“I’m going to get on my soap box,” says Dan Ayoub, studio head of strategy games at 343 Industries. “I think the term ‘beta’, it’s just lost. We should just give up; we’ve lost the word.” Ayoub is definitely onto something.
At risk of showing my age, I remember a time when it was safe to expect a developer to release a demo for its latest game, either close to release or shortly after. Before the reign of pre-orders to secure a digital copy of a non-physical (and thus limitless) item, this was part of how developers would entice gamers to fork over hard-earned cash. Basically, by giving the gaming community a taste of what they’d be paying for, consumers could make informed purchasing decisions.
Fast-forward to today, and demos are all but extinct, at least as far as big-budget AAA games are concerned. The demo has been usurped by the so-called “beta”. But it’s not really a beta. The internal developer definition of terms like ‘alpha’ and ‘beta’ differ to how they’re used externally. Internally, a game in alpha state has yet to have all its final features locked down. A game in beta state has its final features fixed and the main concern is squashing bugs in the lead-up to release.
Externally, publishers like Activision (though Activision is certainly not alone) do things like slap ‘alpha test’ on pre-release Destiny, and then release a ‘beta’ one month later. I played the Destiny alpha test, the beta, and the year-one version of the game. Suffice it to say, short of the elimination of a laughable Peter Dinklage line about Space Wizards from the moon, not a whole lot noticeably changed in terms of content between supposed alpha and beta, let alone the final release of Destiny.
EA did a similar thing with Battlefield Hardline, releasing an E3 “beta” before the game was ultimately delayed. During that delay, developer Visceral Games reworked content before releasing a second beta prior to release. EA would have been better off calling that initial Hardline beta an alpha, because that’s what it ultimately was, given that Visceral overhauled content before dropping the second actual beta.
The challenge these days, though, is that ‘beta’ and ‘alpha’ have become synonymous with ‘demo’ and tend to be attached to pre-order incentives, even though the supposed alphas and betas are consistently honed vertical slices of the experience. In other words, they’re actually demos.
It’s sad because publishers have it backwards. The reality is any player that installs and plays an “alpha” or “beta” of an upcoming game is helping the developer make a better game. Developers collect priceless telemetry data from a real snapshot of their player base who was keen enough to want to play a game in advance that they pre-ordered it. Hell, even downloading an “alpha” or “beta” helps publishers push the popularity angle for a yet-to-be-released game, with post-alpha/beta press releases touting the download numbers as a sign of interest in an upcoming game, usually accompanied by some sort of infographic.
So why is Dan Ayoub firing shots across the bow of publishers who misuse these terms?
Ayoub first flamed the fires of this discussion by implicitly calling out those who use these types of “alphas” and “betas” in his post-E3 2016 blog post about Halo Wars 2. He did what publishers should have done before performing marketing alchemy that turned alpha and beta into cash incentives, and informed those eager to try Halo Wars 2 about a playable pre-release version of the game, released well in advance of the game’s February 21 launch date.
“This represents a beta in its truest sense, a snapshot of our game in-progress,” says Ayoub in the blog post. “This isn’t a ‘marketing beta’ right before launch; we are eight months away from release, and so there will be bugs and kinks that you’ll experience in our multiplayer beta. Getting feedback and telemetry in a public beta setting will be crucial to our gameplay tuning for launch, so we wanted to give everyone access to the game as soon as we could.”
In a later blog post, he echoed the sentiment. “I first wanted to take a moment to thank everyone who participated in the Halo Wars 2 Multiplayer Beta this past June,” says Ayoub. “As a reminder, this was more a technical preview of where we are in development, or as I like to refer to it, a true [Ayoub’s emphasis] development beta. This not only enabled us to test our backend and tuning, but also to put the game in the hands of players early enough that we could respond to feedback.”
I played that Halo Wars 2 beta, and it was rough as guts. But that is and should be the point of an alpha or beta release.
“I would have called the event we did in June an alpha, if I could have,” admits Ayoub during our recent interview. “But it’s just more of a developer test for us. We’re just like, ‘Hey, this is literally where we are today,’ and I got a lot of questions around, ‘Well, why did you do it if it wasn’t a true beta?’ The simple response to that was, ‘This actually is a true beta.’ It’s not what beta has turned into today.
“I’d rather put it into the hands of people now, warts and all, when the team has time to react to it. If you read that blog, we reacted to an enormous amount of feedback. That was priceless for us, and there were some speed bumps and some pain, but that thing could not have been more valuable for us, and we’re grateful that people beat up on it the way they did because we learnt a tremendous amount.”
David Nicholson, executive producer at Creative Assembly (working on Halo Wars 2 in conjunction with 343 Industries), adds to Ayoub’s sentiment. “Having an early development beta is fantastic, and I think 343 has the ability to say, ‘It’s really important to us.’ Other people say, ‘It’s really important to us, but we’ve got to make it really polished and get it out there much later.’ That’s not a beta; that’s a demo. It’s really important to us, so let’s get it out as a development beta so we can listen and react and do something about it to improve it.”
By releasing the Halo Wars 2 beta well in advance of release, Creative Assembly and 343 Industries have created an all-important dialogue with its intended player base…
By releasing the Halo Wars 2 beta well in advance of release, Creative Assembly and 343 Industries have created an all-important dialogue with its intended player base, acknowledging the role that those beta participants played in helping to shape development for the game, both in terms of telemetry data and player feedback. It also helps that the Halo Wars 2 beta was free. Other publishers could learn from this approach, treating their intended player base with the kind of respect and appreciation that acknowledges the important role alpha/beta players have in helping to shape the release version of a game.
I can relate to a certain part of the publisher perspective in terms of their unwillingness to release rough alpha or beta versions of a game. It requires a level of knowledge and trust from the player base that features can change and bugs will, ideally, be ironed out prior to release. Ayoub’s solution was to educate the player base via blog posts. There’s a chance that players may not have read that, played the Halo Wars 2 beta in its honest but janky state, and determined that they wouldn’t purchase the final version.
That’s obviously the risk. But the pros far outweigh the cons.
By making betas free, there’s a respect for the player base and a willingness to have people try the intention of what’s being developed. There’s also the implicit education that players should expect alphas and betas to be unpolished, with the proviso that there’s adequate time between alpha/beta and release for changes and bug fixes to be reflected in the release product. You need look no further than Steam’s booming Early Access community to see that transparency about the state of the game goes a long way with the player base.
By not selling beta access as a pre-purchase incentive, players can choose to pre-order or buy a game when it’s available based on an informed position. This is a better option than feeling like players must pay to play what amounts to a glorified demo released so close to launch that we’re basically playing a slice of the final version of the game.