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Blindfire avatar 5:22 PM on 08.17.2009  (server time)
On Betas (And Champions Online)

This will be a rant; an unfocused collection of thoughts with regard to the current state of betas and beta testing in the games industry, though this is mainly aimed at Champions Online, which launched into semi-open beta today, and Cryptic Studios, which billed the open beta as a preview.

This is something that’s been stewing in my head for quite some time now. I miss the old beta. By the “old” beta, I mean the period of time before “beta” was taken to mean “demo”. Such a surprise, I know, to learn they are not one and the same!

There has been a lot of rhetoric among gamers about that coveted title of “beta tester”. To many this has been considered a position of honor, coveted for its early access to games that the public would not get for months or even years. An intense, seething desire drives so many to yearn for this position, to seek it without end, so that they may taste the sweet nectar of that which they thirst for with an appetite which can not be sated.

I think this is what really drives the concept of betas as being primarily demos, for the public to consume and enjoy. Surely, they exist to “test” whether you wish to buy them or not! Why else would they call them beta “tests”?

I am not new to beta testing; I’ve tested more than a few things and I’ve found my fair share of bugs. I have thrown my hand in at beta testing a few MMOs, and from time to time I still get offers to do beta testing in City of Heroes for their Issue releases. I stopped participating in betas primarily due to the fact that I’ve simply seen too many blue screens and too many command lines and far, far too many garbled file extensions.

It seems that even as the beta becomes a more and more public thing, people who become involved with them have gained no more insight as to what a beta test actually is.

For those of you who do not understand the concept, allow me to illustrate:

You play a broken game (usually for free if you‘re like me) and try to ensure that the final game works as well as it can. You are either freely participating in, or being paid to, play a broken game, or break a game. It is your occupation to find and identify as many problems as you possibly can. You do not enjoy the game you are playing; it is not there to be enjoyed. You are there to make that game do everything it possibly can to frustrate you. A beta is the bane of your very existence, and it loves nothing more than to snatch the gaming soul right out of you. You spend about half of your time seething with rage, chasing some elusive problem through the devil’s underbelly of 1’s and 0’s that make up a torture chamber you may very well never escape from.

That is a beta. It is not pleasant because it is not meant to be pleasant. You are asked to forcibly inflict as much pain as you possibly can on yourself, so that same affliction is not unleashed upon some poor, unknowing soul who just spent good money on a product that has no excuse for not functioning properly.

Beta testers are the thin line between a functional product worthy of every penny you spent, and a nightmare you can’t wake up from. It is a position for which I have the deepest respect, and the utmost gratitude.

It is for this reason that I find the current state of beta testing in the industry to be such a sorry sight. The words “open beta” appear to be synonymous with “demo” to much of the public. The “beta release” of a game can be a powerful marketing tool for companies to get their games into the hands of hungry players, and keep them enticed through multi-year development cycles.

I am of the opinion that this phenomenon has only thus far served to cheapen the end result, and tarnish the image of the final product potentially beyond repair. Would you play a game that did not work? Would you spend hard-earned money on a product that damaged your computer, or your console? Would you be angry, frustrated, and highly motivated to blame the company responsible? I would be. I have been, from time to time.

Gamers in general have been motivated to treat beta testing as a demo, because that is the manner in which the gaming industry at large has portrayed them in recent years.

Today’s offender is Champions Online. Their official beta launch has been a relatively pleasant stroll through the woods compared to some of the things I’ve tested before. However, their forums are practically on fire with people crying for retribution over something they thought had been delivered to them; a final product for which they had formed some ridiculous sense of entitlement. It is not them to blame, however, as much as Cryptic Studios, for billing their open beta as a “preview”. That is the word utilized on the back of the card I received from GameStop after pre-ordering the game; a term which does not at all belong in the same sentence as beta when referencing video games.

The only reason I am writing this is to call attention to a large group of real (and dedicated) beta testers that are hard at work as I type this. Individuals who are currently painstakingly testing the launcher of the game and finding exactly what is going wrong. Individuals who are going far out of their way to find fixes, workarounds, and more information so that they can inform those who are less computer savvy about what to do, and how to do it. These people are beta testers; they are not along on a free ride to play a game that hasn’t been released yet. They are working their asses off so that you and I will have a functional game on launch day.

So today I am proposing a toast to those proud individuals who suffer so that we do not, and I offer the hope that eventually the industry as a whole will stop treating the test versions of their games as demo material for mass consumption. It degrades the position that these people serve in, practically thanklessly so far as I can tell, as no one seems to really understand exactly what the position entails and requires.

To all of you working valiantly to hunt down bugs in our beloved games, I offer a sharp salute. And, more specifically, to those hard at work as we speak to make Champions a thoroughly happy experience on September 1st, I raise my glass of very, very cheap Scotch, and wish you an easy ride.

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