Now that the beta for Battlefield 3 is behind us and the game only a few weeks away, I think it time that we sit down and talk about the beta. I know, you’ve probably heard it all before, about all of the glitches, the lack of vehicles and destruction. It’s been said dozens of times across dozens of internet outlets. That’s not what I’m here to talk about. I’m here to talk about us, the gamers, and those who played the beta. I’m also here to talk about the publishers who release betas, the ones who entice us to pre-order games just to get early beta access to a game that is months off.
I’m here to tell you that we need to change the way we look at, play and market betas.
You might ask why the change in attitude is needed? Betas are often an excellent way to encourage pre-orders on games and allow gamers a chance to a try out an upcoming game that is often a few months away from being published. For developers it allows a (mostly) controlled group of people to play certain levels and features to test for bugs, glitches and balancing. It sounds like a win-win scenario and when coupled with the correct circumstances, it is.
This however, is not what betas have become lately. What once used to be useful measuring tools in fine tuning the final product have become marketing incentives. A bonus reward for gamers making an early purchase on a product, a ‘demo’ marketed to appeal to every demographic and tool to spew useless and hurtful information that does nothing to help the final product.
Take the latest beta for Battlefield 3. Arguably one of the most anticipated games of the year, the beta opened to eager fans hoping to try their hands on the game and curious onlookers wanting to see what all of the fuss was about. What console gamers didn’t know was that the beta being released to the public was not the most recent build of the game. The beta being released was based on the “Alpha” stage of the game, a very early stage that had graphical elements, content and even basic features missing entirely. On top of this, the console beta was significantly different from the PC beta, with the PC already having access to the Alpha build earlier, the actual, true beta was made for PC with an extra map (Caspian Border) and vehicles.
Essentially what console players got was a months old build full of bugs, without vehicles (making at least one of the soldier classes useless) and little to no destruction. In essence all the things that made Battlefield unique were all but missing.
This lead to immediate backlash from gamers angry that many of these features were absent with some going as far to call it a “COD clone” or “Call of Duty wannabe”. They bemoaned the lack of vehicles, lack of destruction and worse of all, game crippling bugs and glitches that seemed to grind the game to a halt in some cases.
Despite the insistence from DICE and EA that the beta was only a fraction of what the game truly is and that the final product was miles away from the beta, the damage has been done. Forums across the internet cried foul, claiming that this was not the Battlefield they knew and loved, with some going as far to claim that their pre-orders were going to be canceled over this. Whether or not these threats were hollow or not the damage the game was already done. The excitement of the console audience was split.
So who’s to blame? Both of us. Us as gamers and consumers and EA as a publisher.
Everyone wants to have some early playtime for big titles. We want to see what the hype is about, how the impressions and gameplay videos stack up to our own impressions. It’s not a bad thing to get excited for a beta or even to have some fun playing it. However as we get caught up in the hype and excitement of playing we need to remember that what we are playing is in fact, a beta. Not a demo, a beta. The entire reason for betas to exist is to provide a portion of the game to be played and tested, glitches and all. We need to remember that all betas will most likely always have some sort of imbalance, glitches or missing content. It is our jobs as gamers to report these glitches to the appropriate sources. Complaining and trolling on a random gaming forum will rarely reach the developers. The lack of feedback eventually determining the final product, sometimes for the worse. No one wants a bad game, nor do they want to wait for a patch to fix issues that could have been fixed from the beginning.
Publishers also need to stop marketing betas as demos or gaming experiences to exclusively have fun. The more a publisher uses a beta as an extra marketing bullet-point, the more gamers will be lead to believe that it is just that, a glorified demo absent from technical problems. This creates an unrealistic expectation and results in the actual product being hurt in the end. No matter how many times fans will shout “It’s a beta!” at forum posters there will always be an uninformed customer not knowing the details behind a beta, only a moment away from canceling their pre-order and loosing the publisher money. Continue to put betas as a pre-order incentive if you must, but at least take more of an effort to briefly explain that this is far from a finished product, and that your input will ultimately make the final product better. For all the console betas I have played I have rarely noticed this message. If I did it was only for the briefest of seconds.
By being both a responsible gamer and by the publishers taking the time to express the objective and importance of a beta, we can hopefully avoid uninformed feedback and a better final product. Gamers win. Publishers win. Developers win. Everyone wins, no bugs or glitches in sight.