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.