Sanya Weathers's MMO Underbelly: The Truth About Betas
How do developers really decide who gets in and who doesn't? That and other behind the scenes stories of how Betas really work.
I got to play in the Aion beta last weekend, and you didn’t.
“What the hell,” you say. Why’d SHE get to be in the beta and not me? You correctly point out that you’re more experienced, a better player, more skilled at PVP, and probably better looking, too.
This time, the answer was “press account.” But most of the time, it’s… luck.
That’s it. The game studio throws you into a pool with all the other fish, and when they need five thousand testers, you just have to hope you were swimming near the floodgate.
Actually, there are two things you can do, and that’s “read the minimum requirements” and “fill out the form completely.” Beta builds often have higher system requirements than do the final games, because optimization is a lower priority than stability. But studios know that no one reads the system requirements, which is why the forms often ask you what sort of video card you have. If you leave that form blank in any of its particulars, you are low hanging fruit to be whacked off the branch before anyone harvests beta users. Jeremy Dalberg, community manager for Webwars, says “The number of people who don't bother to tell us what video card they have, even though we ask, astounds me. I just throw those out.”
Wait, you’re saying you want to be a real beta tester, not one of the swarming masses allowed in to load test the server and help the studio build buzz for an impending release? Oh. You mean a *real* beta in the original sense of the word. Sorry, my bad. The term “beta” has been watered down by every chimp with a website claiming their three year old product is really in beta so you can’t hold them responsible when the server eats your lunch money. That has in turn trained the market to expect a beta product to be finished and to charge you money.
But you are special, and you understand that betas products are incomplete, lack any semblance of balance, may be prone to crashing, and are short on content until key systems are integrated.
Go ahead, make the joke about whatever MMO you hate the most right now while I wait. It’ll be funnier and cruder than any joke my evil editor will let me make.
Hey, speaking of funny, crude, and MMO betas: Years ago, I was sending out beta CDs (for a Camelot expansion, if you’re wondering). It was one of those horrible in between beta phases. We were far enough along that having people download the beta would have crippled the ability of our paying customers to get the regular game (and before you explain how that’s not possible, it was, it sucked, I’m still bitter, and I cannot talk about it). But it wasn’t one of the big massive phases in beta where it would have been cost effective to farm out the CD-mailing job to a contractor. So the task of stuffing mailers with CDs and labeling them fell to me. My little desk was buried in an avalanche of discs, mailers, labels, and lists.
A friend of mine came by and said, “Hey, I burned that Eddie Izzard show to disc for you, you can watch it on the computer!” He’d been telling me for weeks that I would love Eddie Izzard, a cross dressing surrealist comic, and I kept saying, sure, I’ll go out and buy it and watch it, in all my free time, jerk. Anyway, he burned the show for me, because he was a sweet guy. I thanked him, and tossed the disc on my desk.
You see where this is going.
I stuffed all three hundred mailers, took them down to the mail drop, and stuck them in the bin that says absolutely no tampering or you are doing hard time with roommates bearing poorly spelled tattoos. I got back to my desk, and started looking for that Eddie Izzard disc. You know, I’d done my work, I was ready for a reward.
I popped the disc into the computer, but instead of a cross dressing surrealist, I saw the install window for the beta I was working on.