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The Free Zone: How Useful Are Betas?

By Richard Aihoshi on November 16, 2009 | Columns | Comments

How Useful Are Betas?

Does it strike you as kind of curious that by the time most MMOGs reach the closed beta stage where members of the public can apply to see and try them, there doesn't seem to be much true testing left to do? In this respect, I'm referring to elements, features, balance, etc. that are still subject to decisions or meaningful changes depending on the feedback the participants provide as well as related metrics.

Given the fact a substantial number of free to play offerings are imports that have already been operating for some time in other regions, I understand their betas aren't clean slates. The extent to which these games can be modified is always going to be limited. Accordingly, I don't expect that anything and everything can be changed. However, I can't help but wonder if there's any real point to "testing" when everything important is already decided or locked down.

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It's certainly not uncommon to see F2P publishers talk about adapting their titles for western audiences. How well they actually do so varies significantly. Unfortunately, this means some don't feel adequately westernized, which is admittedly a rather subjective judgment. Regardless, it's something I find annoying pretty much every time I see it. My main issue is simply that the game versions I get to play aren't as good or as enjoyable as they might have been with more care and attention.

I do understand that open beta isn't really a test, and that the greater purpose is to facilitate awareness building. So, it's essentially a form of advertising or promotion. Many last only a couple of weeks and take place just before the games' launch dates, which have already been scheduled, so it's not realistic to expect changes of any consequence, especially prior to release. Whether that's a good thing or not is a matter of opinion. Personally, I don't have strong feelings either way.

And what about public closed betas? To what degree do publishers conduct these to assess the need for changes - the ones they weren't already planning to implement - and to help them make better decisions in areas where they haven't already made up their minds what to do? There isn't a definitive answer to this question since companies and individual project teams differ in their respective attitudes, capabilities, budgets, etc.

What I'm getting at here is that I really don't have a good sense as to how or how much the public beta stages we're all used to benefit me as a potential player. Is it truly meaningful that I get to try a title a few weeks or a couple of months before its commercial release, when it's essentially the same, just maybe a bit buggier and without some last bits of polish? It may seem like an obvious advantage that I get to satisfy my curiosity a bit sooner. But is it?

Frankly, I'm not so sure. There was a time when it seemed important to me. But thinking back, I can't come up with any solid reasons why. That's just how I thought. Or maybe didn't think. :p The only comparison that comes to mind now is a possible similarity to the way some gamers put considerable significance on getting new releases as soon as they arrive on retailers' shelves and in online vendors' warehouses. Curiously enough, that has never been a concern for me.

Turning to how the currently prevalent beta process might be ameliorated, I believe one way would be to seek independent input earlier - while there's still time to implement the key suggested changes and improvements. Implicit in this is the assumption that the teams would be truly willing to consider ideas other than their own. Of course, we all like to think we're pretty open-minded, but in reality, intelligent people can be hard to sway from what we "know" to be right or best, which tends to be whatever we're familiar and comfortable with.

By the way, I don't consider the friends and colleagues stage in many closed betas to be independent. In order not to risk bruising any feelings, these people may temper their feedback so it isn't brutally frank when it really should be. Of course, coming on too strong isn't optimally effective either since it tends to elicit defensiveness. Still, I believe it's better to obtain outside input, both negative and positive, at an earlier stage than usually happens now. If it's available, at least some might be heeded.

Getting back to the original question, betas aren't useless by any means. However, my gut says they definitely can be better. It also tells me some of you readers have ideas beyond the example I've outlined, so I look forward to reading them in your comments.

The Free Zone The Free Zone Editorials
Richard Aihoshi has been writing about MMOGs since the mid-1990s, always with a global perspective. As a result, he has observed the emergence and growth of the free to play business model from its early days in both hemispheres.

He is the former Editor of RPG Vault and his column, focusing on free to play MMOs, appears on MMORPG.com every Monday.
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