A Master Beta Scorned
Star Wars: The Old Republic just got done with its official 347th Open Beta testing weekend, and unlike the majority of my friends and peers in the gaming industry...
... I didn't get in.
Not that I'm bitter.
In fact, I'm actually kind of relieved that I still haven't been selected to participate, as the act of beta testing no longer seems to glow with that same sense of honor and pride that once shined so brightly. Even the coveted title of "Beta Tester" has lost a bit of its luster as industry professionals with years of gaming and testing experience are cast aside in favor of the "leet-speak" slinging fourteen year old juvenile delinquent racists that they apparently prefer.
Again, not that I'm in the least bit bitter.
It's just that the whole notion of beta testing has drastically changed over the years. You see, back in the early days of online gaming, being selected to take part in a beta was a pretty big deal. You had to fill out applications, list your past experiences, and if and when you were finally selected? It was like getting a puppy on your birthday, winning the lottery or stumbling across a picture of an uncovered breast in an old copy of National Geographic Magazine.
It was a geek badge of honor.
It was something that you could not only to be proud of, but something that you could whole-heartedly lord over your friends as a constant reminder of how badly they sucked in comparison to your complete and total awesomeness. This wasn't some lame open beta that anyone with an internet connection and a poorly spelled Gmail account could get into, even though you've tried from like five different accounts and still got nothing ; this was the real deal:
You were Beta Testing a new video game in a time where that actually meant something. It meant:
"We need you to rate the enjoyment of play, give us constructive feedback and suggestions, and maybe report the occasional bug on what is essentially an almost finished product, because you are the epitome of target audience."
And you took your work seriously, because you felt like you were actually part of the game's development - especially when the NDA and the paperwork came through registered mail. You had to officially sign for it, not just click through an unread EULA as you loaded up YouTube so that you could quickly leak restricted game play with no worry of repercussion or thoughts towards the feelings of the people who deserve to be in way more than you, but for some reason seem to be unfairly black listed.
They had your real name, your address, and in order to even glimpse the game you had to fight your way through a hellishly large mountain of paperwork and legally binding contracts written by the devil himself.
The whole thing was long, hard, and easily seven inches thick.
Beta Testing no longer has the same presence - you are no longer Arthur recieving a gleaming sword from the Lady of the Lake - you are just another number that they're asking for help because the meaning has been changed to:
"Debug this sh*t for us because we laid off most of the development staff so that the CEO could afford new homeless person skin seat covers for his Mercedes."
Beta versions used to be similar to the actual release version, with player suggestions being a guide, not the rail. It was a few hundred people giving concise feedback in a controlled environment. And because these people had signed up for - no, APPLIED for the honor of playing, that feedback was well thought out and focused, like the polish on a fine gem. Rarely if ever would a beta tester make disparaging, off-topic comments about the company or how your current project leader looks like a partially retarded Keebler Elf.
And if they did?
They were probably drinking heavily through a rough period in their life and should be forgiven because they had no absolutely no way of knowing that you'd actually progress this far within your company.
The point is, with the smaller testing groups you got manageable data. You were able to see patterns without the voice of reason being shouted down by the roar of the masses. People making suggestions beyond the droning chant of "make it more like World of Warcraft", so that your finished game was finely honed and unique. You got to hear from those who had stake in the game because they loved it, not because you crop dusted the internet with beta invites.
And inadvertently left some of the most experienced and professional people out.
Which is why in a lot of ways, those who aren't beta testing Star Wars: The Old Republic, are actually the lucky ones: they don't get to see the changes for the worse. They don't have to live with the knowledge of what could have been or the ghosts of content left on the editing room floor because it was deemed too unpopular by an untuned chorus of voices.
Beta Testing isn't what it once was, and while getting feedback from 99% of your target audience may sound like a good thing on paper, you tend to forget that 99% of your target audience aren't in the field of game development for a reason.
It's like playing a round of "Where's Waldo" with the chick from The Ring. It might seem like a cool concept, but...
..it's just going to end badly.
As a whole, gaming companies need to find the middle ground; a place where they can get a higher level of feedback, without opening the floodgates to the zombie hordes of the internet. We need to reign in the current trend of "everyone but Coyote gets to play before release" and return to the days of true beta testing, and more importantly, tester accountability.
Only then can they restore some of the lost honor and pride that the title once held.
Until that time, MMORPGs are doomed to repeat a devastating cycle of copied concept and gameplay, eventually becoming so indistinguishable from each other that gamers on a whole will begin to lose all interest in a genre that we once loved with all of our hearts. The entire industry will fold in upon itself and collapse in a pile of weak, unimagined games, and we will have no one to blame but all of the Beta Testers who got in... instead of me.
Not that I'm bitter.