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The wonders and perils of betas


Here at WoW Insider, like in many other places, we've got betas on the brain. Mists of Pandaria had WoW's largest beta, with a huge audience thanks to the Annual Pass sign-up system. In case you don't recall, the Annual Pass gave players a copy of Diablo III, as well as guaranteed access to the Mists of Pandaria beta, in return for committing to play WoW for another year. As a result, the beta access was huge. Not to mention problematic, as it took Blizzard a really long time to roll out beta access to all the players who'd signed up for the Annual Pass. It was a bit of a nightmare for them, one would imagine, as players felt they had the right to access Mists beta from day one, and just got more and more angry as wave after wave of invitations went out, without theirs.

So, before players even got into the beta, there were problems. Betas, originally, were for testing and testing alone. Testing by a slightly larger group than Alphas. Now, beta access seems to have evolved into a different beast altogether. It's early access, it's getting to play a game before your friends, it's status as someone in the know. Betas have become a way for game designers to get their games promoted via streams and YouTube, and the exclusivity of access creates a culture of have and have-not. Everyone wants to be in the beta, with little regard for how it affects their enjoyment of the game.

And I won't deny that it's great to see things first. The excitement of getting into a new game, a new world, a new continent or zone, is brilliant. To know you're seeing things before others just adds to the fun of it. Especially in a closed beta, which isn't available to everyone yet. But despite that fun, early access definitely has its downsides.

I don't wish to crow about having relatively early access to Mists beta, it was more by luck than any other means. But by the time the expansion actually released, I had already played through much of the content. I was already tired of the leveling dungeons, I had seen the world, even from the sky from day one with the early flying bug.

The magic of discovery was gone. By the time Mists eventually released, I'd been playing it for over five months. My fellow beta players and I are fast approaching 2 years in Pandaria, and we'll get there long before Warlords drops. And that's the problem with beta access. For me at least, when I get a new game or expansion, I will play it until my eyes fall out, and then start to lose interest. I think many others are the same, and the problem with having such a huge beta as Mists had is that so many of the playerbase were in that boat.

Friends of mine who I played with in the Cataclysm beta, and who didn't write about WoW for a living during the Mists one, gracefully bowed out. They passed on the opportunity to experience that newness and exclusivity because they remembered how they were already tired of Cataclysm before it even launched. Although I can anticipate the comments saying players who are invited to beta and don't play it are ungrateful, it's not all good. A great friend of mine has a good attitude, she uses templates to try new transmogs. She doesn't touch the content, but checks where vendors and trainers are and takes notes so she can help people, then signs out.

Smaller beta better?

The question is, should people like my friend really be in beta? Beta, as I said, is for testing. It's for players who want to play, not seek out transmogs. And it's a problem, a lack of testing is why I'm always asking people to go do beta PvP when it's available. The devs are too. So here, let's have a slightly controversial opinion. Warlords beta should be smaller. I can already anticipate the comments that that's selfish, that it shouldn't just be fansites that get beta, and I agree. It should be people who will play and test and investigate and seek out interesting things and break them. Maybe there should be a proviso that if you get a key and don't log in, it's passed on. If you just want to see what it looks like, you can do that via fansites, streams, YouTube and the like.

Yes, that goes away from the ideas of exclusivity and the evolving notion of beta being just an early access. But like I said, that's not what beta should mean. Hearthstone's in open beta now, like FireFall, and how is this different from a release? Yes there are more bugs and issues, and you can excuse the games' various faults more easily, but they're open to everyone. What's the difference between open beta and release, apart from something for developers to lean on when it breaks? What does beta even mean, and which way should Warlords beta go, when it eventually appears?

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