You say ‘bay-tah’, I say ‘bee-tah’ - either way, we’re all being duped!

Star Wars Battlefront

You’re a QA Tester, Harry. I’m a what?!

Beta fever has swept the gaming plane infecting all gamers with the overwhelming urge to test developers’ games. Of course, the whole ‘test my game’ message is wrapped in an ‘experience the game early!’ voile which masks the fact that gamers are an extension of a QA department.

In times forgotten, betas for games were only available to the development team, or those close to them, and usually required some sort of NDA signing. More recently, however, the beta phase of development has started appearing in public domain and is often used as a carrot-dangling device to get more game pre-orders.

Where has beta fever spawned from? It’s by no means a new concept, especially in the PC gaming scene. For years, developers have released their games at the beta stage. For example, I purchased and started playing arguably one of the most famous games during its Alpha stage — Minecraft. Prior to that, there were a bundle of PC games that started their ‘public life’ as beta versions. That all said, the concept of accessing a game’s beta phase on a console was something completely alien and only really came to life on the previous generation.

It’s only since betas have started appearing on consoles that I’ve changed my opinion of them. What was once a method of putting the game through a final test phase, be it to fix issues or tweak the game mechanics, is now a key force for driving game sales (particularly pre-orders). The most compelling evidence of this is with the sale of Crackdown, a then-new IP for Microsoft’s Xbox 360 console. Crackdown came bundled with beta access for Halo 3’s multiplayer. How do I know that this increased sales for the game? Well, I bought the game just for the Halo 3 beta.

Crackdown sold an impressive 1.5 million copies in its first six months of release.

I wasn’t the only one either, most of my mates at the time bought Crackdown just to get their hands on an early version of Halo 3. Ironically Crackdown turned out to be one of my favourite games on the Xbox 360, even topping Halo 3. Since then, betas have been popping up left right and centre, and it’s very rare nowadays that you don’t see ‘Pre-order this game to gain access to the beta’ announced alongside the game.

Earlier I mentioned that I feel the reasoning behind putting out a beta has changed since its appearance on consoles and whilst I still believe that is the case there are obviously technical reasons for putting one out. Star Wars Battlefront, due out in November, recently finished its open beta test which spread over 5 days and enticed over 9,000,000 people to play it. With this volume of traffic it’s allowed EA to stress test the servers and hopefully put into practise any counter-measures for overloaded servers. All in all it’s definitely going to help make playing the released game a more fluid process (I hope). Not only that but EA have been asking for feedback on the game although with 9,000,000 potential voices and it being so close to the release of the game I can’t see how many of these will be heard or acted upon.

Over nine million people played the Star Wars Battlefront beta!

It could also be argued that the sales of this game will increase dramatically now that players have had a taste* Remember when games had demos? I can’t help but feel that most developers attach the title of ‘beta’ to what is essentially a demo. The exclusivity of a beta entices the players as they believe they are part of this special group who’s getting to experience the game early when in essence they’re playing with 8,999,999 others.

*It could, of course, go the other way if the beta is met with negativity.

What is the point of this post?’ I hear you ask. Well I’m sorry to say there isn’t much of a point. There’s not going to be a rally cry where I demand everyone to boycott game betas. Nor am I going to preach about how evil they are because I fall victim to them every time. I suppose really it’s just something that I find quite interesting. Something as simple as early access to a small portion of a game can drive gamers wild, increasing pre-orders of titles and potentially boosting a developer’s QA team into the millions.

From less cynical eyes you could probably argue that a game’s beta phase allows gamers to be part of the development cycle — almost giving a sense of pride that you had a hand in helping the game release in an improved state. I’m pretty cynical though.

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