weeks early! But there’s a catch: You have to pre-order the game to get access. I understand that game development is a business and that building hype is one way to get sales, but ultimately the quality of your final product should determine the hype, not the beta.
Last year’s The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is a great example of this. The developer, CD Projekt RED, took its little-known franchise and turned it into a sales juggernaut in one way and one way only: making an amazing product. Forcing gamers to pre-order the final product is like pre-paying for a movie based on watching the first 5 minutes. This wouldn’t be such a huge deal if history didn’t tend to repeat itself, but…
3. We’ve been burned before
This is the big one. At the end of the day, if the games we tested always released in a complete and final form, it wouldn’t matter if developers couldn’t implement feedback in time or that everybody pre-ordered the final game. We would all be thrilled with the final product and would happily part with our money to enjoy it. But sadly, this has proven to not be the case time and time again over the past few years. I get horrible flashbacks of playing Destiny for the fist time and realizing what little content was contained on the disc. It wasn’t the sprawling, epic, space adventure that I’d been promised. Likewise, when Halo: The Master Chief Collection first released, its multiplayer component was a disaster, and remained that way for months. I’m not saying that The Division will have any of these problems. In fact, I hope that they will buck the trend and release a great final product. But you can’t blame gamers for being skeptical about handing over money in advance for something that’s more like The Division Beta 2.0 than a final game worth its $60 MSRP.
What can we, as individual gamers, do to improve this situation? Like anything you give your money to, you can make an impact by not supporting the product financially. If enough people refuse to pre-order a game just to play a beta, developers may reconsider how they handle such an offering. Secondly, we live in an era where individuals can have a voice on message boards all over the web. Developers are listening to the masses more than ever before, and voicing your concerns about the quality of a game really can make an impact. Betas are truly a necessary part of modern game development, and by no means do I want them to disappear entirely. If done right, they can benefit both gamers and developers. It’s time to make the games we play better without compromising our trust – or our wallets.