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5:22 PM on 08.17.2009

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.   read

4:52 PM on 08.03.2009

I Suck at Games: The Fighting Disease

Hi, I’m Blindfire, and I am a fight-a-holic. I love fighting games, probably more than most rational men should. I only wish that they loved me back.

For me, it all started with Mortal Kombat III. MK3 was my first introduction to the concept of a fighting game, and it was one of the coolest things I’d ever seen. Punching, kicking, freezing people solid, crazy grappling-hook-spike-rope-things, fatalities. It was intoxicating to watch, and devastating for me to play. I think in an entire day I could manage one or two wins out of sheer luck. It would be a long time before I touched another fighting game. I’ve played a few over the years. I’ve dabbled in Tekken, I’ve tried out Soul Calibur, but nothing to this day can compare to what Dead or Alive 4 did to me.

Dead or Alive 4 was my own personal Armageddon. For awhile there, I was certain that this terrible, terrible thing might have been crafted in magical foundries before time was time, specifically for the purpose of punishing me for some terrible thing I might do in the future; some unholy realm of madness I must be responsible for creating that will someday consume the universe as we know it.

It took a week before I could stand to play long enough to reach my first contact with Alpha. I still remember the first time I met that soulless monster. It is permanently etched into my being because within four seconds, sixty percent of my health bar had been depleted. It was as if time stopped for just a moment, so that I could truly savor the moment which would forever demoralize me, the moment that came as such a terrible shock; all my success up to that moment was for naught. I had been judged, and I was not worthy.

Pictured: Doom Incarnate

I knew that somewhere inside me there was the capability to learn this game. It would just take time, time and dedication. For more than a month I don’t think I touched another game. I was consumed by the single-minded desire to not suck at this game. My mouse clicks have led whole armies to victory in the daunting face of assured defeat. My dexterity has sent many a terrorist to their untimely death. My perception has allowed me to be three steps ahead of my opponent at all times. I could defeat this game.

It was somewhere around this point that I no longer desired to play the game for fun. I struggled through defeat after defeat, a man completely possessed by a maddening need to get better, if only to prove that I could do it. I had gone beyond yelling obscenities at my TV screen. I may have gone beyond the ability to form sentences and think rationally. I sat, rigid, hands contorted into some strange controller-like shape, going through motions of moves when my 360 was too hot to use. My brain had become an archive of self-defined movements that could lead fluidly into one another. I knew that this had come a long way from a passing interest in a game. I had twisted it into a terrible obsession, one so deep and dark that it might very well scar me forever. I lusted for success like never before in a video game.

Finally, that moment came. I destroyed Alpha once. Twice. Three times. Four times. I lost count. My mastery was complete. …With one character. I sat down and stared at the character select screen. I could already feel the sense of impending doom as I selected the next character that looked like fun and set to work.

And so the process began anew, and my destruction was complete.

From that point on I have been in love with fighting games.

Today, my poison is Street Fighter IV. Having never played a Street Fighter game before (I know, I know, sacrilege, blasphemy, all that), I was in for a rude awakening to just how punishing a fighting game could be. I had no idea what I was in for as I looked at the character select screen and, for no particular reason at all, picked Guile. Nothing about Guile was easy. Even now, after a lot of experience and a brand new fightstick, nothing about Guile is easy. The odds always appear to be stacked against him, just like me. We are quite the match.

I am still terrible, and fighting games still hate me, but I think that I’ve learned to make peace with that.   read

2:38 PM on 07.09.2009

The Console War: Or, how I learned to start worrying about Sony

Well, it seems like today is the day to weigh in on concerns over Sony’s place in the industry, what with all the discussion over price cuts and lack thereof, and the statements made by Tretton. So, here goes:

I think the price cut is a distraction from bigger problems. I honestly think it isn’t price that’s really killing Sony right now, it’s the absolutely atrocious marketing strategies Sony’s been utilizing. Their attempts to market their console and their games have had more stops and starts than a traffic jam in New York City during rush hour, and it’s almost as frustrating, too.

Instead of focusing on the differences between themselves and their competitors, Sony decided instead to play up their ability to best their opponents in the hardware department. Sony has repeatedly failed to recognize the beauty of the marketing strategies of Microsoft and Nintendo. Microsoft’s aggressive expansion into the consumer base allowed them to absolutely destroy Sony on the software front; it doesn’t matter if the PS3 is a more powerful system or not (which, frankly, I don’t think it really is, and if it is it doesn‘t matter nearly as much as Sony wants it to) when every home has an Xbox 360 and they have essentially the same games. Nintendo’s brilliant strategy of offering something different allowed them to slip into previously untouched markets.

Sony’s initial marketing strategy was a complete disaster. It basically consisted of “Wait for us, we’ve got better hardware.” Some waited, but others recognized the value of the 360 early, with its quickly expanding library thanks to its lightning fast explosion into the consumer base. And while Sony was still working on their console, Microsoft had already begun the second stage of its marketing plan: get more developers working on their framework and producing games.

