For Beta or Worse - playing tomorrow's games today
I want it now, dammit!
10At one point Betas seemed a fairly selective and vaguely secretive process, rigorous tests to find the potential bugs and broken code in a game’s not yet fully polished state. Now, the term is being assimilated, marketing jargon for an early peak at a title. They’re not Beta tests, they’re Beta tastes, designed to whet the appetite.
It’s easy to view this trend in a slightly cynical manner, with the common entry to the Beta being locked behind a pre-order that sometimes requires money up front; it’s a simple way to build hype and get prospective customers to commit. At Gamescom it was announced that Destiny was the most pre-ordered new IP ever, and no doubt with Halo 5 placing its Beta behind the pre-order scheme of Halo: Master Chief Collection, that too should break records.
They do, however, serve some vaguely traditional testing purposes though. Firstly, they are sound as server stress tests. Bungie opened up the Destiny Beta to different platforms in stages, and underlined how stable the game was. Secondly, though there’s no direct relationship between the public and the developers, the data collected can be vital, particularly for competitive FPS titles. The release of military shooters in recent years has seen many cases of post-launch fan annoyance at balancing updates.
When weapons get nerfed, people get angry, so it’s far better to catch things like overpowered guns and excessive vehicle placement before anyone gets attached to them; or worse, uses them to excess, to the detriment of the game’s reputation. Player data helps provide the pointers to this kind of imbalance, so even if you’re not filling in a questionnaire about your experiences, or filing a log of glitches, your gaming habits will be noted and perhaps may help to fine tune the final release.
Despite the upside of building a base of players early, demonstrating why people should get excited, and raking in pre-orders, there are still inherent dangers for developers and publishers. Chief amongst them is boredom. Like a good demo, the portion of the final game that gets shown must be both indicative of what the player can expect, yet also hold enough back that they don’t feel they’ve seen it all before handing over their money.
Show too little, and people may assume there’s little else to see; show too much, and you risk player fatigue before the game’s even out.Much has been made of Titanfall’s inability to reshape the landscape of the competitive FPS and capture the imagination of gamers as Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare did. Everything from low player count to a disappointing story has been mooted as the root cause of this ebbing of enthusiasm, but the Beta itself may be equally culpable. It built the game up, got players excited. However, not many assumed that what they’d played - bar a few bells and whistles - represented the majority of the game.
As concept art continued to be pored over, and giant monsters seen, some questioned if Kaiju may even make an integral appearance, or if the story had large scale dynamic events that would radically alter the competitive battles. In reality, what was seen in the Beta was what everyone got, a solid, fun shooter. As good as it was, for some, that lack of additional surprise was a killer blow.
This unease may even have ramifications for Destiny. Despite being the most pre-ordered new IP in history, the slow drip feeding of information after the Beta has already started muted grumblings of discontent. If you’ve played all there is in Old Russia, the news that there would only be four locations in the game may not inspire confidence that this is the epic you’re looking for, no matter how enjoyable it’s been. The announcement of expansions at Gamescom, before the game is even out, won’t have helped either.
So, for all the benefits that Betas offer the game creators, the pitfalls are becoming clearer - show too little, and people may assume there’s little else to see; show too much, and you risk player fatigue before the game’s even out.
These examples are the big budget, already essentially finished barnstormers though. Their concerns are akin to a blockbuster movie’s trailer, wanting to show enough to entice, but not so much as to spoil. Perhaps far more interesting a turn for gaming is that of Early Access. These schemes of paying for access to a game that is still very much in a stage of gestation is now ingrained in the PC scene. Console gamers have long yearned for the kind of freedom that allowed PC aficionados to get into the likes of DayZ, without the interminable wait for a final release.
However, a brief check of the community pulse via Twitter when Dean Hall took to the stage at Gamescom - to announce the post apocalyptic zombie survival sim on PS4 - indicated that sometimes building a community can lead to heightened expectations. Comments like “nice one Dean, but would you mind finishing the PC version first?” were prevalent, and though such anecdotal and petty mutterings aren’t a solid basis for an argument, they do perhaps show where the first complaints will come from.
The sale of Oculus Rift to Facebook showed that engendering a spirit of collective endeavour is great, until those who entered on the ground floor start to associate it with a sense of entitlement, nay ownership. The dangers are becoming ever clearer, and they can muddy the waters when it comes to assessing what you’re actually paying for - do you scrutinise a half finished product as much? Can you even properly review it?
No doubt if Early Access ever comes to console in anything vaguely like the manner it has to PC, then the reaction will be very different, as - for all the convergence - the tolerances of the two crowds are still far apart when it comes to unfinished products. Consoles will probably never go down that road in a full blooded manner, but the concept of access - no matter how close to launch - is already being monetised, as its inclusion as a benefit in EA’s Access service on the Xbox One shows.
With budgets for games development growing, it’s an inevitability that studios, large and small, will look to new ways to grab attention, give a taste of what they’re cooking up, and ultimately make money.
Access to content before release can help both ends of the industry, be it under the auspices of quasi-Betas - for balancing blockbusters and stress testing - or the Kickstarter / Early Access whip round - facilitating funding for the more niche titles. Both methods have their pitfalls, but if they can work in their most idealised fashion, both can help build the communities that support further development, and engender a feeling that players are actually a part of the process, rather than merely consumers.
Now shut up and take my money!
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