I’m in a handful of beta tests right now. Suffice to say, they are ALL drastically different. I can’t speak to any details about the games though, as I’m under pretty hefty NDAs and I don’t wanna get my ass sued. Also, I’m not a total douche log.
For Game X, beta feels… rough. There’s features that aren’t implemented and the fundamental core concepts seem like they’re relatively unfinished. Release seems like it will be a good ways out.
For Game Y, beta feels like I’m actually playing the product. All the fundamental systems work, and the gameplay is smooth and refined. I’d probably go out and pay for this product right now as it is. Release could be just around the corner, for all I know.
So, which is more fun to play? The average gamer out there would answer in about half a second. And hell, if you were just talking about fun-factor, it would be pretty easy. You’d want to play the beta that felt more like a game. You want entertainment. You want a sense of accomplishment. You want to know you advanced. You want to know what you’re getting into, without having to buy the game.
But, as a developer, which would I rather play? Which is more fulfilling? That’s hard. I don’t know that you can fairly ask that question, as everyone might have a different Ideological View of what Beta should be. Should it allow the tester to be influential in how the future of the game is going to progress, and which direction the developer chooses? Should it simply be a validation for the path that the developer has already chosen? Or should it be somewhere in the middle? It’s a pretty murky question, if you ask me.
Let’s tackle the first type of Beta: The Grassroots Beta, as I’ll call it. In the Grassroots Beta, the developer comes to the fight without armor on. They open themselves up, they say “Hey, we have an idea, and want to know if you like it. We’ll get it to function as well as we can, but we’re open to the idea of changing it, if you think it’ll be a good idea.” There’s a whole smattering of feel-good in this. On the plus side, you have an instantly accessible developer who comes off genuine and admits they don’t have all the answers. They’re big on collaboration and want to see the genre progress. In a Grassroots Beta, you, the beta tester, feel like you are almost part of the staff. That’s a somewhat dangerous sense of empowerment, as I’ll flip the coin.
With so much influence at the ground-level, it can be tough as a developer to keep the final goal, or product.* Rancid might have a great idea about how crafting should work, but maybe down the road, that severely interferes with how the auction house system works. The player, after all, is just the customer. And while they may pay your bills, the customer is not always right. In fact they’re probably wrong. It happens. That’s life. At some point, the developer needs to rely on the fact that they are the developer and know what is best. They see the big picture. They know the end-product’s goals.
Moving on to the other type of Beta: Dubbed (by someone else) The Marketing Beta. The Marketing Beta is where the dev team comes to the players and really just needs some fine-tuning. They’ve come to the conclusion (valid or invalid) about how the game is going to work, and they’ve developed to an end-product. This is a boon to the beta tester, as they see the full intent of the game. They know where it is headed and they can more accurately respond to questions about the game. It’s easy to comment on the minutia, when you can see the whole picture.
Therein-lies the drawback. With so much work being already put into the game, you’re not going to alter the face of the game as a beta tester. It’s pretty well-established already, and you’re there to validate or invalidate the direction the developer has taken. Whether or not your validation is taken to heart is, of course, up to that developer. Suffice to say, based on history, very rarely does the developer drastically alter the course of the game once it has made it to a Marketing Beta phase. It could happen, sure. There’s a metric crap-ton of issues though, with changing so much once it’s been brought into this level of public exposure.
So where would you like to help? What’s your favorite flavor of Beta? Do you like the Grassroots Beta, where you feel like you are a significant influence on the future of the game? Or do you like the Marketing Beta, where you have a pretty good idea of what the game is going to ship like, and get to have a special “try before you buy” session?
*And that’s an intentional use of the word, as every gamer at heart needs to realize that video games are products for sale, for consumption and for monetary gain. Every developer out there doesn’t suspend their need for four walls and three squares a day just because they like video games. They are giving up a job in more mundane fields to do what they love, but they still need to eat, yo.