Microsoft had done the inconceivable; they had gotten their console into so many households that most games that might have been exclusives instead go multi-platform in order to take advantage of the massive install base of the Xbox 360. Remember how Assassin’s Creed was a PS3 exclusive, and then it wasn’t? Or Final Fantasy XIII, perhaps?

Now, rather than admit or realize they’re actually in trouble, Sony has the sheer audacity to expect that their hardware will still come out on top because it’s “better”. Then, in a not-so-quiet fashion they start stripping down PS3s in order to cut the cost of making them. For me, this was basically like Sony screaming “Oh God, oh God, we screwed this up, but we can fix it!”, just without the honesty of actually saying it.

It was in this interim between terrible marketing that Sony had its one brilliant ad campaign. It reminded me why I was interested in the PS3, and why I still had a little inkling of hope for Sony: Metal Gear Solid 4 was on the way.

Remember this ad?


I thought this was where it was going to turn around for Sony. They’d finally caught on and began to advertise the PS3 primarily as a game system, only gently touching upon the concept that the PS3 could be a multimedia platform of monolithic proportions. It was like somebody smacked Sony over the head with a 2x4 and the amnesia finally cleared up. There’s the Sony I know and love, it’s still in there!

It was during this interim that I finally got a PS3; the 80GB model, packaged with MGS4. That’s right, I bought the PS3 for ONE GAME, and the potential promise of another in Killzone 2. Since then my library has expanded to include Valkyria Chronicles, Resident Evil 5 (didn’t feel right to be buying that on the 360), Dead Space, Street Fighter IV, and a few others.

Then they got conked on the head again and dove headfirst into the miserable joke that has become of Home. Sony’s attempt to market Home as a reason to buy their console is just flat out ridiculous. It’s gone from being a little sideshow to becoming Sony’s main “draw” for the online community; it’s a great big joke that everybody seems to get, except for Sony.

From there Sony moved to their networking campaign, PSPs on the go, in the hands of every trendy kid on every street corner, Playstation Network providing movies and demos and games. Oh no, Sony! No, no, no! Don’t tell me I need to spend another $150 to $250 to get the most out of your service!

And still Sony has the audacity to claim that the PS3 will conquer because they’re committed to a decade of service. So when we’re buying the next Xbox, and Microsoft’s still got a leg up on Sony, that’s when the PS3 will really start to kick into gear?

In the end, I love my PS3. I love everything it can do. I can seamlessly go from direct connect to wireless at the press of a few buttons, thanks to internal WiFi. My model can do backwards compatibility. My controllers don’t need batteries. The PSN store is easier to navigate than Microsoft’s Xbox Live Marketplace. There’s no hidden extra charges thanks to a wacky, self-determined currency. The cost of the PS3 isn’t the problem; Sony’s schizophrenic ad campaigns and marketing strategies have confused the consumer base so much that people don’t know what the identity of the PS3 is. Does it cure cancer, Sony, or does it play videogames?

I think, price cut or not, the real problem is that Sony hasn’t figured out how to market its console yet. I think this problem is driven by Sony’s inability to recognize that it is no longer the top dog, and it’s only getting worse with every day that they have the sheer gall to claim that the battle hasn’t been fought yet. The battle’s been fought, Sony, and you’ve lost. You’ve lost hard. And the war’s not over yet, though it soon will be if you don’t recognize what’s happening to you, and why.   read

4:26 PM on 07.08.2009

I, the Author: Epic PWNAGE

There are games in which the player serves as a driving force in completion. We shepherd the little characters on the screen onwards toward some inevitable final victory, and we taste the sweet, sweet nectar of success at the end of the rainbow. The story is told without taking us too greatly into account, and we serve primarily as some kind of mind-control device for the main character of the story, inhabiting their body to wring every delicious ounce of fun we can from their experience and their story.

However, there exists an arena in which the stories of many gamers are told. Where there is no boundary of story or character development to be had. It is a place where skill and luck mingle like no other place on Earth. It is a place where we shed the paper-thin caricatures constructed for us on linear pathways, and we take to the field with our own chosen name.

I am talking, of course, about multiplayer.

The multiplayer arena offers a space in which there is nothing to be had except the gamers’ story. Your story. My story. We all have one; that perfect headshot, that one-in-a-million rocket, that lucky break you never saw coming, that one second you saw your opponent’s guard come down, that first “GODLIKE”. These are truly our stories and no one else’s. While clever plot twists are interesting, and events culminating in the defeat of a CPU opponent still offer the sweet taste of victory, nothing else provides the same delicious sense of purpose and connection as the multiplayer experience. It is what keeps us coming back to games like Call of Duty, Killzone, Battlefield, SOCOM, Unreal Tournament.

