The New Meaning of Beta
There are a couple of games coming out this year that I am very much
looking forward to playing when they launch. Both are in the beta stage
right now, but the two betas are very different.
Historically, games will go through several stages of testing before they
officially launch. The first stage is alpha testing, which is mostly done
internally by the game studio, or by a very small group of select testers.
This type of testing is not usually open to the general public, and the
process is used to test fundamental game systems to make sure they work as
they are supposed to. This is where major bugs are weeded out.
Beta testing is the second stage, and this is usually
where the developers bring in members of the general public. Usually, the
beta testing group is still fairly small - much smaller than the
anticipated player base when the game officially launches - but it still
consists of a larger number of differently-geared machines than alpha
testing, and the testers are often amateur enthusiasts rather than
professionals. Beta testing is used to find the kind of bugs that might
not show up on alpha tester machines - heavier server loads, newer and
older graphics cards of different makes, using different drivers, and
people actively looking for ways to "cheat" the system can turn up a broad
range of bugs and glitches that may have been missed during alpha testing.
Often, the beta phase itself is broken into two stages: closed and open
beta. This is where things get kind of hazy for some people. The closed
beta stage is usually a small test audience playing an early version of
the product with many un-implemented features and occasionally crude
placeholder graphics. This stage may or may not have restrictions over
what information can be shared by the testers - some games have strict
non-disclosure agreements (NDA's), some do not. Players
who break NDA's are often barred from the beta program when they are discovered.
Open beta is usually the final stage of development before launch. The product
is nearly finished, all systems are in place, and usually all that's left
is some final tweaking and fine-tuning. This stage is usually not
barricaded behind restrictive NDA's, and testers are free to post
screenshots, gameplay videos, plot spoilers and guides all through open
The first game that has me excited this year is the
Elder Scrolls Online, which is in closed beta. I signed up
for beta testing the first day it became available, but I haven't gotten
invited yet (and probably won't). This closed beta is pretty much just
what I expect from closed betas in general - a strict NDA means that
people like me are forced to speculate on what might be coming. Some
players will violate the NDA and post YouTube videos, screenshots or plot
spoilers, but these are quickly shut down by Zenimax Online (who are just
protecting their assets). We writers might stumble across some leaked
gameplay videos, but our journalistic integrity demands that we honor the
nondisclosure agreement's terms even if we are not in the beta ourselves.
It was the same thing, for me, in the
Lord of the Rings Online. I had a number of closed-beta
experiences with that game, and I would be bound by a non-disclosure
agreement to keep it to myself until Turbine announced that the NDA was
lifted. It was rather painful at times. I could post official artwork, or
transcribe interviews with the developers during that stage, but Turbine
usually keeps a tight lid on their content until they are satisfied that
it looks good and works properly, and is ready for public scrutiny.
The other game that has me excited this year is Neverwinter,
which began its open beta on April 30. But Perfect World and Cryptic
apparently have very different definitions of beta testing than Zenimax
Online or Turbine.
For starters, players who pre-ordered Neverwinter were guaranteed access
to beta testing. Beta access was one of the benefits of the $59.99
Guardian of Neverwinter and the $199.99 Hero of Neverwinter "founder's
packs." This also happened with Guild
Wars 2 - beta weekend access was a bonus of the
pre-order of that game, too.
A vocal percentage of the gaming public has objected to the "pay for
beta" model in F2P games. Paid beta used to be a derogatory term - it was
what you called a piece of software that shipped too early before all the
bugs had been worked out by proper beta testing. That's not so much the
case anymore. Minecraft set a new standard for paid beta access by
becoming a "cult hit" before its official launch. This is how games roll
out now. Even Steam is doing it.
But so far, the beta experience in Neverwinter hasn't really felt like a
beta experience at all. The closed beta weekends sort of felt like an
early stage of the game, sure. Animations weren't final, the introduction
sequence was rough in spots, classes, races and game systems were
gradually added. The game has undergone a lot of changes since the first
beta weekend, when Gunkxander the Guardian Fighter rolled through Faerun.
It felt early-stage then, but there was never any press restrictions. We
could say and show whatever we wanted during all stages of the beta.
Likewise, there are no press restrictions on open beta. Even early-access
open beta. We can show whatever we want. There doesn't seem to be much of
a difference between Neverwinter's open beta and the last closed beta
weekend. And there doesn't seem like there will be a huge leap from open
beta to the official launch-day product - it's open to anyone (as of April
30, at least) and all the systems are in place. We've even been assured
that we will be keeping our characters from open beta when the game goes
In this case, "open beta" feels more like a "soft launch." While there is
certainly some beta tweaking going on, and server restarts and small
patches are fairly frequent occurrences, the likelihood that the game will
change significantly between April 30 and "launch day" is extraordinarily
slim. There will certainly be balance tweaks, like shifting the damage
numbers for PvP or adjusting stats on high-level gear, and some stuff that
seems unbalanced or broken currently may get removed at launch, but it's a
safe bet that this is going to be pretty much the same game we're playing
Essentially, the "open beta" qualifier means that the developers are free
to drastically change any aspect of the game without having to make a big
announcement about it. It's a quick-escape route when players encounter
something broken or unsatisfactory - they can always say "Don't worry,
it's still just the beta." In a way, it's kind of a cop-out for putting
out sub-par content - if it's "just a beta," then it theoretically can't
be held to the same standard as officially-released content. It's an
implied promise that what we're getting isn't all the way perfect, but one
day it might be.
On the more positive side of things, what we're getting with the
early-access paid open beta in Neverwinter is the scrutiny and
stress-testing of a bunch of serious players. The people who spent 200
bones on the Hero of the North pack were not just buying some cool toys -
they were opting in as players who mean to get their money's worth and
their expectations met, and who will be taking the game seriously and not
just flitting in and out like a casual F2P butterfly. And it's the people
who take the game seriously that tend to affect changes. They are the ones
who post on the forums, the ones who file customer support tickets when
things don't work as they should.
The paid-beta players are the ones pushing the boundaries now - the
hardcore guys who hit level cap within the first day and a half, the ones
who will be the first to tackle and beat endgame raids, the ones who find
exploitable flaws in the system by doing things with their characters that
the developers hadn't thought to try. So, while this open beta hasn't felt
much like a beta so far, that's not to say it won't be productive.
What's your take on pay-for-beta, and the new definitions of beta
testing? Let us know in our comments!
To read the latest guides, news, and features you can visit our Neverwinter Game Page.