To Beta, Or Not To Beta

Pinch of Salt Not Included

There once existed a time where the only way to learn about an upcoming release was to hope that the news stand in your local store carried a video game magazine. Or that the rather odd pairing of a failing Scottish journalist and his older, highly respected astronomer friend were willing to talk about it on the only mainstream gaming TV show to ever grace the airwaves. If perhaps you missed the giddy heights of the GamesMaster era (maybe you were too busy staring at trees, shoving Crayola Crayons up your nose), then perhaps you’re more comfortable thinking back to the days of a single CD Jewel Case, crammed full of 2 (maybe 3) demos, sellotaped to the front of a magazine, that the shop keeper felt too valuable to leave on the shelf and so would keep it tucked safely away on a special shelf behind the counter until you handed over all of your pocket money. Maybe your first head start on an unreleased title came from purchasing Zone of the Enders on the PlayStation 2, just to get your grubby, button-mashing digits on Hideo Kojima’s highly anticipated Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. If I have to stretch this trip down memory lane to the more recent Realtime Worlds sneak peak on Halo 3 through the purchase of the ridiculously under-rated Crackdown, well then I’m just going to have to switch to Eric Bana and do some redesigning. Of your face.

How we get a sneak peek into the games on the horizon has changed drastically over my two decades of gaming. The Preview evolved into the Demo and the Demo is now evolving into the Beta. It used to be nigh on impossible to get an advance play of an upcoming release with your only hope being that your friend had spent the £5 you never had on the magazine you didn’t even want to read, to play ten minutes of a game still ten weeks away from release. The PC gamer had the extra option of being able to download demos from the internet, providing you knew someone with a connection faster than your 28.8 kb/s of course. Recently developers seem to have shied away from releasing a demo prior to a games release, instead opting to hold back the demo ’til the game has been on the market for a few months and the sales charts that float around the offices start to look like ski-resorts in the south of France. So why are some developers switching to a closed/open beta model and is it helping?

Susan couldn't help but think that baldness really wasn't a sign of anything but the ability to be a knob

The first Beta I served on was during the hotly contested place for the number one spot at the top of the PC Football Management Simulator chart (or Teletext Live! as it is more affectionately known) with the release of Sports Interactive’s Football Manager. The title would be the developers first release since breaking away from the Championship Manager series after a spat with the series publisher and the team were committed to showing the bewildered fans who the real boss was. SI Games turned to the UK games retail chain, with which I was working at the time, and asked for its head office to encourage it’s army of dedicated gamers to get in touch regarding taking part in a beta, some eight months before I would be putting it out on the shelves. I was thrilled to see a studio take such a forward step in looking to establish a new IP in a hotly contested market (Snigger all you like, the market was flooded with Football Management Sims and Sega coughed up £1,000,000 in marketing alone for the title) by asking for a second opinion. I think in total about 40-50 staff were selected, sent links to a downloadable copy of the game and granted access to a hidden forum on the developers website where we were free to post our feelings on the game and encouraged to post up any errors we found and what we did to cause them.

A bit of simple .txt editing and Bergkamp can celebrate his goal by impaling the Linesman on the Corner flag

This may not sound like a lot of fun and truth be told, it wasn’t. It was however jolly nice to be invited to take part in what was a truly groundbreaking event in the genre, an even nicer feeling to know that you were contributing to the studios success and that no one else will inadvertently become the manager of Millwall FC after hiring any coaches from Slovenia.

Beta’s like that these days are hard to come by. It seems that many publishers are encouraging the developers to open the game up to a pre-release Beta not with the intent of helping to stabilize the game or correct some shocking, thumbsticks through the skull, heart stopping, game breaking bug -but instead just to drum up some interest in the hope of actually selling a few copies.

In the online PC world, this is becoming far too common and it’s even starting to crop up on the consoles with titles such as Battlefield: Bad Company 2 and PS3 exclusive; MAG. With so many people taking part however, it’s hard to tell just how much of a privilege this really is and only deters the gamer from getting more involved as it generally means posting up in an environment second only to Hitler’s Bar mitzvah; the internet forum.

