Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Deep Thoughts: I Got a Beta Key!

Getting a beta key used to be one of the coolest things a gamer could get. You were not supposed to tell your friends that you were in the beta, show them all the cool stuff, and definitely not post screenshots and videos online. How much you broke the rules was up to you and how terrified of the NDA you were. (As a note, seriously, they can sue you for breaking the NDA, watch it.) But over the past couple years, beta keys have become more common, being given out in contests, as preorder bonuses, or for just sending a tweet to the company's twitter account. I'll be honest, I go back and forth on whether this change has been for the better or not.
 Don't get me wrong, beta tests are a fact of game development. The game is in a playable state and developers need to polish up gameplay and test the game with a number of  hardware setups and serverloads. As a beta tester, it's your job to report bugs and crashes and provide feedback on any focus areas. However, especially once a game hits an 'open beta', most testers use it as an excuse to just try a game before buying it. Game companies are using betas to drive the hype machine, get people interested in a product or get the game's name out there. It's not like there's anything wrong with any of that, it's up to the companies involved to decide what they want to do with their beta and who they want to let in, but I wonder if companies are watering down test results.

The Secret World is a recently released MMO, only a month old as of this posting, that I got to beta test. Testers were limited to only a couple weekends to play and with very limited available content. This isn't anything new, Guild Wars 2 is doing this as well. What is interesting is that the gameplay and progression for TSW is a step away from the traditional, linear, class-based systems made popular by games like Everquest, World of Warcraft, and just about every other MMO out there. Even the questing was a little different, with almost all quests being repeatable and the inclusion of 'investigation missions' that availed you to use the in-game browser to search for the answer to clues and riddles. This was cool! I loved it, still debating purchasing and getting into yet another MMO. My wife, however, hated it. But she was a tester too. No interest in the investigation missions, didn't much care for the setting of the game, and even the graphics annoyed her.

Was her feedback on the game necessary? What about the people who were in the beta because 'Hey! Free game.'?  The people who weren't ever going to buy the game because they're addicted to World of Warcraft or The Old Republic? Sure, game developers are interested in getting some purchasers from other franchises, 'stealing' subscribers  from other  games, but that's where the rub is. If you make a game that caters to and entices fans from another series, don't you risk homogenization of games? I'm going to continue this discussion next time and talk about an ideal beta test. As  always, leave a comment with your thoughts on the subject!

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