We see this tag all over the place recently: Beta. Many games pretend they were in some kind of testing phase they call a “beta”. The result of this differs, though. While games like Minecraft and Firefall use the beta greatly to gather feedback from the community on what direction the game should take, some games (mostly ports to a different region) use it merely for server stress tests. Other games are fully finished already, but they’re pushed into a beta to “outsource” the bug hunt to the community.
Then ... What makes a beta?
Well, the model used to be split into a developer-internal alpha phase, a consumer-focused beta and then final release. The alpha phase was used to build the game and try out whether or not the components implemented fit together and actually work.
The beta phase on the other hand was used to get gameplay feedback from consumers. In the long run, the extensive use of paths the developers couldn’t even think of and the difference in thought the various testers present led to discoveries of not-yet-found bugs and issues when it comes to multiple players involved (regarding multiplayer games or modes, of course).
With the Internet on the rise and gamers being more informed about their favourite games, another phenomenon popped up: Marketing betas. Consumers felt “special” when involved in a beta. As such, creating a beta for the sake of attracting consumers became a common practice. Using the beta tag to tell gamers they could join an elite group is simple marketing – and it works.
The model of a closed beta as opposed to an open beta supported this just as well. A closed beta would result in an even more elitist feeling, while an open beta still has the tag – therefore makes people feel more like game veterans if they stick to the game over time. Gamers want to feel special, in any way possible. This also led to a common perception in a gamer’s mind:
“I am playing it before others can!” – not “I am testing this game!”
But then, what happened to the testing?
Testing turned out to be secondary. Games would enter beta phases as fully finished games, close to the release. The main focus was on rooting out major bugs that just weren’t found yet, and stressing the servers. While this may be considered “testing” in regards to the game’s playability and the server capacity, it is just a minor part of the testing involved when releasing a game.
Looking for every small bug, trying to root out typos in descriptions, checking whether it is playable across hardware, giving feedback on game features – This all moved out of the focus of a common gamer. But it’s the common gamer who wants to join betas at any cost, rather than being an honest tester.
The companies lost the focus just as well, though. Why test game features if that’s exactly how we want the game to be? Why look for minor bugs when we had a huge QA internally looking for these bugs on the one path we want the player to take? These conceptions cause the companies to not even ask for the feedback on their beta-introduction or not providing any means of communication.
This doesn’t happen quite too often, though. But these two extreme views from the consumers’ side and the company’s side are becoming much more common and might at some point even make up a large chunk of our industry.
Where do these movements come from?
The answer is simple: Game ports. A fully finished game from Asia can be copied, translated and released in Europe or the US cheaply and easily. Once that’s done, all that needs to be tested are the servers, and possibly some errors in the translation.
Such games pop up every now and then, and they remain rather successful in an era of manga and anime loving youth. The artistic style is appealing and the stories resemble what the other media provide.
The aforementioned marketing betas are just as counter-productive for the old mindset. Gamers get used to the beta phase being a “special” release, and companies get used to a working model to attract players.
Then, when an actual beta shows up, a full testing phase, possibly even mid-development, the average gamer is frustrated. Why isn’t this a full game as he expected? Why are there so many bugs and missing features?
The player either sticks with the game through the entire beta phase, suffering from the testing phase, or he leaves over it simply not fulfilling what he wants it to.
As such, the modern mindset hurts the games that fulfil the old beta standards.
‘Back to the roots’ might best describe this week’s AGL. We’re discussing wording again, and on top of that we’re addressing gamers, not the industry. Complaints about DLC being too expensive, too small and exploitative in any way imaginable compared to the good-ol’ expansions are heard from the gamers’ side. Publishers on the other hand use it to give special deals and maintain a flow of income after the initial purchases dry out.
Downloadable Content – Money grabbing or content?
Here we have it again ... “content” ... Interesting, how important it became, especially with retail games. Downloadable content usually caters to the ‘fan’. The player who sticks to the game through each and every episode, through any experience they can find. Now, this is the group of players that knows most about the game and feels the deepest emotional relationship with the game.
DLC can feel exploitative. Launch-day DLC makes the player feel as if something was ‘cut out’ of the final game, since obviously there is something else that’s been developed before the release. Offering pre-order DLC as common DLC later-on makes the player feel as if he just lost some of his ‘special’-ness ... and when the common DLC contains a package of multiple pre-order DLC, this also means the player gained less than someone who buys the new DLC, although he was supposed to feel as if he had more as a ‘reward’ for pre-ordering.
Two major abominations in the DLC department. But there are more. The ‘content’ they provide is often nothing but a new texture, or maybe a new item. The few times it’s a new storyline arc, it’s implemented for ease-of-use rather than immersion. The player immediately gets access to it, regardless of his current position in the default storyline and his acquired abilities. This causes frustration upon failure and drops the entire DLC’s content almost instantly, once it’s been played (which is rather early, due to it’s availability).
This concept is not new, though – Ever heard of Expansions?
Yes, certainly, Expansions are the good-ol’ equivalent of DLC. Aren’t they? Well, expansions used to be a little more pricy, but they provided a lot more storyline, items, abilities, content as a whole. They actually majorly expanded the game, and as such deserved their name.
They did have other flaws, though. An expansion is always yet another disk needed to be secured, and causes some issues with installing. Expansions also are much easier to mistake for an actual game, due to their price and contents. And finally, expansions can be just as loosely tied to the game as DLC is.
So, neither is good, what then?
Well, DLC aren’t the abomination they’re made to be, but they certainly have some flaws and are abused to an extent where they are slightly off the track.
Expansions on the other hand, with an adaption for the digital distribution model, could change this. The original idea of DLC was exactly this, though: Move the old model of expansions to the digital distribution world. It failed when gamers became ‘dependant’ on the DLC and companies used it to get every little bit of money they could, though.
As such, it is yet again both the companies’ and the gamers’ fault for allowing this to happen. If gamers didn’t pay as much, companies wouldn’t have a reason to milk it like that. If companies gave us a possibility to alter the pricing without having to outright boycott it, there would be no reason to pay as much.
A solution is unlikely to be found, unless we manage to stick to either one of these examples: boycott or changes in pricing.