Is Beta Testing resulting in a Mistreatment of Customers?

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Let’s say you’re designing a car. You’ve spent months looking at things like air flow resistance and drag co-efficient, metal density and leather quality, in order for your car to become exactly what you want. You’ve ignored your helpful flatmate’s suggestion of “give it an invisibility shield like the Aston Martin in Die Another Day,”and you’re now ready for the next step. But before you pitch the idea to a company, there’s something that you need to do- test it. Now, imagine you’re a video game designer…

It may sound like a stretch, but often the various disciplines of design follow very similar routes, differing only by the rules of the organisation monitoring them. The problem for video games is, their regulators are… well, lax.

Beta Testing used to be a temporary job. A company would pay you to play the game, and see how quickly and where you could break it, as well as what reactions and enjoyment you got from the experience. This allowed developers to fix bugs and react to suggestions. Now, though, developers seem to believe that Betas provide a different function.

It started with Apple. In 2000 Apple releaseda boxed version of the Mac OS X Public Beta operating system to the general public, as a way of testing its new Operating System. This was widely seen as a different, but not particularly interesting move. Anyone who knew a lot about Macs could test the software, whereas anyone who didn’t or owned a PC couldn’t. Microsoft did a similar, though not as extensive, trial of Windows Vista (which, was a failure),but as more companies saw the public’s reactions to open betas, their greed grew.

Take DOTA 2- that’s Dawn of the Ancients 2. It’s an action-strategy game that falls under the new loose category of a ‘MOBA’(Multiplayer Online Battle Arena). The game has been extremely popular for about 3 years: which is odd, considering the game came out last year. You see, the game ran an open beta for 2 years before finally being released onto the market.

“Great.” Some of you are thinking. “2 years of testing to find all the problems? That game must run perfectly!” And for the most part, it does. But it’s the way it was implemented, and what it has inspired, that causes the most concern. For its entire beta, DOTA 2 had the option to pay money in order to buy characters and skins. In the testing phase of the game, during a process when companies should be allowing people to find all the bugs in your system and essentially mass break your game, Valve were making people SPEND MONEY to improve their experience.

And this pandemic has erupted. Now, a Beta isn’t complete without some sort of monetary transaction system. Hearthstone, Loadout, Titanfall – no game seems free from this blight. This has led to another concept that has caused consternation among critics and gamers- Early Access, a program run by Steam that ‘allows’ people to access early, undertested versions of certain games for less than the full cost. Naturally, people buy into their favourite new releases, hoping to get a leg up on the spoilers and the loot – and immediately suffer an array of bugs, bad design choices and ham fisted shops that attempt to get even more money out of you for an unfinished product. There are many problems to be had with Steam that are ignored either due to the disturbing monopoly Valve has on the PC market, or because of the rabid army of fans the company commands, and it worries me that a system like this is accepted.

But the lack of proper Beta Testing is now having a real effect on games. The (relatively) recent launches of games like Diablo 3, Battlefield 4, Rome: Total War 2 and Batman Arkham Origins were rife with bugs that could easily be detected by beta testing. And with the recent announcements that Battlefield 4 and Batman Arkham Origins will not be seeing game breaking bugs fixed any time soon, you do wonder how far companies have to go before people will finally realise how much they’re being mugged.

Alex Davies

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