Back in My Day, Betas were for Testing
I got an email today, inviting me to the Darkspore open beta. Not extremely exciting since I’ve already played closed beta and don’t think there’ll be much additional content available. One thing was quite interesting about that email though. While the images embedded in the email said “Missed the closed beta? Not a problem. Play the open beta now!” (translation by me), the alt-text said “Missed the beta? Not a problem. Play the demo now!”
That’s right, even the folks over at Maxis/EA can’t keep their lines straight about the difference between an open beta and a demo anymore. And that is hardly surprising, since there really is no difference. Many betas are no longer about testing the game but are simple marketing instruments. I know I used to be excited about being able to play demos of games for free, but with time my excitement for demos has waned. Betas though I eat up, I’ll even pre-order mediocre-looking MMOs if that pre-order comes with a beta key. It looks as if this realization has finally hit mainstream among marketing departments and almost every bigger title is now offering beta participations.
We are in a bit of a vicious circle here because really the main reason I (and I suppose many others) enjoy being in a beta is the feeling of being special. Both being able to play games that others can’t yet and having an influence on the development of a game are strong pulling factors that have helped game developers smooth out bugs in their software for years. Once everyone either has or can buy access to a beta test, both of these drawing points disappear. With thousands and thousands of players being able to “beta test” a game, I don’t feel as if I’m having any influence on the development at all anymore. TotalBiscuit complained a while ago about people not actually testing in betas, but really, what’s the point? I didn’t get any feedback for any of the numerous bugs I’ve reported in betas this past year or so and it never felt as if any of my reports had any influence on the development of the game at all. Our presence in a test might help developers test things like server load balancing, but actual testing seems almost irrelevant.
And what’s with all these pre-order bonuses anyway? Rift offered a head start for people who pre-ordered which even applied if you bought the game during the head start period. Where is that different from simply moving the launch date ahead by a week? Maybe there’s a difference for brick & mortar shoppers, but for everyone interested in digital distribution, there was no difference between the start of the head start period and an actual launch. None.
All of this has been turned into one huge marketing tool and the value for players now is pretty much zero. There still is nothing wrong with giving players a free glimpse into a game before they have to make a decision on buying it, but why not call a demo a demo? The amusing stumble of the EA marketing team in that Darkspore email hits the nail on the head – there is no longer any difference between an open beta and a demo.