When I look at this year’s game snafus, most recently the growing pains that Fallout 76 is experiencing, I’m reminded of a simpler time when online games were young and the lure of using playtests as marketing tools was nearly non-existent. There was a time, as many of you probably remember when a beta test was actually a test and not a way to drive sales or generate hype for a game through the use of influencers.
Mind you there are still good examples of testing out there - I look towards the slow and steady pace of Camelot Unchained and its “beta really is beta” motto as a good example. I think that even more publicly open games like Crowfall and Ashes of Creation are doing it right too: yeah, you might be able to buy founder packs to get into the testing, but the devs make it painfully clear - what you’re going to play during testing is not complete, and it’s not what you’re paying for.
In cases like Crowfall and Ashes, you’re paying for the finished product in advance, and as a thank you the devs are going to let you play it early. They’re also likely using your feedback and forum/discord chatter to drive their decision making because it’s so vitally important that developers listen to feedback early in the case of games that take years to make but hope to live even longer. This isn’t ideal (in an ideal situation, betas would be removed from any and all monetary spending), but it’s still better than what Bethesda did with Fallout 76.
Without Fallout 76, Bethesda opted to use their B.E.T.A. tests as a pure marketing ploy. It’s not a bad idea if you’re a bean counter, but as a studio? As a studio, having a massive stress test of your game and its online architecture and content just a couple weeks before launch isn’t worth much. It can help stabilize servers and login processes, absolutely. But... that’s kind of it.
Someone somewhere higher up in Zenimax Media essentially forced Bethesda Game Studios to nail the 2018 Holiday window, knowing full well that the game wasn’t ready for launch. I can hear them, whoever they are, saying “People love our bugs. It’s what we do, and people buy our games anyway.” I can say that’s true, for the most part. In fact, I’m betting that The Elder Scrolls VI will launch with just that kind of status, and I’m not sure people will be as up in arms about it as they are about Fallout 76’s warts. And there’s a reason for that.
Fallout 76 isn’t a normal Bethesda game. It’s not even a spin-off like New Vegas was when Obsidian made it. It’s a game that, for the lack of better phrasing, no one asked for. Do I enjoy it? Hell yeah. But I can’t say it’s what I thought of when I said years ago that I wanted an online persistent Fallout. I expected something closer to Elder Scrolls Online, in that regard. If you look back at Fallout 4 with its encampments and building, which I really never cared for, you could see that they wanted to head this way. The idea probably came to the creatives shortly after seeing so many sales of Fallout 4, and how people were indeed going nuts with the building.
But I’m not here to debate what’s good and what’s not about Fallout 76. Whether I enjoy it or not isn’t the issue - the issue is that a prolonged and traditional several month beta test could have probably avoided a whole lot of the problems both in terms of design and expectations that the game is running into now.
I’m aware that Bethesda likely had larges internal tests, and that QA likely found and repro’d a ton of bugs over the course of development. I’m also of the mind that while it’s not a catch-all, Bethesda should probably let go of their engine at some point and adopt something like Unreal if they want to avoid these mistakes in the future. But I’m digressing again - my point is that the B.E.T.A. was a good marketing gimmick. It was not an adequate beta test.
In this age of Early Access games and products languishing unfinished in that stage for years, it’s almost as if fully-funded studios forget they have the power to do real community-focused beta testing. I hate to point at it because it’s so far back, but I remember just how invaluable the betas for World of Warcraft were, and the OG dev team would likely back me up on that statement.
So as we look towards the alpha testing for Anthem coming up next weekend, I’m hoping that BioWare and EA are paying close attention to Fallout 76’s issues. I hope that the limited alpha windows evolve into a several-weeks-long (at least) closed beta. But then... that’s just crazy talk, right?