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 beta.
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 "live."
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 at launch.
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!