Years back, demos were an essential part of the magazine buying experience. Of course we wanted to know whether the latest games were actually good and enjoyed hearing about upcoming concepts, but those jam-packed coverdisks helped us decide for ourselves. It also introduced us to games we wouldn’t have even considered giving a second glance.
So with the digital revolution you’d be forgiven for expecting marketplaces to be saturated with trials. For a time they were, but for some reason big studios didn’t support or embrace the notion. For every LEGO game with a demo, you’d be left wanting one for a Grand Theft Auto or Assassin’s Creed.
Instead, the idea of public betas gained traction. Games like Gears of War and Call of Duty got in on the ground floor with this, offering players a few maps and modes to see how the servers held up to stress-tests, enabling the developers to iron out any glitches that crop up unexpectedly through general day-to-day play.
Fast-forward to 2016. Only four months into the year and we’ve seen a huge beta for almost every major release coming this year. It’s been pretty crazy.
Players have been spoilt for choice with the likes of Mirror’s Edge Catalyst, Overwatch, Uncharted 4, Battleborn, Gears of War 4, Streetfighter V, Doom 4, Elder Scrolls Legends, Garden Warfare 2, The Division, Hitman, and Homefront: The Revolution.
It’s fascinating that established franchises with strong communities are resorting to betas in order to spread the word about their game. In most cases, you almost have to wonder if it’s more of a marketing ploy than a legitimate way to help with the development of a game, giving eager gamers a chance to sample something ahead of time.
It’s quite interesting to note that only 3 of these games are new intellectual properties. In Overwatch’s case, it is the sum-total of a 7 year development cycle for a previously cancelled project, so you can understand why a public beta would be useful.
But just how much does a public beta benefit the likes of Uncharted 4 or Gears of War 4 – largely similar multiplayer experiences – at this point? For that matter, does it really benefit the games at all?
Let’s look back at betas from previous years and see how they have impacted the full release.
Starcraft II: Legacy of the Void
The final expansion for Starcraft II underwent some serious stress-testing. At this point, the game had already received two expansions, introducing players to two different ways to play. This third expansion needed focused balance to compensate, ensuring that every side was on a level-pegging. The stress-testing could be seen as essential in this instance, and is sure to have made the final release much more effective.
Legacy of the Void released to almost unanimous critical acclaim, and this was matched with a very positive response from the community.
In this case, the beta was a success and likely benefitted the finished product considerably.
The beta again focused on the multiplayer component of the game, which was largely met with negative feedback. True, this may have had more to do with the games’ very unlikeable lead, but this trend seemed to carry into launch. The multiplayer is often cited as the weakest part of the game, and so it would seem that – in this case – the beta could not change general perceptions.
Star Wars: Battlefront
EA’s most successful beta ever may also be one of the most successful betas in the modern era. A whopping 9.5 million players jumped into the game and raved about the quality. What’s more, the beta’s success translated into money as the game topped 12 million sales in January, more units sold than players who actually participated in the beta.
Yes, the game has been extremely divisive since launch, and the fact that the most anticipated Star Wars movie since Return of the Jedi released around the same time definitely helped build hype. Still, there is no denying the success DICE have enjoyed with this one.
Gears of War 3
It’s hard to think of a more polished beta than Gears of War 3. This is because the beta released during the game’s original launch window. Jim Brown, who headed up Gears 3’s MP component, is adamant that the release wasn’t a marketing ploy, it genuinely made Gears 3 a better game.
Over a million people played the game during its lengthy month-long stress-testing, and in that time Epic gained extremely valuable feedback which helped them learn considerable lessons. By its conclusion, weapon-balance had been finely tweaked, the reward system experienced significant changes, and mapout layouts were adapted.
As a result, Gears 3 is widely considered to have the best multiplayer component in the series and Epic attest much of its success to the beta. In their eyes, Gears 3 wouldn’t have had the same quality without it.
Betas definitely work, and in many cases it seems like a beta has actually helped the game. You only need to look at some of the above success stories.
But are they essential? No. Some of the best games of all time didn’t have a beta. Look at The Last of Us, Grand Theft Auto 5 and Red Dead Redemption. Even Dying Light. These games have all launched without that so-called crucial feedback, even if they could have benefited from it in some way.
The main question is, going forward, will any big game with multiplayer launch without a beta? Based on the trend we’ve seen from 2016 so far, I’d say it’s doubtful. It’s hard to imagine the next Battlefield not having a Beta of some sort, and the same goes for Halo Wars 2 and Watchdogs 2.
Whether a game needs it or not anymore seems immaterial, it’s going to get one anyway and you’re probably going to play it.