Beta: Glorified demo

Don’t be fooled by the hype. You’re not getting exclusive early access to a private beta test. You’re playing a demo.

The history of demos

Demos have changed a lot since I was a kid. When I was young a demo would be considered a full game by today’s rapidly dropping standards. Duke Nukem 3D was one of my favourite games and the demo offered a full episode out of the 3 episodes. I probably spent hundreds of hours replaying the Duke Nukem 3D demo. I sure as hell put more hours into free Duke Nukem demo than most AAA games I buy for full price these days.

Many other games of the time were similar. The games were designed to be shared amongst friends and the developers hoped that people who enjoyed the game would end up purchasing the full version.

Next came demo discs. Magazines would come with demo discs that offered a small taste of the full game. Some demos were timed, some offered a couple of levels to play and some even came with limited multiplayer. Of course, with the advancement of the internet printed media is a dying breed. With such a wealth of content available online most people don’t want to spend money on a magazine just so they can play a few game demos.

The death of demos

So, here we are today in a weird position. Despite nearly all gamers having access to broadband internet, demos are now a thing of the past. One may wonder why game publishers don’t take advantage of the internet to spread demos.

Unfortunately, there is very little incentive for developers to release a demo. Why would they bother when YouTube giants such as PewDiePie, Angry Joe or Total Biscuit give new games more coverage than developers could ever dream – For free! Creating a demo takes time and money and if the demo isn’t good it could even have a negative impact in sales.

Betas – The new demo

Introducing the new and improved demo: The beta.

Demos aren’t exciting. Demos are a form of advertising. You try the product and if you like it you buy it. People don’t want to download what is essentially an ad, to see if they like a game. Why waste the time when a quick YouTube search will bring up hundreds, possibly thousands of videos instantly?

Beta tests? They’re exciting. They’re exclusive! They’re a sneak peek of the game while it’s still in development!

… Except, they’re not.

You see, some evil marketing genius realised that demo’s still have a place among gamers… All you have to do is change the name and create a sense of exclusivity. Now you’ve created a hype train that everyone wants to climb aboard.

Halo 3 beta - Includes Crackdown FREE!

Halo 3 beta – Includes Crackdown FREE!

In most cases a “beta test” is really just a demo. What’s funny (but sad) however, is people are now paying for the “privilege” of playing an unfinished game. People rushed out and purchased Crackdown – A game that most people wouldn’t have even looked past the box art on the shelf, just so they could play a time limited multiplayer beta of Halo 3 – Something that should be free. Read this paragraph again and tell me this isn’t absolutely insane.

Exclusive! Free product placement with your pre-order!

Games are now using beta tests of other games as selling points. It’s a feature listed on the cover art! Have we really become so foolish that we are now willing to spend money to demo games? Could you imagine if your movie ticket read: “FREE movie trailers before your film!”

Pre-orders offer beta access, essentially bribing people into putting money on a game before the reviews are out and you’re able to make an informed decision.

Fans scour the internet looking for beta keys. Fan sites have beta key competitions and the developers slowly trickle beta keys out at a rate that ensures people feel like they’ve personally been invited to test the game and offer their experience. All of this is just clever marketing systematically designed to create hype for a product.

The truth

Most modern beta tests shouldn’t be called betas at all. Some are simply stress tests designed to see how the servers hold up under stress of thousands of people logging on and playing at once. Other betas are really just demos of the full game with the name changed to trick gamers into thinking they’re playing an exclusive beta of a game that is still in development when in reality the games development is almost entirely finished.

A beta test implies the developers will be taking feedback from the community to fix game balance issues and bugs. This is rarely done since players are often playing the “beta” when the game is just about to go gold.

Game development takes a long time and the months leading up to a game going gold is used to squash bugs and fix little details. If you really think a game will change much from the final product based on community feedback only 2 months before the official release you’re only kidding yourself.

The Halo 5 beta seems promising so far… Boasting 7 playable maps and 3 game mades. 343 says they’re not just stress testing servers and they’ll balance the gameplay based on feedback.

If developers really wanted to beta test their games they would be releasing their public betas at least 6 months before the games release and they wouldn’t be limited for only a few days or a week – They’d remain open until the game goes gold. They wouldn’t be limited the map selection to one or two maps either. After all, they want to beta test the game don’t they? Wouldn’t it be smarter to make sure the rest of the maps don’t have bugs as well?

Stop treating betas like a gift from game developers. We’re doing them a favour by testing their game. It’s fair enough to be excited to try out a game before it’s released but it crosses the line when developers are trying to make money from it.

Some developers actually do use beta tests for testing and game balance purposes. World of Warcraft has the Public Test Realm for players who want to have an early look at upcoming patches and content which allows Blizzard to tune and balance the game based on feedback. League of Legends has their PBE server which Riot uses to balance champions.

Please don’t fall for the hype. Enjoy playing a beta if you get access to it, but unless you want publishers to nickel and dime you more than they already are, don’t pay to access what is essentially just an advertisement.

  • Kuro Miyazaki

    This is essentially what now is happening with The Division beta and what Star Wars Battlefront did.

    • Pyroteq

      Ha. The Division beta seems to be the most blatant abuse of the term “beta” I’ve seen.

      I haven’t played it myself but apparently there was extremely limited
      content available (sounds familiar… almost like… a demo?) and the
      beta ended just over a month before the games final release.

      When you take into account the time for the build to be finalised, sent off
      for certification and then produced and shipped, etc, this basically
      means the game would have to have been going Gold at the same time the
      beta test was happening…