Do betas work?

Last weekend the Destiny beta was opened to everyone after having been available to those who had preordered the game. The current state of betas is interesting, as for a long time there were exclusively an internal stage of game development. Something which the developers would use to try and identify any remaining bugs and determine where additional polish can be added.

Halo 3 changed all of this. It was not the first public software beta, nor was it the first videogame beta either, but it was the first to generate a substantial amount of hype. Microsoft knew that its existence would be so popular that they included it with Crackdown in an attempt to help it sell even more copies, even though the game was good enough to warrant a purchase on its own.

The Halo 3 beta contained three maps and showed off the new items that were being added to the series. In a sense the beta created a false perception in the minds of many what a beta is. This was because the beta was perfectly polished. It felt more like a demo than something which was put out to help test the game. Of course the reason for the beta was to test out the behind the scene workings of the game, specifically the server aspects. The aim was to try and put the servers under as much stress early on so that they could get a better idea of what would be needed for launch day, which undoubtedly put the servers under the most pressure they would face.

The beta wasn’t just for the benefit of Halo developer Bungie, as it was also an important test for the games publisher (and system owner) Microsoft. Halo 2 was a massive success and helped to highlight the benefits of Microsoft’s online service Xbox Live (XBL). Unlike Halo 2 which had a gradual uptake in users joining XBL, the Xbox 360 already had a running start with owners connecting to the service. Microsoft already had a rough of idea of how many people would be logging into the service on the launch of Halo 3 and knew that this was only going to increase with many people buying a console and XBL because of the game.

Therefore Microsoft had to be ready not just for Halo 3 to work correctly on launch, but the entire XBL service as well. As it was expected that XBL would be put under the most stress so far during its lifetime. This was a correct assumption as at the time the Halo 3 launch was the biggest videogame launch of all time. Despite this the launch went off without a hitch, XBL didn’t crash and everyone was able to log in and play Halo 3 online.

Due to the success of the beta, other companies began to utilise the idea, as in the run up to the release of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare Activision and Infinity Ward released a beta for the game. Unlike the beta for Halo 3 this was a true public beta with anyone able to join, but it also served the same purpose of finding glitches as well as helping to determine the optimum weapon balance. For a game like Call of Duty weapon balance is an important aspect of competitive play, yet the whole experience seemed to be more an exercise to generate more excitement and to reassure people about the dramatic shift in setting from the previous games in the series. Although it is odd to criticise this beta for that reason, when from my experience I found it had more disconnects and glitches than the Halo 3 beta, proving that it was still a proper beta. I also need to point out that the final game at the time had one of the best multiplayer experiences, so whilst the series no longer puts out public beta’s, it paid off in this instance to do so.

This year Bungie once again felt the need to allow people to help them test their game, but the difference this time is that it is a brand new series and it is always online, making this type of testing even more important. Furthermore now that Bungie is no longer a part of Microsoft and is now working with (but not owned by) Activision, they have been able to go multiplatform. This in part can explain the focus on testing with PlayStation systems (and quite likely behind the scenes business deals), with all PS4 users getting an exclusive alpha. This proved useful for Bungie as it highlighted aspects such as Peter Dinklage’s voice over for the ghost, which they were able to change by the time the beta was released.

Whilst the alpha was an opportunity to gage the opinions from those playing the game for the first time, the beta was all about stress testing the servers in readiness, afterall the game launches in just over one months time. With the beta mostly being available to those who had pre-ordered it also served as a form of early access to help reignite peoples excitement for the game before its release with the hope that they will spread the word. There was notable hype when the beta first launched, with my Twitter feed becoming inundated with tweets, images, and Vines from the game, and this only increased when the beta became open to everyone (although I spent more time playing then checking Twitter).

The Destiny beta was successful as it both helped Bungie in their preparation for the imminent release as well as help provide a chance for people to get a good preview of the game and help them make up their mind now whether they want to get it. Personally I have been on the fence for quite some time, but the beta has definitely helped sway me.

You can read more of mine and Joe’s thoughts about the game here.

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