So the beta for Star Wars: The Old Republic is currently taking place. And while you may be under an NDA and not allowed to say anything, I can freely say that I am not under an NDA without fear of reprisal. I can tell you that despite the fact that almost every other writer on staff seems to be in the beta -- I'm not in it.
And truth be told, I'm not sure if I would be logging in even if I were part of the beta. Not because I don't want to play the game -- no, I preordered as soon as the option was available; I've been watching the news and looking forward to release for quite some time now. I've liked what I've played, and I know I'm going to buy it. But the fact of the matter is that betas are just plain terrible, for several reasons.
Betas make a contest out of a job
Let's be pedantic for a moment: The purpose of a beta tester is to test. You aren't actually there to play the game so much as you are there to try to cheat the system, break the mechanics, and otherwise expose all of the raw nerves so that they can be fixed before release. Playing the game is a peripheral prize at best, something that happens as a result of the beta but should not be the primary goal.
Not that this has stopped companies from accepting the idea that beta testing is some sort of contest. And we're not immune to this change in the culture of betas; after all, Massively hosts pretty regular beta-key giveaways for upcoming titles. But that doesn't change the fact that companies are turning the idea of a beta test into some sort of prize or the fact that entrance is something you should want and something to be excited about.
The result is that betas are meant, largely, as the finished product of the game. How can't they be? If you log in to find your prize is a buggy mess of incomplete quests, you aren't going to feel terribly happy about "winning." And the people who do wind up in that position often hold on to that impression for a long time. But there's another side to the idea of betas as prizes.
Testers are selected through inaccurate criteria
Over the many years I've spent gaming, I've applied for a large number of different beta tests. I've almost always been asked what my computer's specifications are, what my play schedule looks like, how long I've been gaming, and so forth. What I've never been asked, not even once, is whether I want to test the game or play the game.
I've never been asked whether I like the style of game that's being put forth. I've never been asked what sort of content I enjoy or what sort of content I don't enjoy. In fact, while I've been asked a lot of technical questions, I've never been asked questions that would really establish whether or not I am the target audience for a game.
I spent a long article just a couple of weeks ago talking about how not everything has to be for every player. This is one of the primary areas where a bit of careful screening would actually be relevant. Someone who thinks the original Ultima Online was the pinnacle of MMO design is probably not going to be thrilled to pieces at the design of Star Wars: The Old Republic. Ditto players in love with offerings like A Tale In The Desert or Global Agenda. All of the above are MMOs, but they're targeting entirely different audiences.
So testers are getting into betas that are being treated like competitions, and they get in for reasons that don't actually establish their worth as testers. But it's not like the beta testers are wholly innocent either, since...
Actual testers get a sense of entitlement
It never fails. When the beta launches, everyone is told up front that what you do in the beta stays in the beta. Get to max level, and you will still have to re-level. Acquire all the achievements; they won't be there when the game goes live. But yet you still wind up with an outcry that the hard-working beta testers get no sort of compensation for all the hours they logged into the game before release.
"Playing since beta" is used almost universally to try to establish the speaker as someone who knows the game inside and out. This despite the fact that two years out from beta, most of your knowledge from beta is completely obsolete. You've been playing World of Warcraft since the testing, great, but how much bearing does that have on the present game? You can teach new players to click on things? The numerical values and strategies have been changed so frequently that only the broadest concepts have remained in place.
To be totally fair, yeah, if you're working an unpaid job, you do sort of deserve something. But the fact of the matter is that betas should be constantly in flux, and when you're told going in that you won't get any other advantages aside from having an early play, you know what to expect. Of course, these are good reasons to keep the beta fairly static, which doesn't so much solve the problems as mean they have to remain in place until the game goes live, or as happens with several free-to-play titles, even when the game goes live, despite the game's theoretically just being in "open beta" for the better part of two years.
But then, that gets on to another issue, perhaps the biggest one.
Beta testing is just dress rehearsal for burnout
I said right at the top that I'm looking forward to SWTOR. But I probably wouldn't play in the beta even if I got an invitation this morning because I'm looking forward to it.
Right now, almost every part of the game remains a mystery for me. It's something new to explore, something different and exciting. But once I start playing the game, all of that collapses from being what could be into what is. And that's not a bad thing, but it means that it would make the actual launch day a whole heck of a lot less exciting.
All MMOs are temporary, arguably. But betas are even more so, and they're essentially turning into an enormous circus of players trying to get into the game early. It's treated like a prize or a contest when what the companies should actually be aiming for is a much more sober and calm environment, an environment where testers are put into testing scenarios, encouraged to stress-test certain elements, and generally encouraged to run roughshod rather than just play an early version of the live game.
Of course, if someone wants to test my resolve with a beta key, that would be cool too.
Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!