I can’t even remember my first MMO beta, though it was probably Asheron’s Call 2 or Dark Age of Camelot. Or maybe it was one of the very early incarnations of A Tale In the Desert. I may not remember which game it was, exactly, but I do remember the thrill of getting in – after what seemed like days downloading and trying to get the client to run, that is.
A decade ago the MMO beta community was so small you’d see the same faces (or rather, internet handles) from one beta to the next; that’s how small the MMO pool was, and how few of us, comparatively, actually played. We weren’t in it for the super-special in-game swag you could get at launch, because there was no swag. There were no incentives other than to help a game in development. Sure, we got an early look at those games, but I don’t recall most people treating it as little more than a free preview.
I’ve been in about a dozen betas since that first one, and over the years things have changed. Betas used to go something like this: play the game more or less as you normally would, apart from doing extra stupid things like trying to get stuck in the landscape or falling off the edge of the world. If you found a bug you tried to replicate it, because the more often you can make a piece of code misbehave the easier it is to track down and fix; then you’d report it.
Most betas also had (and still have) feedback forums for commenting on things that weren’t necessarily bugs but that might not be as good in practice as they seemed on the drawing-board. As the old adage goes: No game survives contact with the players, but that’s how you find out what kind of game you’ve got. At worst, if you were doing your job as a tester, you’d be helping to squash bugs; at best, you’d have an influence on shaping the game itself. For a certain type of person – myself included – there’s a particular thrill in doing that that makes up for knowing too much about the game when it launches.
Then came World of Warcraft, and everything changed. The MMO gaming community exploded; in fact, WoW’s open beta was the largest I’d seen till then and suddenly it seemed as though everyone in the world was trying out the new game. Now, while I’m not one to blame WoW for all the woes of the MMO industry – not only because it’s facile but also because it’s inaccurate – one thing WoW did do was cause an exponential growth in MMO players, most of whom barely knew what an MMO was apart from the fact that all their friends were playing it, so they wanted to try it too.
It’s not just WoW, of course. The 2003-2005 period saw a rapid increase in AAA titles, many of whom are still going today: SWG, City of Heroes, EQ2; and many more were already in development by that time. Suddenly there were eleventy-million more of us playing than there used to be and ten times as many games to test. And while I hesitate to use the term old-school, it’s nonetheless true that in the early days, most of us were computer nerds or gaming geeks who genuinely cared about testing a game. Small communities tend to be more tightly-knit and more dedicated to their common cause, and beta testing is certainly no exception.
There’s still a tendency to lump all stages of beta into one giant free preview with increasing numbers of participants. In theory, however, a beta isn’t a free preview until it hits the open beta phase, at which point pretty much anyone can join (as opposed to having to wait for an invitation) – and at which point the NDA is usually down. For those who don’t know the term, NDA stands for Non-Disclosure Agreement, which basically means you need to keep your mouth shut about whatever game it is that you’re testing. I can count on the fingers of one hand (on one finger, actually) the number of games I’ve beta-tested that haven’t bothered with an NDA, though how restrictive a given NDA can be will tend to vary. In some cases you can’t tell anyone you’re even in the beta, but that’s slowly falling by the wayside because it’s pretty much unenforceable – not to mention the fact that allowing your testers to say they’re testing game X actually generates a fair bit of hype.
The problem is, as betas get larger (even in the early stages) and as the testing community grows, you get a corresponding proportion of so-called testers who don’t think the NDA applies to them. That’s always ground my gears something fierce, because the people who break their NDA are usually the ones who just want to post a giant whine, and the rest of us can’t even opine or refute because we care about the agreement we signed. It’s one of the major reasons I took a break from testing a couple of years back – that and the fact that there’s only so many crashes and system lockups a tester can take before she decides it’s time to just play something stable for a while.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with free previews or open beta, but it does bother me that we now have a “testing” community that believes there’s nothing more to beta-testing. They apply for the closed stages, get in, and then spend most of their time on the forums or in the global channel complaining about how a game in development still has bugs. Gee, you think? Suck it up, pull your socks up and do your job as a tester by reporting on what you find, or just shut the hell up and go elsewhere. Seriously. Oh, and while we’re at it: read the bloody patch notes, kthx.
Maybe we’re just whinier in general these days. I don’t rise to the bait anymore (much), but it still irks me when I see people complaining about how they’re paying to test a game because it still has bugs after launch. Get real. MMOs are basically works in progress, especially since we’re constantly asking for changes and content additions. Most of the software we pay for has bugs, not just the games, yet we don’t see people bitching about those nearly as much; and I can’t even blame the gaming community for being too young to know better, because according to the statistics, most of us are well out of our parents’ basement. Of course, age is no guarantee of maturity.
In any case it’s been some time since I’ve been in an MMO closed beta, and I’m feeling that itch again. Once a tester, always a tester. And yes, I report bugs in live games when I find them too. Apparently The Secret World is now in the beta phase – anyone got a spare invite they could throw my way?