Recently, Bungie hosted a console beta for Destiny 2. Supposedly a PC beta will be hosted sometime in late August before the release on September 6th of this year. I have lived through multiple eras of beta practices, but today it seems like betas are hard to even really define.
When I was a kid, there was no online gaming. Beta testing literally required you to be invited to go to a facility or development studio and try a pre-build of the game. This was such an honor to users and so hard to get into that even just knowing someone who had been in an actual beta was kind of a big deal. Developers valued this feedback and took it seriously. So much so that even though most true gamers would have done them for free, studios would actually pay people to take the time to go their offices and play beta builds. The ultimate purpose of these betas was to collect feedback to help improve the game. They were done well before a game was being released and required you to fill out a large questionnaire or take part in a group discussion after playing the beta, before leaving the studio. Sadly, I never got to take part in any of these personally.
When online games distribution started, betas went digital as well. Specially picked gamers were given special and usually secret access to download and play a prebuild of a game in order to give feedback. This no longer paid and it allowed many more people to take part in betas, but it was still done primarily for feedback, mostly in secret, and usually well before a game’s release. I took part in a number of these back in the day.
Over time, developers started allowing more and more people to take part in online betas, but it was still done in a closed system that usually came with an NDA. This had to change once multiplayer and PVP betas became a thing. Suddenly open betas became the norm. While feedback was still a major part of this process, really the focus became more about stress testing servers. In my opinion, this moment is exactly when betas stopped being done for the right reasons. Suddenly the focus was no longer about gamer feedback and became more about developers using gamers for their own testing purposes without seriously considering their gameplay experiences. Yes you could and can still give feedback, but it’s no longer taken as seriously and developers don’t put in nearly as much effort to get it most of the time. Usually developers just look at user data and take that as all the feedback they really need to make decisions.
Developers used to work for feedback. They used to pay people for it. They used to send you personalized emails asking you to fill out a survey or questionnaire. Nintendo used to give you points for taking the time to give feedback even on games that were already released. Now developers just open a forum, usually managed by an unpaid community volunteer, and unless there is an overwhelming amount of feedback about a particular issue, they pretty much ignore it and just do whatever they had already decided to do or make changes based on user data without considering stated opinions.
Today I’m not even really sure what betas are for and it seems like too many people have a complete misunderstanding of what the word beta even means. Interestingly enough, we are also in an era where demos almost never get released anymore. I absolutely see a link between these two issues.
The definitive purpose of a beta release/test is to allow neutral users to try out a game when it is in the later or final stages of development in order to find any (hopefully all) bugs, performance issues, problematic mechanics, and any other things that create a negative user experience. The idea is not necessarily to fix everything before release, but rather to make developers aware of these issues so they can make informed decisions about what is wrong with their game and what absolutely needs to be changed/fixed before release. Ideally all issues would be fixed before release, but with the advent of patches and the fact that developer, publisher, and user goals don’t always align this basically never happens today. But the point of a beta is always supposed to be feedback for ironing out bugs and problems. Betas are not demos. They are not meant to present a completed version of the game. They are not meant to be a marketing or sales tool. They are supposed to be about developing and ultimately releasing the best possible game.
In recent years, public betas almost always only happen with multiplayer games, but I guess just about every game today is a multiplayer/shared world/MMO anyway so maybe that makes some sense. They no longer happen well before the release of a game. The console beta for Destiny 2 took place less than two months before the release. The PC beta will take place less than a month before. Meaning that feedback is not only not the target of these betas, but it’s not even part of the discussion. What can Bungie possibly hope to achieve in two weeks after an open PC beta? We’re talking thousands, maybe even millions of players. Even if only half of them took the time to leave actual feedback, there is not enough time before the release date to actually read it, consider it, and implement any serious changes to the game as a result of it. The feedback is not their goal. Meaning the game will pretty much be the release build when the beta takes place. Meaning it’s not really a beta to begin with. It’s a glorified demo.
Betas today are being misused as marketing tools. Companies like Bungie are giving users beta access in exchange for pre-ordering the game. That’s literally telling people to pay money to try an unfinished copy of a game that will end up being released as the finished version anyway. That’s not a beta. That’s a demo. But it’s not even a demo because demos are for marketing. If these closed betas are for people who already purchased the game and they aren’t actually being used for feedback then they’re really just to build hype. That’s why most betas don’t have NDAs anymore. Developers don’t want feedback. They want free press. They’re hoping that rather than letting people who haven’t decided to purchase the game try it out with a demo, it’s more effective to let YouTubers and Twitch streamers play it and post sexy footage to get people to buy the game. But by limiting the amount of content they have access to, the beta makes the game look like it will be amazing even if it will ultimately disappoint. That’s exactly what happened with Destiny.
What’s being referred to as a beta today is nothing of the sort. But what I think is really sad is that the public has started drinking the Kool-Aid. During and after the Destiny 2 beta, I saw a lot of people in various online platforms complaining about the beta. There were also plenty of people praising it. But what I thought was really disappointing was that so many people were complaining about and attacking people who spoke critically/negatively about the beta. A number of memes, angry comments, and posts were created in order to attack people who didn’t praise the beta. That makes absolutely no sense. The literal purpose of beta releases is for people to complain about them. Again, the purpose of a beta is/was supposed to be feedback in order to ultimately improve the game. If 100% of beta testers, if they can still be called that, voiced no complaints about a beta then by definition that beta was a pointless failure, because unless the game truly is perfect, doubtful for any game in 2017 or ever, it means that no actual feedback was given and thus there is basically no possibility of the game’s issues being fixed/improved. Today fanboys are literally making games worse by trying to stop people from giving actual feedback and having issues with pre-release builds of games. Such a practice marks a sad future for game development.
I don’t personally know if the Destiny 2 beta was good or not. Because of the way things went with Destiny, which I played the beta and preordered the Collector’s Edition of, I refused to have any more to do with that franchise. I refused to play the Destiny 2 beta and I refuse to purchase the game. But my opinion on the game, which I have not voiced here, doesn’t matter. What matters is that developers have systematically destroyed the purpose of betas and in doing so have made development practices worse, ultimately leading to worse games, which we have seen over the past five or more years. And as this has been taking place the public, or rather fanboy members of the public, have supported these bad development and testing practices to a point of attacking people for fulfilling the actual purpose of a beta. I’m genuinely worried about how this will affect the quality of future games as these practices continue to thrive and become the accepted norm in game development.