Monday, September 13, 2010

Concerning Betas

My friend Izziebot on her blog wrote a pretty interesting article on Betas and those who get into them... which I'll reiterate here really quickly:

1. Gamers don’t respect NDAs
2. Gamers prematurely base their opinions on betas.
3. Gamers don’t test in beta testing.

[[See "The Legend of Beta Part I" ]]

She was concerned for the "Beta" because it felt so many people were getting into them and not contributing information. No feedback on bugs, no feedback on graphical issues, no feedback on random glitches in quests or perhaps cut-scene issues, no feedback on typos.... just plain there to play and have fun. And she felt that perhaps in a few years, companies would stop beta testing because it was more detrimental to their games, rather than helping them. Because those who were unhappy with how the game was would jump to blogs and put out scathing reviews and/or create videos featuring what they felt were terrible issues... And therefore the concern that people were taking what was said and being turned off to the game.

I agree there are folks who will read someone's opinion and jump on their bandwagon without much thought of their own. Unfortunately, there will be people out there who just don't question what they read and take everything as fact. Laziness is laziness.

However, I think that there is a larger crowd out there beyond this more vocal bunch.

Note, I am no number-cruncher. I write based on observation, personal theory and opinion. Do not take my words as fact. Think for yourself!!!


In my time in games, I've always found this freaking parallel between games and the real world. So I look to things like the political situation in the US and some of my experiences there first. I recently participated in Glenn Beck's Restoring Honor Rally on 8/28 at the Lincoln Memorial. Before the event, people felt it was going to be incredibly political. That there would be Obama-bashing, democrat slandering, etc etc. Unfortunately there was a very vocal minority of people within the group going that was like that.

They blogged hatefully, spoke in social websites, and posted videos about how it would be the day to send a political message. It was assumed by probably a huge number of people that it would be a sign waving, anti-political frenzy. But what showed up were normal people with their entire families. Next to no signs anywhere, and a very polite group of folks who showed up to actually honor our service men and women and our nation.

The reaction from the outside was one of surprise. Where was all that hate and slander associated with the group of people? Because the vocal minority was out there all the time, it had seemed that was the type of people we were. But once revealed, it was shown we were a far larger mass of respectful, quiet people.

So my analogy's purpose...

I consider those who blog and create videos that are against a game (that they have been a beta tester for) to be a vocal minority. They seem to be everywhere, constantly ripping on the game, threatening and complaining about what they play through, and just seem totally miserable with what they're seeing. Some of those people honestly believe what they are saying. Some are there because they like the attention they've gotten from being the first to break that NDA or expose that terrible aspect of the game. For some, it is also a question of age. I point to the World of Warcraft beta right now. They don't take in applications for their betas. Rather they randomly select to keep the process "fair." So you will likely get a lot of younger players who are a bit more... socially challenged.

However, from social interactions in beta forums, chat channels and from my own personal experience, I feel I am safe in saying that a majority of those who do get in take what they're doing to a certain extent of seriousness. I look to the Cataclysm beta which a few weeks ago had a broken Feedback button. No one could report in-game about things they were finding. However, what happened was interesting to see. People were taking the time to go to the beta forums for cataclysm and write out bug reports there.

Additionally, you see some fantastic data sharing that goes on there between people who perhaps get stuck where others weren't. Yeah, sometimes you'll find that one kid who sits there crying about something and threatening canceling a preorder and/or their live version of the game they currently play -- but a majority of folks don't go that route and patiently play through and report what they find.

Right now in the live beta version, they have raised the damage modifier of the enemy mobs. It scales pretty high per level they are... especially 83-85 mobs. In some cases, one might argue that you have no choice but to group to do your quests with any sort of speed. There are some folks throwing down their gloves and refusing to keep testing, but there are some who have kept going (like myself) who have tried to adapt to different play styles and kept leveling. From the handful of people on the forum complaining, you'd think there was barely anyone able to get to level 85 with the damage output from the mobs. But I see a lot of 85s. ((And premade 85 characters aren't available to play yet.))