Perhaps it is just the presence of a human opponent that creates this atmosphere. Another gamer, like you or me, is standing on the opposite side, ready to do everything they can to stop you. You have to be better, faster, and luckier than they are to stop them, and they feel the same way about you. The strange combination of human opponents and sheer luck ensures that most of our best moments will never repeat themselves. I’ll never jump out of a helicopter in Battlefield 2 and watch as it careens toward the Earth, only to collide in mid-air with a jet again. I’ll never get that double-headshot with a Scout in Counter-Strike again. These are moments written exclusively by us, to be recounted among gaming brethren, for no other community would understand them.

Now, with that said, I’d like to share some of those unique moments from my gaming memory.

The Legend of the Terrible Wheelmen.

Battlefield 2 was a game I played extensively. I was so into Battlefield that I recounted stories of triumph and victory snatched from the jaws of defeat to anyone who would listen. It took months of browbeating, but finally I’d gotten two of my friends to join in. Together we were a formidable three man strike force of Medic, Special Ops, and Sniper. I led us into battle, C4 in hand. Our Medic was never far behind. And the Sniper always had our six covered. On the ground we were practically unstoppable.

It wasn’t until one of us got behind the wheel that things turned sour. We all had our distinct habits when it came to driving. I, ever the ground-fighter, avoided driving unless it was necessary to get from Point A to Point B. Jax (our medic) would plow directly into the thick of things and grab the turret to lay down hot lead death from relative safety, and Libra (our Sniper) preferred to approach all objectives on foot, so he often bailed out at a suitable sniping position before we got anywhere near our targets.

The problem was, none of us could drive worth a damn. Each of us had the tendency to profoundly foul things up repeatedly every time we got behind the wheel. Jax, a “leap before you look” kind of guy, once drove all three of us off a cliff and directly into the only tree in sight in Mashtuur City. Libra, who tended to lose all sense of direction and path finding behind the wheel, took us all for a swim by launching our patrol vehicle into a pond in Gulf of Oman. And I, perhaps the most terrible of all, had a peculiar habit of running into tanks and large clusters of infantry wherever they might be.

No matter how calm or how quiet it was, if I got behind the wheel, you could be certain a tank would be around the next corner, or an infantryman on a TOW launcher, or just some cleverly hidden mines. If it could kill us, I could find it, and it’s been that way since we started playing, and it’s still that way today. God help any of you who dare to jump into a vehicle with us at the wheel.

The Night of the Hacker.

Counter-Strike was the first game I played where the word Hacker was thrown out at every turn. This trend, of course, continued into Counter-Strike: Source. I can’t count the times I saw “HACKER!” appear in the text box, but I can clearly remember the first time I ever pulled off something crazy enough to be called one.

It was de_dust, and it was 2 in the morning. The match had gone downhill from the get-go; we‘d lost three rounds already due to slow starts. We needed a win, if only for morale. The rush we set up for the next round as Terrorists was bound to be messy, but it was worse than I expected. Half our team was gone in the hallway, flash bangs and frag grenades going off everywhere, with a lot of gunfire sprinkled on top. The survivors were ambushed at the bombsite, but we‘d made it in. It was even now, down to two of us, and two of them. I planted the bomb I’d picked up off one of my comrades during the bloody massacre in the hallway, and we waited. It didn’t take them long.

My partner in terror was dropped by an AWP shot to the face. His body crumpled where he’d stood, watching the end of the tunnel. I had no time, I had to take my shot before they got in the bombsite, if they got too close my Scout would be useless, and my Glock wouldn‘t stop two CTs armed to the teeth. I took a deep breath and rounded the corner, but there was nothing at the end of the hallway. My heart was beating so hard in my ears I thought artillery was dropping around me. They had to be going around, coming through the doors to surprise me.

I snapped out of my scope, and knife out, moved as quick as I could. I forgot everything I knew about tactics and rushed out the door, and there they were, running strait at me from the little walkway that comes around the outside of the building that contained our nearly-failed rush. The AWPer had his pistol out, I had a chance!

A weapon switch never took so much time. I mashed the Q key with all my might and watched as the lead CT opened up on me with his M4. Bullets started hitting around me just as my Scout came up. The scope finally lifted and those crosshairs lined up perfectly. You couldn’t ask for a prettier shot. The Scout’s snap of a gunshot rang out, and two bodies dropped where they stood. I was dumbstruck. I stared, mouth gaping, at the two headshots I’d just tagged with one bullet from the Scout. "Terrorists Win."

The entire CT team went nuts; “Hacker!” “Cheater!” and other words I won’t repeat on this article filled the chatbox. I was greeted with the cheers of my teammates at the start of the next round. I have never laid a hand on a Scout since, to avoid tarnishing that wondrous event.

I have felt similar levels of accomplishment since then, in a variety of games. But nothing will ever be as sweet as the first time.

The multiplayer arena is where our stories are written. Victory, heartbreak, intensity, fear, loathing, and pure delight. No one else can write these moments for us. I am the Author of these, and many other unique stories. I pulled off those stunning victories, and I was stung by those crushing defeats. It was my story to experience and to tell, not an analogue and not a character. They are and always will be mine.

What are yours?   read

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