August 15, 2011

Betas Exclude Their Fanbase

What is a BETA?  What does that term even mean?

Let’s read from Webster’s dictionary:  A beta is an unfinished project (usually software) that will eventually make its way into production.  By definition a beta test is a trial of machinery, software, or other products in the final stages of its development, carried out by a party unconnected with its development (in the video game industry it’s usually different).

That’s the definition in the dictionary.

To gamers though, it means it’s a chance to get our grubby little hands on the new kick-ass game that will consume our lives in less than a few months:  the new game in town that is set to blow our socks off later.

Video game betas are a fucking awesome thing.  It’s like being able to watch a movie you’re pumped up about or read the next book in the series before everyone else does (minus a few scenes).  It’s a cool experience that we as gamers get to take a part of, because I can’t think of too many other industries that use the beta test with the open public.  Does the car industry let you try out the all-new 2012 car prototype?  Hell to the fuck no.

A few years ago, not many people were chosen to beta test games.  It was a hush-hush affair.  Usually only press and people “in the know” got access to them.  Eventually, things changed.  Now  most gaming companies these days are beta testing out the ass.

If you go through and open up any one of your first person shooter games that released this year it gets you access to a future beta of something else – probably another shooter along the same lines.  For Killzone 3 it was the SOCOM: 4 closed beta access.  For buying Bulletstorm you got into the Gears of War 3 beta. There is all sorts of this type of shit going on now, and frankly I want it to stop.  Not everyone needs to have a beta and not everyone needs to get into a fucking beta.

So by definition, beta access is the first look and testing for a game (both closed and open betas).   We as game reviewers, writers, bloggers or even journalists are the closest thing the gaming industry has right now to beta testers:  we get our hands on all sorts of games and are able to play them before anybody else does, and then we write up or comments, suggestions, and impressions on them. I have a lucky hobby that allows me to do this.  If you’re one of the lucky few who actually get into a closed beta, it’s a great experience (or at least it used to be).

There are just so many video gaming blogs out there now that they are all you need to send invites to for a closed beta.  Just have the press in the game to get massive amounts of impressions, write-ups, and coverage of your game.  It's a win - win in my book.

So why do game developers taint this fuzzy good-time feeling with loads and loads of mandatory updates; 5, 10, even 15 times in a given week for launch?  Now I understand that some things need to be fleshed out as the game come across your screen and they need a few client updates, but 1.6GB’s of updates for an online shooter? Jesus Christ!  Shoot me now (in real life not in the beta multiplayer match)!  That is ludicrous! With that much shit to download, by the time I start the the update I’ll be sitting there watching a status screen more than I’m actually in the match shooting guys online.  This is fucking crazy.

As an example:  I got in early access to an (un-named beta), but never got around to downloading the client.  This past weekend I finally got around to downloading the beta client from the PSN store and proceeded even after that to download a 37MB update for the application client, and yet another 1.6GB’s of mandatory game updates.  FUUUUUUCK!

I sat watching a loading screen as a military soldier stared at me over an amber field of wavy grass, his blutooth headset basking in the incredible orange sunlight on the plain.  Who could he be calling with an AR-16 Bushmaster assault rifle on his chest?  Could it be his wife calling to tell him not to forget milk on his way home from playing with the boys?  Who on earth do you call when you are stepping in muddy earth and carrying an assault rifle?  Maybe your gay hipster friends with the glasses who you want to meet up with after you get through the field to go get a good cup of black coffee?  Your grandma to tell her you’re okay?  Oh lord, I’ll stop now.  But I did want to point out this is the type of shit that goes through my head as I sat for an hour watching a fucking progress bar - not killing imaginary people online.

An hour later the massive download finished and I was finally able to get into the beta and play a few team deathmatch rounds.  But what got me thinking about this article was the younger male demographic who might not have access to their download/upload speed for their internet connection.
I myself have a 10MB downstream and 2MB upstream for my internet usage.  It’s not the fastest on the market – FIOS speeds are capable of approaching 40MB or 50MB down – but it’s a comparable to a middle-of-the-road type speed.  What if I only had 6MB down 1MB up?  For my measly hour at a higher download speed, we’re talking 6 or 7 hours to download that shit with a slower connection.  Or what about further back in my internet days when I was scraping by on my online multiplayer with 2MB down and 1MB up?  The point is:  not everyone has control of their internet speeds.

Then I tried to think about how long it would take someone on a college campus with monitored internet or someone who lives on their own and doesn't pay much for internet, or someone who still lives at home with their parents that don’t think the internet is important to download 1.6GB+ of updates in one fell swoop.  Needless to say, I wouldn’t want to be any of those people.  And when I got to thinking about it, I figured most of these multi-player shooter beta audience members would be in that situation - and that’s not good for the beta.

So the problem with the new idea of a beta - and most all betas - is that you have too many updates to download.  This mostly falls on the developers lap.  Why would they release something that needed so much patching on the user’s end?  Couldn’t these patches have been implemented on the server side to ease the burden of the download to each console?  Can’t you just re-release the client with the updates?

Not all betas are like this - with loads of updates - but I see it as a growing trend now-a-days when it comes to gamers getting in on the action before anyone else does.  I guess it's the price we pay for early access.

I just think that there are a slew of things that could have been done beforehand in preparation to avoid all of these massive downloads for gamers like you and I.  If the game developer is trying to gain knowledge on who downloads what as far as their game is concerned, wouldn’t this skew the numbers that they gather?  If only gamers with super fast internet speeds are the ones getting into the beta and sitting through the download process, what happens when the game goes live for everyone with slower connections?  The developers in the beta will see that all of the gamers can handle the tweaks and graphical improvements they put in, but this will bog someone down on a low end internet connection, affecting their game because they can’t handle it.

Does this even matter to most people?  Our country’s internet bandwidth speeds are still on the low side comparative to other nations in the world.  But would you proceed with the download if a beta still took 4+ hours to get in and play?  How long is your waiting limit?  Four hours? Seven?  I just think that with all of these downloads, gamers with slow connections are shying away from betas that need all of these updates, and these gamers are exactly who we need to be playing it and giving great, honest feedback - only they can’t.

Think of all of the gaming you can get done in 4 hours:  the levels you can beat, bosses you can defeat, the power-ups and save points you can get to in a game.  Hell, some games can even be beaten in 4 hours (XBLA or PSN titles).  Instead, you’re sitting on your hands watching a loading screen wondering if that soldier will ever finish his phone call to his gram-gram or pep-pep as he makes his way across the grassy field.

This shit needs to stop.  Not every fucking game on the shelf needs to have a beta.  I understand that you need to test some shit out in a real world datacenter network setting for your game to go live, but please, keep this to a minimum.  Let’s go back to having those “higher than thou, I’m better than you” experiences again as only a select few get into betas to test a video game.  I don't even care if I'm one of them.  If I'm excited about a game I'm going to buy it regardless of my impressions of a closed beta.  These very exclusive gaming experiences seem to be all but lost now-a-days, where everyone gets a trophy and everyone gets a beta key.

I personally would prefer it that way, where you are lucky again to get into a beta.  Do as much testing as you can to implement the changes on the server side before the beta goes live.  That’s why game developers get paid all of these big bucks, millions of dollars, and royalty checks to do what they do:  to make quality games and entertainment that works well online so everyone can enjoy them.  Let’s not continue to raise the internet download bar and leave the core demographic behind in the dust… the field…..under the feet of that unnamed soldier.