Opinion: Betas Shouldn’t Be Promotional

The growth of online multiplayer in console games has driven the growth of a linked area, the multiplayer beta. When multiplayer on consoles was just local it didn’t need nearly as much testing but online play adds so many new points of failure, as well as the problems caused by significantly increasing the number of players in a game.

When you’ve got both technical and gameplay issues to deal with you really need to do extensive testing, there’s no way round it. However, it seems to me that betas regularly don’t provide that kind of testing, at least not any serious sense.

Developers certainly do make changes to games based on the results of betas, that’s pretty evident to anyone who’s seen gameplay tweaked in a beta from day to day, but it’s hard to argue that that’s the primary use of these betas anymore; in fact it seems to just be a nice extra these days.

No, the main point of modern multiplayer betas has become to be to promote the game. Sure, some testing goes on, but it seems to be far from the driving force of betas anymore, at least on consoles.

Weirdly the purpose of betas doesn’t even seem to be promote the games they’re actually betas for, they’ve become a bonus on other games that publishers want to shift extra units of.

Take the recent announcement of the Battlefield 4 beta being bundled in with Medal of Honor: Warfighter; not only is that a very odd way to confirm that Battlefield 4’s coming in 2013, but it’s clearly an attempt to boost Medal of Honor. It’s hardly inspiring for the developers at Danger Close, I expect they probably feel a bit hard done by in this deal.

Now, I have absolutely no issue with a developer putting out a multiplayer demo of their game as a promotional aid, I don’t even have too much of a problem with that demo being included with another game. Again, it probably sucks for the developers of the game the demo’s being included with, but at least it feels a little more honest. All I’ll say if it’s a demo and purely for promotion then call it that.

It may seem that I’m simply arguing over a matter of semantics but I can’t help but feel that it really does matter. Yes, it’s just what it’s named, but the distinction between a beta and a demo is important. For a start, a demo feels more representative of a final product. It doesn’t matter how many warnings or disclaimers a developer puts on a demo, people are just going to assume it’s relatively close to the final game.

[drop2]That distinction certainly plays in favour of the betas, they’ll probably get cut more slack than a demo of the game would.

However, there’s the expectation with a beta that a developer will take comments on board, that people who’ve contributed will want their opinions to count for something. This is obviously a problem with either type of beta, people always want to be heard.

However, with the more promotional type of beta developers may be more reluctant to take changes on board. Whilst they might take some of the feedback, it seems likely that they’ll be quite content to keep things as they are unless something significant needs to change.

Even with a traditional beta developers can’t implement every change that’s suggested, but there’s a greater chance that feedback will be heard. If people feel that no-ones paying attention to their opinions then that can cause a problem for developers, it’s quite simple bad PR.

Ultimately though, betas should be betas. When a developer is generally seeking user feedback on a game or to do some full on testing then it’s a beta, but if it’s promotional it should be a demo; it’s just simpler and seems far more honest.

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14 Comments

  1. Starhawk was done in text book fashion… Very limited number of invites to the most experienced players, then an every expanding pool of invites.
    Throughout, the devs engaged the beta players, got involved in the beta forums and the version updates kept on coming based on user feedback and their analysis of the the massive amounts of data they were receiving. their tweaks were all logged on their blog so players could check it out and test it.
    As time went on more & more people joined until it was open to PS+ users which must have helped their netcode & server balancing
    Even on release (which SCEE were barely on-board with) the tweaking didn’t stop as nothing can ever be perfect, but as far as betas go… Dylan Jobe wrote the book.

    I understand promotion betas and their desire to a) promote their game b) stress the servers & netcode… but lets be honest, at best, they’re essentially final release candidates in software terms & some of them solely promo work… and it does the term beta an injustice and probably damages the amount of feedback devs receive in proper betas

    Good point about PES, a game which struggles for exposure and receives a very early demo which is based on code prepared for even earlier trade-shows many months from release where user feedback from the demo can make it into ‘Demo2’ so to all intents and purposes is a beta

  2. People shouldn’t expect devs to make any significant changes based on beta feedback – by definition a beta version is feature complete so any changes will be under the hood and not noticeable to most people.

    • True, apart from game balancing changes.

  3. Maybe they should be called something else? Public promotion or just multiplayer demo? The use of the term ‘beta’ is perhaps misleading because of the implied extent of the testing, but the extended period of free play to promote the game is a great idea.

  4. I agree with the article, aside from the fact I Still consider the Battlefield 4 beta a beta, as it is bound to be done to test the servers. Good read.

  5. What annoys me the most is charging people for access. Dust 514 is doing it, medal of honour special edition is more expensive to get access to battlefield 4.

    I’m absolutely never going to pay to gain access to a beta. Never.

    • No. MoH is not more expensive. It’s the same price as you would expect for any pre-order game. £40.

    • I wouldn’t have said Dust is either. People applied for access, and they are offering a bundle which gives the equivalent amount of in game currency, extra’s, early access to the game, and access to all beta weekends. It is a perk, you’re not strictly buying access.

  6. I agree with you Kris. A beta should only be used for testing purposes and not as a promotion tool as it won’t result in any bugs being fixed or even worse, being fixed on day 1 via massive patches. BF3 is infamous for big patches. Although to be fair, they do tweak some features. Sadly it seems that betas will continue to be used as marketing tools.

  7. The likes of the LBP betas are good. (though Vita was annoying since it wouldn’t allow me to sign up so I couldn’t possibly get invited, c#@!s). However beta’s within other games you have to pay, is just morally wrong. I wouldn’t pay a certain amount of money to get into LBP 3 or something if it was ever bundled with MNR2.

  8. To be fair dust514 is a little different. They were originally going to charge a cover and give equal credit in the shop. They then went fully free to play. More importantly the 20 you spend now gives you the same list of items and in game cash post beta. CCP is basically saying that if there are any players that were interested in doing the cover charge thing and support CCP, they would give out beta access too.

    I agree though the some of these so-called betas could be better named “first looks”

  9. DICE don’t REALLY have betas. They have demos on old builds of the game, and call it a beta. Testing servers and such, maybe is a legit reason for these “betas” they have.

    DUST 514 is not charging people for their beta. First off, their beta is a “closed beta”, as in people applied to get in, and not everyone got in, and is actually a game build in progress. Yes you can buy access to the beta, but you get $50 worth of in game stuff, plus $20 worth of AUR (in game money bought with real money), that you get onto your account when the game is released.

    Getting early access to BF 4 “beta” is certainly an incentive for some people, but I won’t pay extra money to get an old build of a game to try out. Sorry, but that doesn’t do much for me…

    I live in a country where I don’t have these big retail stores to pre order anyway…so yeeeeah, this doesn’t affect me too much. Just giving an opinion :P

    • well said sir, I completely agree with this. Beta means Demo for DICE/EA, and then they don’t show you everything. With BF3 they took all the graphically good bits off so it played quick and had no lag, then when the full game came (after people bought based on the beta) the game had too many problems.

      Thats why I’m not buying their next games until a full review from the fans has been given in the forums.

  10. A multiplayer beta, in general isn’t for the players it’s for the devs and the infrastructure people – an mp beta is rationally there to tweak various things but mainly to test things you can’t do in house, large scale load testing, geographic spread of players and so on. Also calling it a demo and mp not being at the top of its game day one of demo release sends the wrong signals

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