Open betas? There’s a method to the madness.
Editorial by Scott Allred

If you are any kind of online gamer than I am sure you’ve heard the term “beta” in respects to video games, if not you are about to. There are many websites that have a beta announcement section, but why? Is the beta testing phase of a game so important that websites should allot precious space to them? The short answer is yes, they should. But this writer can never take the short answer and run with it so, here is the real deal with “betas”.

The main reason for a beta is the “closed beta”; this is a testing time that developers use to get outside machines and users to help iron out all the bugs that might only show up on certain PC configurations. This testing phase of the game insures that at least some of the bugs not discovered in studio tests are brought to life by the participants. In essence a closed beta is an unfinished game that is released to a handful of “qualified” players so they can pick apart the game and make it more entertaining and less stressful for the next phase of the game.

After all work is completed in the closed beta, there is this anomaly called the “open beta”. The open beta is time allotted to the gaming community to “test” the finished product (or nearly finished in some cases).You see, you aren’t really there to test the game because the closed beta did 90% of the testing and the other 10% will be done inside the studio, so where does the “test” in open beta test come from? It comes from the want or need to get the game recognized by gamers who have influence over other gamers. The reason I say it like that, is at least 60% of beta testers (in any phase) are more along the lines of hardcore gamers who are in guilds or clans. These players have influence and can reach out to many other players making a great form of advertising.

Open betas are also a way to put a heavy stress on the server, but mostly just to get into the minds and pockets of future customers. Anyone with experience in networking can tell you how much load a server can hold before it becomes unstable. Most Operating Systems allow you to set a bandwidth limit, so you never exceed your recommended bandwidth allotment. What I am saying is “stressing the server” is fancy talk for “the more the merrier”.

Why would you want to be in an open beta? Well that’s simple silly, it’s absolutely free and in most cases the game is 99% complete. There is almost nothing that separates an open beta from a gold release except packaging and price tag. Though, I have found rare instances of games no where near complete in open beta phase, this is not wise and it usually shows by lack of player interest.

Lately though, I’ve noticed an insurgence of open betas and open beta lengths. Basically, you sign on to play the game, and the company that created the game, or that is publishing the game, gives you an account. A time length is set (which is now ever expanding) for you to “test” the game. Then the developers/publishers hope you will enjoy it, get into it, and buy it once it goes gold. Is this the best idea in the world...? I do and don’t think so.

If a game is very anticipated and doesn’t deliver, than the game will be ripped apart before it is even released. Forums will explode with rants of “don’t waste your money” or “what a waste of time” this will create an instant shadow of doubt over a game that could have been a blockbuster, if it had been released without an open beta.

In my opinion, open betas aren’t such a good idea because once people play it for a certain amount of time, they lose interest with it. The company suffers an instant loss of 30-50 bucks and a 10-15 dollar monthly fee, this may not seem like much but multiply that by ten thousand and you have a slightly larger problem. If you intend on bringing more players to the game on release, than you need a majority of players to either like it or feel indifferent. I’d rather have people say “It’s not my kind of game”, leaving room for others to make up their own minds, than have them say “this game was trash”, and walk away without a second thought. Open betas also give reviewers, like myself, more time to come up with things that are wrong with the game (very bad thing for “Johnny new company” unless the game is flawless).

Now sometimes open betas are just what the doctor ordered, like for newer companies that don’t have the funds to advertise. The MMO world is a scary one for new companies, or companies without that good reputation from previous releases. It is a world filled with games that Sony Online Entertainment® seems to effortlessly throw out into the fray. Whenever new studios need to find a good way to break into an industry defended as staunchly as the MMO type, there is nothing better than a “free game” to lure in the crowds.

Okay, so it’s not really free, but more of an evaluation period, still it’s a fast and relatively easy way to advertise new games. Young companies depend on word of mouth for their survival. 15 people tell each 5 friends, who tell 5 friends, and so on, until you now have a dedicated fanbase for a title that was never heard of before open beta testing began.

In the end, the more hype you can generate, the more attention you will get, and the better you will do. You don’t need a degree in marketing to know that word of mouth will have more impact on sales than flashy advertisements or catchy jingles. All that, comes from open betas, so with the good and the bad, it’s the customer that will have the last word if companies take the daring approach and give away $50 worth of software for “free”. It’s a gamble, but if the gamble pays off than the future will be as bright as the Californian coastline.