Star Trek Online (the true nerds ‘Geekgasm’) entered its ‘Open-Beta’ recently in the run up to the games release next month. The beta is available to a randomly selected few or to those that have already pre-ordered the game through a selection of retailers, all around the globe. Cryptic are keeping pretty tight lipped over just how many users have entered the beta but having lagged my way through from Warp One to Warp ‘Server is not Responding’, my guess is that the beta is a lot higher than the fifty or so who sat staring at colors and numbers with me way back in 2005. The games forums (as with most forums on the internet) are ablaze with the outcries of the disappointed and the frustrated, the know-it-all’s and the suck ups and of course the I-know-betters’ and the OMGWTFBBQDISHWASHER Brigades. Very little appears to be posted constructively and anything that is soon gets buried under a myriad of suggestions like how awesome Robert Picardo would look in a purple hat (he would look pretty awesome if you’re wondering). The majority of players who don’t take into the consideration of game development manage to suppress the minority of gamers who are keen to see a title succeed and genuinely believe they can offer support , simply by smashing there face into the keys and breaking the poor forum admin’s heart who has to spend all of their day editing out references to sexuality and how best to cook Tribbles.

So what really is the advantage in having a Beta these days? Are the days gone where studios are looking to better their titles by asking for true gamers that are keen to see the industry grow to give constructive feedback? Are we now only encouraged to join Beta’s of the big titles so we’re not left behind on release day when everyone goes racing off through the content they’ve played already? Buried in the announcement of EA’s decision to continue their successful Golf franchise with the free spirited Tiger Woods as the namesake was another announcement of EA promoting Tiger Woods PGA Tour Online with the beta available on Facebook. Both Tiger Woods and Facebook are bad enough already! Please don’t encourage everyone and there dog to take part in a pseudo-constructive beta! I just don’t think I can handle the prospect of…Never mind, the Star Trek Online Beta update has downloaded, I’m going now, need to stay ahead of the curve.

Little did Chell know that by the time he had finished scanning, both Red-shirts will have perished in an unexpected fashion

And for those who did buy Zone of the Enders just to play Metal Gear Solid 2, Enders wasn’t that bad and no the demo wasn’t a fair indication of Metal Gear Solid 2 at all. Kojima duped us all and we should forever hate him for it. Forever!

Last five articles by Adam



  1. Lee says:

    well done bro, zone of the enders was pretty good, you missed the final fantasy 8 demo that we had, i cant remember where we got it from though it was either off a magazine or we bought another copy of 7 on platinum and that had it in the box.
    is star trek any good, i might get into that or starwars when it appears but anything branded with starwars since the orginals hasnt gone to well.
    i just remembered where we got the final fantasy demo from
    i beat up a kid at school and stole his.

  2. Kat says:

    I’ve never been part of a beta but I remember lovingly going through demos taped onto magazines. For financial reasons I’m glad demos arent so freely available because after playing the Bayonetta and Batman: AA ones I had to rush out to buy the game. I’m probably missing out on a lot of great games cos I haven’t played the demo and for that my credit card is thankful. Enjoyable blog, nice one :)

  3. Ben Ben says:

    The beta test, one part “wow we can play this game for free” two parts “I demand you fix the lag, servers, bugs, global warming and I at least expect a fully functioning game during this testing phase that I’m currently playing for free”.

    I’ve taken part in so many beta tests I dare not list it.

    Recently tried the Star Trek beta myself and quite enjoyed it, there are a few things lacking (which will no doubt be patched in later on) but I really do like the sci-fi setting and the space combat is good fun.

    My very first beta test involved downloading a 2.4Gb file on my 56kb/s modem, it took days to do and even corrupted the first time round, today I moan if my connection drops below 7mb/s.

  4. Mark R MarkuzR says:

    I’ve not yet taken part in any beta, but the main reason for that is almost avoiding games until the final release is out and there are either few, or no, problems with it. When Besthesda released The Pitt dlc for Fallout 3, i was eager to get my teeth into it and then was warned that it was massively flawed due to a distribution error or something like that… I therefore steered clear until such times as I knew I’d be able to run it without turning into a Tourettes sufferer.

    I’m the same with operating systems though – I used Win 95 right up until Win 98 SE came out and only then did I upgrade to Win 98 SE. I avoided all other operating systems in between until Win XP Pro was stable enough for me to take the leap. I’ve only just upgraded to Win 7 and am loving it… although I’m not sure I’d be able to say that if I’d been an early adopter.

    Funny though, because I’m only that way with software. With hardware, I’m very much the early adopter and want to get in there as soon as possible so I can astound myself with whatever new fangled magic things the electronics companies choose to entice us with. The biggest mistake, however, was jumping on board with a very early Philips DVD+R set top box which would have write (and read!) failures quite regularly. I had so many replacement units, I wouldn’t even guess at the number, but eventually Comet refused to replace it again and gave me £500 of vouchers instead so I bought my first XBox, extra controllers, loads of games… and became a console gamer for the first time since my old Colecovision got trampled on by Donkey Kong. Bastard.

