Just a couple of years ago, back when World of Warcraft and EverQuest were the only MMOs anyone had ever heard of, beta testing was a sort of contact sport for MMO enthusiasts. Games were being developed, shown off, and either flopping or dropping at a good pace – not the breakneck pace of today, but a good pace. The people who tested those games before they opened to the public were called beta testers.
They were a group of gamers who were serious about gaming and loved trying new products and reporting problems they found with it. The pride came from knowing you were a big part of a game’s development. After all, a new MMO could be built better than a German tank and still dive with the big Fail Whale when you put more than a couple of hundred players into it at the same time.
In those days, “beta” meant “testing” and it meant that only a few were given access. Terms like “closed beta” and other qualifiers were not used. They were pointless. A beta was, by definition, closed.
Now? Not so much.
Today, when we who cover the game world talk about beta, we have to qualify whether it’s a “closed” or “open” beta. In today’s terms, “open beta” just means “pre-marketing phase.” Nobody really tests anything in open beta anymore, game developers and publishers just use this phase as a way to generate buzz on blogs and forums as “beta testers” talk about the game to their friends.
Look at Star Wars: The Old Republic for example. The game went into development, then closed beta (where real testing seemed to have happened), then open beta (where the marketing machine began really ramping up), then public release. During open beta, a few blogs noted issues they’d found with possible exploits in certain map areas of SWTOR. Next thing you know, the game is open to the public, those exploits are still there, and people start taking advantage of them to get ahead in the game. So SWTOR clamps down, shuts down accounts, and creates a lot of negative PR for itself. Why?
Because those exploits were not reported by beta “testers” to the SWTOR development staff (that I know of) and so were never addressed. Instead, they were posted to blogs and forums where others found out about them and used them to advantage.
Welcome to the new world of MMOs. Beta doesn’t mean what it used to.
On the other hand, the ultra-competitive game market now means that as players, we have a lot of games to choose from. Our time to play is limited to a maximum of 24 hours a day, so we can’t play 50 games actively and be expected to get anywhere (or really enjoy) any of those games. So we pick and choose.
One good aspect of this new “open beta, pre-release” thing is that it means that as players, we can test out (nearly always for free) new games before they’re public and see if we like them. If not, we move on. If so, we get a head start since most developers do not wipe servers when going to public launch after open beta.
So while beta isn’t what it used to be, the change to this new way of thinking isn’t all bad. Still, I miss the old days of beta testers as a sort of gamer elite. It used to be cool to say “Ya, I was in the beta on that game.” Now it just means you got the press release and joined up.