As a side note... I'm not particularly happy with the damage output myself. And I wrote a longish post about it with examples of my gear, the situation I was in, the types of mobs I was struggling to live against, and suggesting rolling down the damage a bit on the feedback thread they told us to visit. To anyone who beta tests, don't withhold your opinion, but be polite with how you give it. Be detailed as to why you feel it is an issue. Don't just sit there and be all "it hits too hard. this sucks. change it or i'm gone." Be constructive and polite with any feedback and suggestion you give and remember if it was you who created it and there was an issue, would you want to have a ton of people verbally ripping on you? No one responds well to threats. Regardless of their position or the assumption they should. "A kind word turns away anger."

Games and Companies

I'm no gaming world expert. My education was in "Graphic Design for Computer Art" and "Animation and Visual Effects." My only qualification could possibly be 'people skills' thanks to leading a guild for a year and a half and being an officer in games spanning from 2003 to now. I do have a few friends who work for game companies, who sometimes drop lines. And I have my Advertising and Copyright classes from my days studying Graphic Design.

One thing that was always stressed to me in my last school was the importance of taking criticism with a grain of salt. I cannot speak for the smaller companies, but I know from my friends in the larger ones that this is something that rings true when delivering a Beta client of a game to a group of folks. And I feel that a company as a whole needs to keep in mind what is in that client. So when people sit and complain about an element of the game that isn't complete that they (the company) are ready with some answer(s) as to what's going on.

i. Information Flow

Information control is important in any game. I point to a not so far away issue with Cataclysm. Blizzard had been pretty tight lipped about the entire game. Perhaps releasing some weird screenshot but not much information. People were getting bored of the current game and were starting to wander away and grow impatient. This created a breeding ground for trouble. A game of interest with little exposure. Yes, it can create a larger interest, but if your game isn't what people have come to believe it to be, you're going to hit a firestorm.

And then that person got in to the Cataclysm files thanks to the friends and family beta. And suddenly everyone was getting into it. Sandboxes, random screenshots, fake servers, it was an explosion. And the masses descended in a feeding frenzy. Until Blizzard stepped up with the NDA hammer and chased those people down.

ii. Beta Player Selection

Now with the closed beta, Blizzard has a few methods going on. First was to give keys to a few from top successful guilds, trusted blog sites, and those well known in the community. Then they offered keys in contests for things like guild essays. Then they had the random draw betas going on. What they did was grab up three types into their beta and created a sort of balance of players similar to what you might see in the live game now. The super serious, the serious-casual, and the casual with the casual. And they in essence took three possible options for their beta testing group.

I think what possibly puts people into that mindset that Beta is for the elite is because for the longest time, people who got into them were either popular in their community or were paid (professional) testers. And even now, you can find websites dedicated to signing up people interested in testing games who will farm them out to companies. This isn't a bad thing to do if you want to really keep your game information from getting out beyond what you want. Its a very controlled testing environment and many companies will employ this method for the protection of the game while they go through early testing.

The next is the essay group or the application group. Back in the day when Lord of the Rings Beta was coming out, I had to fill one of these out to get into it. The questionnaire was fairly straightforward, but had 'personality' questions and the 'why are you interested' question. While you may get some liars and flatters who fill out an application, you will usually get some pretty honest people. And you can tell who are really interested by how they fill out that application as well. Its a good way to keep more of the public involved, giving the environment a more 'real' feel with the type of folks you may encounter. Though perhaps, more tedious for the company who has to sift through all those applications.

Then there is that random draw beta. Many of the company's big shots likely pick this for cost efficiency. They scan your pc to see what you can handle, get your email address and bam, you have been entered in the raffle for a key. You can get all sorts of players this way. Casuals, hard core, serious-casual. Unfortunately with this method you will some who have just tossed in their name for something new to do. Some put theirs in because they're interested and would like to see what the game will be like. Some genuinely want in because they might like the game concept and would like to play a part in seeing it developed successfully. And in all those groups you will have those who, once they're in take it serious and report-report-report, or gripe and whine-whine-whine, or who just show up and then leave quickly thereafter.

