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The Truth About Betas

Sanya Weathers Posted:
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Columns Developer Perspectives 0

Definitely not a DAoC Beta client!

I briefly contemplated breaking into the mailbox. Instead, I trudged to my boss’s office, confessed, apologized, waited for him to pull up Eddie Izzard on Google, apologized again, and went back to my desk. Then I held my breath for two weeks, waiting for someone on the beta list to call me in a complete tizzy.

I never heard anything. To this day I wonder what that tester must have thought.

Anyway, a true beta product may be nearly unplayable, and still have the makings of a great game buried under the dross. If you understand that, you might be a beta tester.

Do you understand that a proper bug report has the time, the location, your class race level spec, what you were doing right before that bad thing happened, and what the bad thing was? Okay, you are a beta tester.

How do you get a real spot in early beta?

It is who you know, to some extent. The earliest phase of beta is “Friends and Family,” where the only people playing are those that have an emotional connection to the people making the game. The theory is that they are less likely to be spies for the competition, and that they will tolerate the early, fumble-filled sessions in the name of seeing their spouses, siblings, or buddies succeed.

The phase after that, however, is often populated by the most active members of the fan community. Licensed games, or games with an existing following, don’t bother cultivating players at this point, because they don’t have to cultivate anyone. For one thing, they have a built in audience, so buzz building doesn’t apply. Also, they usually have a lot of oversight, and while that can be a bottleneck and a headache, sometimes the oversight people do a lot of work that’s paid for by the license holders. The latter is a glorious thing, and saves the studios money. But I’m getting off track.

The main way in is to be an active member of the message board community around your target game. There’s a lot more to being active than posting psychotic twenty paragraphs screeds on arcane design points that may not even be in the live game. Heck, there’s more to it than just posting a lot. Rich Weil, Director of Community for Cartoon Network, says “Keep track of the game you're interested in. Be a positive member of the game's community. Don't try to be an attention hound. Help new members of the community get acclimated. Don't… indulge… in... drama.”

You can tell by the ellipses that experienced community people are usually weary of the drama royalty before we make a single list of beta users.

Put another way, success can come from “showing initiative and leadership on the forums. Not ass-kissing, not spamming, not insincerity. I want 'real' opinions, real people, who may or may not agree with me but have a respectful and mature way of sharing their views,” says Katie Postma, Community Manager for Jumpgate Evolution. And while that sounds subjective – one man’s asskissing is another man’s courteous discourse, after all – she explains that “It is [subjective] to a point. But it's also going through a list of criteria that my dev teams agree is what we NEED in beta. We need people who are there because they want to see the game succeed, but not there as a fan boi because they can't be objective about what the devs are doing. Someone mature with a good sense of humor, who is willing to help but not there to be a star-f*cker.”

Lest you think she exaggerated, the star-f*cker in fact one of the strangest aspects of the MMO underbelly. There are people who will do just about anything with a developer before the game launches, and to get there, these people will pretend to love beta testing in hopes of getting a dev’s IM handle or (gasp) a phone number. It is weird. It is inexplicable. Decent developers do not fall for it, although almost every game studio has at least one developer who prides himself on his indecency.

If your wit, charm, and activity level don’t win you an early beta, you can always try an email. In the early days, before the community manager is overwhelmed by wannabees, the signal to noise ratio in a typical inbox is not unbearable. Send a short email detailing your system specs, your previous beta experience, and your ability to influence or bring in other players (you lead a guild, you’re a regular at a big forum, you freelance game reviews, etc). Close with some links to posts you’ve made on the game in question, and don’t forget to list your real name as well as your better known handles.

You never know. You might get lucky.

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Sanya

Sanya Weathers