beta moderne

I feel it’s time for a PSA.

Prior to the current century, the software development cycle was well understood. A product went through a few major phases–primarily pre-alpha, alpha, beta, release candidate, and final release–during which bugs and other issues would be progressively weeded out, and new features added. Alpha and beta releases were done purely on test conditions; interested parties would fill out applications with system specs and testers would be picked from among those applicants. The purpose was clear: those chosen were, in effect, software testers, and would provide detailed feedback on their experience, in particular anything that didn’t work as planned. The developers would take this information, make the appropriate changes to the code, push out patches, and await more feedback.

This understanding seems to have been lost at some point in the past several years.

These days, “betas” are more like previews. They are sold as sneak peeks to games with preorders (Battlefield 4 and Bad Company 2 did this), or as a bonus with an entirely unrelated game (the Halo 3 multiplayer beta access came with copies of Crackdown). It’s become marketing.

To me, it’s absurd. It’s like selling tickets to a feature that is composed entirely of dailies of a movie, with no clean-up or post-processing applied. Would people have paid as much to see the raw film of Lord of the Rings? I don’t think they would. Every product needs polish, and no one wants to buy an unfinished product (unless they plan on finishing it themselves).

It’s an unfinished game, that’s all there is to it. These people playing are expected by developers and programmers to effectively test it and report issues, but they are expected by publishers and retailers to simply buy it. Many of those getting into these betas are not going into them keeping the mindset that it is incomplete. Forums become jammed with complaints that the game fails to launch, or textures pop too much, or certain skills don’t function correctly. Proper bug reports aren’t filed, even in situations when an interface to report bugs is made easily available and its use is actively encouraged by the game.

One memorable beta I took part in was that for Wrath of the Lich King. What made it memorable was the constant complaints in-game. Chat didn’t go more than a few minutes without someone whining about a mob, encounter, or effect not triggering as advertised, or textures not loading properly, or something else not working as it should. Did these people file a bug report, or contact a mod? No, they just bitched in chat or forums that were rarely (if ever) monitored by developers.

Times like this, I wish all betas were closed. But then, the primary advantage of an open beta is to have a much larger sample size, to cover as many different hardware configurations as possible. It strikes me as something of a conundrum. Publishers aren’t abandoning the marketing of betas anytime soon, and as long as they sell them like products or previews many of the players involved with them will fail to consider that they need to treat it for what it is–A god damned beta.