I believe a company needs to be sure they are ready for whatever methods they use for their beta player selection. And they need to understand the people they take in. Especially those smaller companies who are just trying to get their first game out. Basically -- while the players need to be responsible, the company will get what they asked for depending on the course they take in their selection.

iii. Content Released

I'm a personal believer that a "beta" is the unchanging core of the game and which might include the elements such as quests, quest rewards, skills, professions if any, extra actives, and really anything the player might touch. Its meant to stress test your servers with more people playing, interacting and doing crazy things. Its meant to play quest files over and over and over to be sure it lasts multiple plays. Its meant to show where you're going and to give opportunity for others to bring up suggestions that may make things better or even change an entire quest line. Its a place where you open yourself to the ideas of your testers and test the window of acceptance from your players about things you think would be cool.

But really, the key is to have that core established and laid out. If you are going to release a beta to a group when that core is unstable, you will raise questions about your companies sanity and the likeliness that the game will actually be decent. This goes back to an earlier point, but communicate with your testers if you are going to throw them into an environment with known bugs. Make ways to aid them if they get stuck and help them while they help you.

Time is your enemy and your friend with betas. It is your enemy because you are putting money into it. It is your friend because the more you have, the better your product will be. Smaller companies will be hurt more by Time than a large one, and perhaps for them, this is one of the most difficult things to conquer. But the more time you can give to making sure your product is solid, the better it will be. And with a beta... If you put your time and effort into it and release it to beta, and you feel confident in what you've set out and know what's in it, you can discount the complainers who come expecting a demo rather than a beta.

iv. Marketing and the Beta

Many companies today use the Beta as a Demo rather than spending the money to create a playable one. Or after a closed beta, they'll create an Open Beta which is really just like a demo. But the moment you remove that NDA on information, you've begun your marketing via your beta players. As stated earlier, what you have released will affect how that marketing goes out. And your time and effort will affect how its sold by your testers.

I have a friend working over at Bioware on their MMO for Star Wars, and he creates many of the videos we'll see for commercials shown for the product. He told me the ESBR rating keeps a lot of information from being shared. However, I could post something and not be restricted as I'm not affiliated with the company etc.

Once an NDA is lifted, players can create videos and a multitude of images that can stir up and create excitement for a game that perhaps a company will not quite be able to do on their own. Not to mention word of mouth, blog posts, comments on social network sites, and videos can all reach places that a company may not be able to necessarily reach (thanks to things like an ESBR).

It should also be noted that anything on the internet is accessible. And when you release something onto the web for play, NDAs or not, people will capture and expose. And having a plan to counter these things is important. Like earlier, how you handle the flow of information is important. Do not go online with your game until you are ready to face this.


I've spent a lot of time on my thoughts concerning betas. Hopefully I didn't bunny trail off too much which I tend to do. I do not ever see Beta Testing stopping. I do think the way they are handled will eventually shift and as the internet continues to grow in sophistication, we'll see more ways to control some of that information as well, like it or not.

The MMO is still young and growing. Its becoming more commonplace for the average person to play one. I do not see death of the beta. I see a growing and perhaps a change. This post was perhaps way too serious and again, a lot of opinion here. But I thank you for reading.

Question everything! Form your own opinions! And have a good one!

1 comment:

  1. great stuff here, and interesting alternate point of view.
    my entire 2nd part was on the subject of demos vs betas which is interesting (I promise I didn't steal it from ya, I had it in my drafts before I read this and now I feel bad, rofl).

    The only thing, I have a hard time using Blizzard's betas, especially WoW, as a sort of central point just because their population is so huge that they really can get away with anything in regards to betas.

    The majority of games are going to have a fraction of that population to choose from. That isn't to say the ratio of good vs bad testers isn't what you're saying here, though. You're spot on with the vocal minority but as we all know, sometimes it just takes one person, or a handful of people, to really reflect badly on the majority (like the Quran-burning-psycho, and the God Hates F**** guy, reflect very badly on religion when it's nothing like that). One guy releasing a slew of media and information against an NDA is all it takes to screw that up too. Sure, the company can force him to take it down but 9 times out of 10, it's too late and it's spread like wild-fire.

    Oh, the internet.
    Great read, though, keep it up girl!