The beta craze

Like many PC gamers in the last week, I recently fired up the new Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II beta on Steam to see what all the fuss was about. While my thoughts on the game itself are best left for another day, it got me thinking about the current use of betas in PC gaming and their overall effect on the market. Primarily, when did "beta" become a new buzzword for "demo"?

Dawn of War II has gone gold—it’s done. So, why is something that amounts to a multiplayer demo instead branded as a beta? Is Relic really going to make changes for a much-dreaded day-one patch based on what they find from this experiment, or is it just another attempt to drum up interest? The game seems stable, and the network code has been remarkably good, which is impressive considering Relic’s track record with online gaming. You won’t find placeholder assets or gimped features, and the firm even managed to include an assortment of start-up movies, complete with the ever popular "Nvidia – The Way It’s Meant To Be Played" splash. It sure doesn’t feel like a beta to me.

A decade ago, mainstream gamers didn’t even know the word "beta," but now it seems like every high-profile game has to have one. It once implied an unfinished product, code that was otherwise not yet ready for public consumption. Now, it’s little more than a clever marketing ploy. Somewhere along the line, a smart marketing rep realized that consumers are in love with the concept of a beta. But what’s the appeal? Why do gamers clamor at the mere thought of a game getting a public beta?

"Beta" implies something exclusive, almost secretive. When a title gets a beta release (legitimate or not), gamers flock to the source and go to great lengths to be part of the in-crowd. Remember the Internet hullabaloo when Doom 3 and Half-Life 2 had their respective leaks? At the time, you were the coolest kid on the block if you could load up a broken level of Doom 3 and show how it made your PC beg for mercy. Marketers have played off of that "gotta have it" attitude and simply renamed demos to betas. Not only is it a great way to generate interest with little to no more work, but it can also make the quality assurance process much easier.

Studios that don’t simply use betas as marketing tools get access to valuable player feedback before the title ships. Those developers can cut down on the resources dedicated to internal QA departments (much to the chagrin of game design students everywhere), and they also get to gauge audience reaction from its most vocal fans. Quick design modifications, particularly those related to controls, can benefit greatly from last-minute suggestions. Who knows? Changes stemming from a beta could even end up netting the game slightly higher review scores, which seem to be gaining more importance with sites like Metacritic and GameRankings. But the benefits of a public beta don’t end with the development—it’s also becoming an attractive secondary revenue stream.

Whether it’s through pre-orders or co-branding, game publishers have realized that gamers will not only jump at the opportunity to play unfinished code, they’ll pay to do it. Imagine that. Very few high-profile betas have been truly public as of late, and they require a golden ticket of sorts to get access. Some are just mere lotteries, but the extremely clever publishers will find ways to make you fork over cash to participate. Halo 3‘s beta required you to buy Crackdown. Street Fighter 2 Turbo HD Remix‘s beta required you to buy Wolf of the Battlefield: Commando 3 (memo to Capcom: come up with shorter game titles). The list goes on and on. If it’s not a game that you’re forced to purchase, it’s a pre-order, or even worse, a subscription to distribution sites like FilePlanet. It seems like every other month FilePlanet has a new exclusive beta for its members, and the fact that people will pay to be guinea pigs for broken games just baffles me. Publishers should be paying you!

There’s one final reason the beta has become such a favored preview method for consumers: critics are far less vocal. Gamers can encounter issues that would otherwise be deal-breakers, but if the experience doesn’t represent final code, the hope for improvement remains. Forum discussion dedicated to beta software is often littered with the "it’s just a beta" excuse. Maybe that’s why Google seems so keen on leaving some of its products perpetually in beta.

There’s no denying it: the beta is now mainstream. Many of the most notable games in recent memory (Killzone 2, Call of Duty: World at War, Playstation Home, World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King) are on board, but where will it stop? I expect publishers will continue to find new ways to make money off of it, and the only uncertainty is whether gamers will play along. Movie-goers don’t pay to see unfinished cuts of films—they have to beg you to do it on your way out of the theater. Why should gamers pay to play unfinished games?

