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?