    So no… I don’t envy you beta folks. I’ll wait until the game is classed as “retro” so I know it won’t break on me :D

  5. Adam says:

    Thanks for the support one and all.

    It’s really something that’s starting to bug me in the industry. I don’t mind developers outsourcing testing to a dedicated following, but the Mass Beta really is nothing more than a buggy demo that just encourages the worst out of the demanding gamer.

    (@justbiglee -Yes you did and the FFVII Platinum Version came with a FFVIII preview disc with a few cut scenes and concept art)

    (@Kat -I very rarely play them, I rarely buy a magazine that still runs demoes either. GamesTM often points out something to keep an eye on, but even then I wait till I’ve heard back from trusted friends as to wether or not its something I’d enjoy. I don’t find that Demo’s represent games too well though and for the PC Gamer, they just become a drain on your WoW Ping :o )

    (@Ben -ST:O has a good feel to it when your playing with friends, it’s a tad too hand holding for me though and doesn’t really let you just take off and do as you please. The whole ‘Press F to..’ feature is good in places, but it takes alot of the control out of your hands and I think thats a bit of a killjoy.)

    @Mark -I’m the opposite, can’t stay away from new software but don’t go anywhere near the hardware till I’m confident it’s not going to blow up on me :D)

  6. Lorna Lorna says:

    Great first piece and some stirring up of nostalgia….I remember all too well those mags with cover floppys and later, CDs, and now DVDs crammed with demos and bumph. I remember that thieveing bastards used to make off with the disks, leaving the rest of us more honest and stupid types rummaging through the racks at WHSmith for the one unmolested copy.

    I also remember the wily newsagents keeping the disks behind the counter on their VIP shelf of doom…many a time I have come out of the shop with a bag of Space Raiders and my precious (and expensive – yeah you Amiga Format/Amiga Power/PC Gamer/etc. ad nauseum) magazine, only to realise that I hadn’t asked the dood for the disks and was either too shy or too sure he would tell me to pull the other one if I went back in to request my rightful property once I had left the shop.

    I used to play demos a lot, falling in love with games such as Worms and Commandos from their demos. I have never been involved with Betas, but it sounds like just one more marketing gimmick now which is a shame. The ones that aren’t will always be bogged down (if they are too public) with a lot of demanding freeloading whiners wanting the earth for precisely nothing while contributing nothing constructive. it is a wonder that any game makes it through the process now.

    Nice stuff.

  7. Simon says:

    I was involved in the home beta. The dirt will never wash off.

  8. Adam says:

    The Worms demo was one of my all time faveorites on the Amiga. That and the origional Settlers which actually convinced the family to invest in the full game (Disc 1 -of 4- was the games opening animated cut scene….and nothing else).

    I think the worst beta I was ever involved in was The Matrix Online. It was also one of the best Beta’s I was ever involved in too. I may just save that story for a rainy day though ;)

  9. Lorna Lorna says:

    I loved that demo too…I played those levels over and over. I remember loving the Arctic level where it would place a handful of enemy worms with yours on a flat girder not far from the edge fo the screen. one cunning Kamikazee would take out most of their team, sending others sliding into mines. Don’t get such good Worms levels any more :(

    Settlers was one of my all time favourite games for the Amiga. I absolutely adored the opening sequence and the music still makes me mist up with nostalgia :)

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  11. Greg Greg says:

    Only ‘beta’ I can think of that I participated in was World at war on 360. I may have mentioned my feelings on that one already (if not then ‘rubbish’ would politely sum it up)

    I remember the days of demos on the speccy – I must have spent hours playing the Back to the Future III and switchblade demos that came with Your Sinclair (ah the memories). These days I don’t d/l a huge number of demos – Arkham asylum was one that convinced me to buy the game, whereas the Ghostbusters demo put me off what was until that point a sure fire purchase. The problem is that a demo seldom gives a real idea of the finished product – fo example, the demo of Burnout Paradise was awful, but the game is pretty good. Similarly, I am told that the online demo of Bad Company was pants on toast, yet I couldn’t even begin to count the hours of life that me and my online gaming buddies have lost to that game.

    Fab Article tho dood – very thought provoking :D

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