Comments closed
    • kamikaziechameleon
    • 11 years ago

    well it’s a funny thing this whole section being dedicated to either the elevation of beta’s or the degradation of demo’s now that the game is out i have to say i feel like the beta went to wast while a host of connection problems where resolved the larger problem of game crashes hasn’t the game will outright not run with some settings enabled. the final release candidate needs lots of out the door patching.

    • DASQ
    • 11 years ago

    I’m going to go with ‘no’ to the whole article.

    How about ‘I want to play a beta because the game looks like fun, and it means I get to play it earlier than if I was not in the beta’.

      • Convert
      • 11 years ago

      WHHHHOOOOOSSSHH

    • AMDisDEC
    • 11 years ago

    Looks like yet another cheap Tribes ripoff, even down to the suits, chest emblem, and knee pads but without the jet pack, vehicles and skiing.

    • indeego
    • 11 years ago

    Counterpoint: Left 4 dead’s “Demo” was obviously a “beta.” for them to tweak multiplayer gameplay and network settingsg{<.<}g

    • Forge
    • 11 years ago

    This is not a technical beta, where tech issues are hammered out mid-development.

    This is a gameplay and balance beta, where the Zerg Rushes are mapped out and the counters are tweaked, to keep all the races viable against each other.

    This type of beta **TYPICALLY** goes well past gold mastering, often past release date.

      • derFunkenstein
      • 11 years ago

      sometimes it goes on for upwards of 8-10 years.

    • kamikaziechameleon
    • 11 years ago

    so i haven’t read all the responses but in matt’s blog he says this is to polished to be a beta, well yesterday evening i played ten games, two had a crash to desktop, for me exclusively, two had other players game lock up, friends of mine, to the point they had to be kicked and restart their game, the lockup happened to me once. i’ve experience extreme instability in the games network code.only got four games out of ten in without me experiencing problems, and only two of those with no problems at all, usually every team game i played atleast one player crashed, locked up, or something in that flavor. always unrelated to lag. this is truely a beta, don’t doubt it.

    • clone
    • 11 years ago

    gamers flock to beta’s like car nuts to mockups of future cars…… Beta’s are the car show concepts of gaming.

    ppl love to see things in development and where they are headed but that said Beta’s can kill a product and really hurt sales…….. while marketers love to use the term “beta” and while using the term “beta” opens a limited window of tolerance in the gaming community as it’s essentially a disclaimer the truth is these “beta releases” aren’t, many are completed product.

    their once was a group who loved Beta’s and felt special about it, their is a community of gamers who don’t play the official releases, they just keep playing betas and feel special about gaming for free…. I have a cppl of friends who do just that while the new beta group has been bloated by “car show mentality” ppl just wanting the game as soon as possible, if the “beta release” isn’t a solid running product those trying the free version will not buy the eventual gold release at a later date.

    • Krogoth
    • 11 years ago

    I agree with OP’s view on “Beta” software.

    It used to be you had to draw a straw to get a chance to be part of a beta testing program. The program was genuinely about fixing the little issues before the game goes gold. The participants were under a NDA.

    Betas are now being used a marketing tool to predict the final version’s public reception.

    • Vasilyfav
    • 11 years ago

    Dawn of War 2 beta…After wasting 2 hours of my time trying to get Windows Live Games (or whatever you call that garbage), I gave up on it.

    I guess now I’ll pirate the game instead. Thanks Microsoft for helping PC gaming.

      • Usacomp2k3
      • 11 years ago

      …or you could just not play it. No one is forcing you to play.

        • Meadows
        • 11 years ago

        Maybe the game wasn’t bad, but he was ticked off by the Live service.

          • Usacomp2k3
          • 11 years ago

          Well that’s part of the game as a whole. I’m just saying that poor products don’t justify piracy at all.

        • no51
        • 11 years ago

        Hear hear. If “crappy” games were not bought nor pirated, what does that say?

        bought, not pirated – best case scenario, very popular
        bought, pirated – popular
        not bought, pirated – popular enough
        not bought, not pirated – worst case, not popular

    • Meadows
    • 11 years ago

    “You won’t find placeholder assets or gimped features”

    You sure won’t. “Beta” means that all the features are in already, and what remains is only bug- and feature testing. Alpha is where you get a handicapped software and placeholders here and there.

