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MMOWTF: Giv Beta Plz

Weekly MMORPG.com columnist Dan Fortier takes a look at the true meaning of beta.

Giv Beta Plz: A Look At Testing

Editor's Note: This is an edition of a weekly column by Staff Writer Dan Fortier. The column is called "MMOWTF" and will look at some of the stranger or more frustrating events in MMOs as seen by Mr. Fotier. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of MMORPG.com, its staff or management.

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For a fair portion of the MMO community is it a huge event when a game they have been looking forward to enters Beta testing. It is like ringing the dinner bells for those Pavlovian dogs the way that the faithful heed the call for signing up. It signals a change in the development of a game when it is ready to be played by the public even in a limited and semi-confidential setting. Players come out of the woodwork to flood the official forums and entire fan sites are created overnight in an attempt to be recognized and selected for the earliest versions of the test. This week I'm going to revisit an old topic and grant my considerable wisdom regarding this very special event in the lives of hardcore gamers everywhere.

A while back, I did a debate about Beta testing becoming more of a free trial instead of serious testing. I took the the high road and argued the case that testing should always be the main goal of the players selected. While a part of me believes in that kind of idyllic scenario, the fact is that most of the players who sign up for any form of testing are looking for a free game. While they might also have a vested interest in promoting and improving the game they plan to play one day, it would be naive to think that everyone would be spending their time in game finding and reporting bugs. The reasons for this are obvious and for every well-meaning tester, there are several dozen guys looking for a couple months of free game time and another game they can claim to have tested as if it makes them some kind of expert or visionary.

In a lot of ways, Beta testing has become an end rather than a means for both developers and players alike. There are quite a few gamers I know that simply apply for every single Beta they can find, even if the game holds no interest for them. Many large and (in)famous Guilds have become a kind of 'Beta Royalty' that are actively recruited by Devs to join the testing. Many of these self proclaimed "Elite Testzors" simply abuse the privilege by using their access to an early version of the client to create macros and find exploits to use after release. On the other side of the coin, the Devs are quite aware that most players are after a free game and have altered their agenda for the testing as well. The testing phase is just as important for the bookkeepers and publishers to gauge what kind of subscription numbers the game can expect and some games have folded because they didn't get enough interest to meet their projected costs.

Since we know that most players are going to join the 'testing' for their own reasons, is there something the Devs can do to make it more productive while not isolating the fickle hoards? I've been a part of some very well run Beta tests as well as some extremely poorly run wastes of bandwidth. The difference between them was fairly simple actually: Communication and Organization.

All the productive Betas give the players easy access to tools for bug reporting and ways to discuss issues that they are having with other testers outside of the game environment. A very important part of communication is having not one, but several community liaisons/specialists who act as intermediaries between the testers and programmers. While it never hurts to have the Devs in direct contact with the testers on a regular basis, the logistics are better left to people who are not needed behind a desk to fix the issues that appear during testing. Testers will be much more willing to go bug hunting if they can do it easily and get rapid feedback on the issues they report.

Organization comes into play in a number of important ways over the course of testing. Some of my favorite Betas were the ones that gave the testers something to do rather than simply grind and explore on their own. Clever developers can gather tons of useful data by organizing specific events for testers in order to test certain features or functionality in the client. Giving players access to high end equipment and high level characters can add to the fun and remove some of the monotony of a stripped down test version too. The most important part of organization is efficiency though, since nothing will piss off your testers faster than having bugs that have been reported several times pop up several patches later because they decided to test the game piecemeal.

Ultimately, testing should be fun and productive for both testers and Devs, despite human nature and the complexity of game design. Even without having a crack team of Gung-ho bug hunters it's possible for everyone to come away with what they want from a Beta test even if that's a free ride you can talk smack about later.

I'm going to take my ball and go home now so it's your turn on the court. I'll look forward to reading the replies tomorrow as I drink my morning Dr Pepper. Just remember the rules about hair pulling and eating the paste. Have at!