Video Game Betas: The Definitive Double-Edged Sword

By | 8 months ago 

With beta tests becoming more and more popular with this generation of games, one writer examines how this can not only help a game in the long run, but could potentially hurt it as well.

I can’t help but imagine that beta tests make studios somewhat uncomfortable in the sense that they’re putting out an incomplete version of their game that they’ve been spending years of their life on to essentially be judged by the public. No matter how many labels, messages, or warnings that are added indicating that the game is not the final product, some players (including myself, if I’m being honest), sometimes inadvertently end up passing judgement and making their final call on a game based on a beta build.

Considering that for many it’s the first time they’re going hands-on with the game, it’s certainly hard to not form any final thoughts on the product – while also keeping in mind that things may change once it does release. With betas becoming more and more commonplace this generation, it’s interesting to see some of the reactions to games and how they are able to really alter the mentality of some players in the process.

The Division Group

Take The Division for example, a game that has been in development for a number of years at this point. Earlier this month, the game wrapped up a massively successful closed beta test which even resulted in a massive player demand that ultimately overwhelmed Ubisoft. Based on social media chatter and player feedback, the experience proved to be a positive one and helped to change many players’ minds about the title, especially those on the fence about whether or not it to actually pick up a copy. Thanks to a combination of story based missions and the very popular PvP enabled Dark Zone area to explore, players seemingly found a lot to enjoy during this testing phase.

Unfortunately, betas can also have the opposite effect. Just recently, Homefront: The Revolution held its first closed beta test, showing off the newly announced Resistance co-op mode. Essentially, this is a mode for four players to work together to complete a number of tasks against the occupying forces of the KPA. Each player first creates their own resistance fighter using unlocked weapons, gear, skills, and other cosmetic items, then then sets out to complete those multi-tiered objectives.

While the mode sounds interesting on paper, the experience had a number of issues, including poor enemy A.I., clunky controls, and underwhelming gunplay. I wasn’t overly impressed with how the game handled, especially with the antiquated idea that in order to run, you had to press and hold down the left stick. Oddly enough, doing that didn’t always work as it would typically take multiple stick clicks in order to even get my character to respond. The visuals were not as impressive as I had hoped they’d be either, but I don’t put much stock into that as it is a beta and definitely an older build of the game. The Division alpha showed me that graphics can be improved between different builds as the beta version of the game looked substantially better. Still, in an industry saturated with shooters, being adequate isn’t enough, which puts Homefront: The Revolution at risk based on player response.

Homefront Revolution Screen - Motorcycle

The community response to the beta has been fairly negative, with users on the Homefront Subreddit pointing out issues like lackluster graphics, screen tearing, clunky controls, and underwhelming sound design. While the developer has responded saying this was an older build that was created before Christmas and that the beta was more of a technical test than an outright gameplay demo, the damage may have already been done. Many games seemingly only get one chance to impress the public, so the fact that the game’s first impressions are overly negative is far from a good omen. I do hope the studio is correct in saying that the current game is vastly improved, with many of these beta issues no longer being relevant.

While there’s plenty that players still don’t know about the title, including how the single player campaign will play, the beta may have done some harm in the long run. I was someone that really enjoyed the first Homefront, even though that game had a number of issues. In the end, it was a game that I felt was simple fun, and it’s something that I hope this new entry can have as well. Sadly, the game has taken a hit on my most anticipated list thanks to the less than thrilling beta, especially during an upcoming season that is known for being stocked with new and exciting releases. Still, Homefront: The Revolution does have a couple months before release so it’s entirely possible that many of these issues can be resolved.

While betas are an increasingly important tool to help developers isolate and fix potential issues prior to launch, they can also ultimately swing public perception in certain directions. I try to keep the fact that betas are not the end all be all of the experience, but when you finally go hands-on with a game you’re interested in, it’s certainly hard to not get overly excited and forget that the game is still a work in progress. I believe betas are an important tool for games going forward, especially those that rely heavily on online components, but in the same respect, studios should either put their best foot forward, wait to launch a beta until closer to release, or clearly indicate at what has changed in order to help manage fan expectations. On the other hand, perhaps we as fans would do better to temper our expectations surrounding betas as well.