I really, really hate what the SuperMegaCorps of the game industry have done to beta testing.
And gentle reader, I hate you for going along with it.
All right, to be fair, I don't mean you, because the sort of player I hate is not the kind of person who would ever in a million years read a column called "Developer Perspectives." That's because there is no perspective but his. All he cares about is being entertained, right now, for as little money as possible.
By the way, knowing That Guy has no perspective but his own is a valuable life lesson for any dev. You have to be aware of him and develop with him in mind. The next life lesson is that you can't interact with everyone assuming they're all as single-minded. You have to remember that when you are talking to customers, the audience is by definition not That Guy. That Guy isn't in the audience. He doesn't read dev chats, he doesn't read the company blog, and he doesn't care that you're a nice person on Facebook. The people reading blogs and chatting with you aren't That Guy, and acting like they are is a surefire path to alienating the evangelists.
But I digress. Where was I? Beta. Right.
Beta testing used to mean that you presented an unfinished product to a small group of people who expected it to be unfinished. Then they would test it. This was sort of a key phase for MMO development. As we all know to our sorrow, an MMO can be flawlessly designed with intricacies like a mechanical Swiss watch and still suck the chrome off a bumper when those intricacies collide with a large number of human beings.
Betas also used to be smaller. Being a beta tester had cachet, gave you a bit of an elite status among dedicated gamer types, because you'd played a direct role in making a product better.
At some point, someone with an abacus for a heart and the foresight of a poop-flinging chimp noticed that beta testers tended to be devoted fans. Their engagement and emotional involvement offered unbeatable word of mouth buzz. Their pride in testing created product awareness... for free. Also, any time demand exceeds supply, the demand increases. Limited beta spots means a whole hell of a lot of people wanted them.
The aforementioned chimps decided to invite more people to beta. More people equals more buzz, right?
The trouble with that? People who aren't really beta testers at heart get really pissed off when they run into game breaking issues. Players who think they're getting a sneak peek at a completed game tend to not report bugs because they think it's too late. A bigger population means more exploiters slip in. Exploiters take note of bugs, not to report them, but to use them.
Big betas leave MMOs with no choice but to try and fix everything during small, closed betas - what used to be alphas - and to treat their beta phase as marketing. And because players know that, players now have an expectation of playing a nearly completed product when they log in for "testing." Their expectations are similar to what they would have for a finished product - and they go out onto the internet and comment accordingly.
The marketing beta has had a chilling effect on design and innovation. Beta testing used to allow for proof-of-concept development, with the understanding that it would be fixed up later. Now, nothing appears in beta unless it's been approved and completed. Hey, and speaking of nothing, risk taking is now for people with nothing to lose.
I'm whining, I know. That's because I'm on a small team that cannot afford a hype beta, because we need the beta for testing. Even the guild beta, which I fully admit I usually use for hype, is going to be all about testing. And I'm afraid I'm ten years too late to be believed.
Arguably, the current state of affairs where a soft launch is referred to as a beta is not all bad. It's a boon to making smart decisions as a consumer because an MMO is an investment, emotionally and financially. (If you don't feel that way, may I respectfully suggest that single player RPGs may meet your needs more fully?) Playing the soft-launched version tells you if it's worth your time.
Last digression: The idea that a game should be played for a gazillion hours before you know if it's got potential is nonsense. Do you need to drink a whole gallon of milk to know that it's gone off? Test drives are good for any product not involving personal hygiene.
That doesn't change the fact that I, as a developer, have a need for a phase of testing where the game is necessarily incomplete, because I need a critical mass of population in order to decide what and how to complete the game. So I'm throwing it to you. How do I, as a developer, convince you that beta means BETA?