    • TurtlePerson2
    • 11 years ago

    The thing is that, despite these public beta/demos, there’s still real beta testing going on. Developers don’t skip real beta testing and do these demos. I’ve been a part of some private betas as well as the public betas and I can tell you that before a game makes it to the DoW2 “beta” state there’s already been another beta.

    When I participated in the World in Conflict beta, I got in on the second of three rounds of beta testing. The first round was local people who were paid to find bugs. The second round was given to less people to test the balance of the game. The third round was pretty much the demo that you’re talking about.

    In Supreme Commander there were months of balance testing that I participated in. The game wasn’t fully optimized, but each new patch made it more playable. That game was perfectly balanced when it came out because it had a huge player base to draw from. It was a real beta, but also a demo and I bought the game after playing in the beta/demo.

    I have a friend in Combat Testing, which tests all of the new BF games. They tested BF2142 before it was announced that there would be a public beta. They tested Northern Strike a day or so after it was announced. In return they got hundreds of dollars of free games to “test” EA link. Beta testers aren’t all suckers.

    The great thing about these beta demos is that they’re usually completed games with balance testing still to be done. You get to try out the full game for free and decide whether or not you’ll buy it. Except for the case where you pay for the beta, but sometimes that’s just paying to play earlier. I don’t think too many people were disappointed to pay $50 for the chance to play Halo 3 before the singleplayer portion of the game was done.

    Unreal Tournament 3 even called their beta a beta/demo. It’s a way to let developers give a preview to the public and it’s better than a demo because there aren’t restrictions. It’s also great for developers because they can offer it for a limited time so that there aren’t people playing the demo instead of the real game 4 years after it comes out (cough..Halo PC..cough).

    The mislabeling of what is essentially a demo as a beta isn’t necessarily worth getting too upset about.

    • l33t-g4m3r
    • 11 years ago

    “Why should gamers pay to play unfinished games?”
    I agree completely.
    Besides buggy, crash prone games like Stalker, it is also why I hate stand-alone episodic games.
    Episodic content is just an expansion sold at a premium.

      • TheBob!
      • 11 years ago

      I have to disagree. Games like Sam and Max make perfect use of the episode model.

    • alloyD
    • 11 years ago

    Stardock and Ironclad games have something more along the lines of a classic beta. They allow people to play the game, but it’s definitely not complete. I was running the beta version of one of the major patches and it had some issues.

    • no51
    • 11 years ago

    DoW2 is beta, for the sake of balancing the multiplayer. You basically have 12 classes you can play as. I remember in vanilla Company of Heroes, the Flakpanzer was ridiculously overpowered, very high DPS. One of them was like 3 Shermans at the 1/10 the cost.

    • SecretMaster
    • 11 years ago

    I remember when I was a wee lad we had shareware discs; they weren’t demoes or betas but shareware. I remember playing the shareware version of quake and heretic before finally obtaining the full games. My how glorious it was.

    • Chillectric
    • 11 years ago

    This game still seems like a beta to me. I’ve had two game crashes so far. The network code might be good but every game I’ve been in so far has been a lagfest.

    • DrDillyBar
    • 11 years ago

    WarHammer 40K is the Shiznit!

    • ew
    • 11 years ago

    What? No mention of Windows 7 beta.

    • mi1stormilst
    • 11 years ago

    Sad but true…good article. Maybe now I wont have to hear from my friends about all the COOL betas they got accepted too. (-;

    • shaq_mobile
    • 11 years ago

    i half expected this to be about the warhammer ‘beta’. instead it was another cryfest.

      • DrDillyBar
      • 11 years ago

      after the fact props

      • jdaven
      • 11 years ago

      This is an opinion blog. If you want info or reviews of the game, go to one of the gazillion gamer review sites around the internet. That is what the little URL bar is for at the top of your web browser: to go to other sites for specific info.

      • eitje
      • 11 years ago

      bitching about crying is ironic. 🙂

        • shaq_mobile
        • 11 years ago

        hmmm just stating a fact of my opinion. never said it was a bad thing. just didnt expect it to be a cryfest, with the title i expected a review. ^_^

          • ssidbroadcast
          • 11 years ago

          “just stating a /[

            • dmitriylm
            • 11 years ago

            Yeah, someone certainly needs to work on their word and sentence structure.

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