Do open betas work better?

It’s a serious question. What do you think? Seems the custom for the last few years has been to open beta this and that, but I’m old enough to remember it didn’t always use to be like this, and open betas were very, very rare.

The question is twofold; there’s the technical angle and the promotional angle. So, on the technical side, are open betas “better” than closed ones? Do you get better results? I know you naturally get more results, but are they better? Do open betas improve or polish the product better than closed ones?

Then publicity, of course. Yes it’s nice to get many people interested in the game before it starts selling, but do they achieve anything that good marketing  (or, hell, even a short demo) can’t do?

Maybe it’s just me and I’m nostalgic like that, but it seems to me in the times of closed betas it wasn’t that we were churning out clunkers (or, rather, we didn’t churn out any more clunkers than we’re churning out now), and people heard about games, got in contact with games and played these games just fine without the need for early access to anything, really.

P.S.: Am I the only human being left that doesn’t give a damn about early open betas, lifetime subs, microtransactions, pay for zone, F2P, refer a friend deals, exclusive items, pre-ordering, collector editions and other aberrations? I can’t be.

10 thoughts on “Do open betas work better?

  1. Tesh

    Subscriptions are an aberration considering my history with games. ;) Non-consumer cost parts of that list are academically interesting, but I don’t care as a gamer.

    I’m not sold on open betas. They seem like extended PR sessions to me, and a bigger stress test. I’m not privy to numbers on how much they help on the back end, but I suspect that they aren’t significantly better in the balance, considering the negative PR potential. High risk, high potential reward, I guess.

  2. Sente

    You can always simulate a high number of players, but that will only be a simulation and not real-life behaviour.

    I think the open betas are probably good for verifying and tuning capacity, in particular for release time peaks. There were less open betas in the old days, but there were also more problems with such peaks.

    But for bug reporting I think it is pretty much in the same stage as bug reports will be handled after the release.

    There is a risk with using it for promotion/marketing, but if it works out it works well. But to be honest, I am not sure how much difference it would make here. It is sort of a free trial before they actually go out with free trials, so they can still try to sell as much boxes as possible.

    One issue is that when using the open beta as promotion, they need to capture their target audience rather than any MMO who just wants to play “for free” – which is probably a bit tricky.

  3. Jezebeau

    A truly open beta (not a limited number of keys available only through a subscription service) is a more honest stress test than developers would normally assign themselves.

    Since I’ve given up following development of new MMOs, I find open betas helpful in determining whether I’d suffer the box price for the game.

  4. Rog

    I think the large betas, open or closed, have been detrimental to the games for awhile now.

    As promotion, it’s bad press to show players an earlier, buggier, incomplete game. I’m not of the opinion that any press = good press. Starting your game out with a rep for problems before it’s even seen release, it just seems foolish.

    Yet over and over you hear it from the marketing guys “you have to have an open beta” and “it’s free promotion”.

    It’s not free for starters: It causes undo stress on the development team to start supporting their product while they’re still working on the first real build. It requires heavier infrastructure sooner, before revenue comes in. I’d estimate that open beta is actually quite expensive, it just doesn’t come out of the marketing budget. =P

    Look at the case in point: Several of the complaints with Champions Online in beta reviews, are already irrelevant. Hell, say what you will about Age of Conan, a lot of the stuff that made the AoC reviews were outright false on opening day. Meanwhile I’d say WAR shipped with beta reviewers assuming what was promised would show up in time.

    It’s inconsistent and following the unhealthy trends of giving way too much attention to what’s coming next, rather than marketing / promoting what’s here, now.

  5. Muckbeast

    Whether a company chooses to have open betas or not depends on their goals. But I will say this:

    If you are going to announce an open beta, it better damn well be an OPEN BETA.

    Champions Online and Fallen Earth are both engaging in some slimy, deceptive marketing by saying they have an open beta going right now. They don’t. They have a closed beta. To participate in the current closed beta, you must either be a pre-order customer or a PAID subscriber to Fileplanet (you gotta believe Fileplanet is giving them a kickback).

    This new trend needs to be strangled in the crib. This crap Fileplanet is trying to do, marketing their sucktastic subscription as “access to the hottest betas” is reminiscent of craptacular multiplayer from Gamespy. It sucked then and it sucks now.

  6. Brian 'Psychochild' Green

    In the past, open Betas were usually held just shortly before launch. It was a way to give the system one last stress test to see how it would hold up under the crush of a lot of people at once. I suspect someone noticed that this got the game a lot more attention, so developers started extending the “open beta” for longer and longer periods of time. More attention, and if your best gameplay is up front, then it may convince some more people to give you a go and even get their friends to play.

    Is it better? Depends on the game, I guess.

  7. Syncaine

    It’s 50/50 stress test and marketing hype.

    The stress test part is somewhat obviously good for any game, although if the open beta is done too late, perhaps the results of the stress test can’t be applied in time for launch. Still, better than nothing.

    As for the marketing, it depends on the game. If you game is just not that great, you are going to get negative buzz, which really can’t be good (not to mention lost sales from those who would have bought the game if they had not seen it in beta). If you game is good (even if its just good for the first 20 levels or whatever the open beta allows), obviously an open beta is going to be great free publicity that will lead to more sales initially.

    Finally, open beta is somewhat expected now, and if you ship an MMO before having an open beta it might raise some eyebrows. “No open beta, what are they hiding?”. Kinda like the whole “when you drop your NDA” thing.

  8. Rog

    @Syncaine: But just like you’re saying a good or bad game will trump the beta, it will also trump not having one.

    There’s just too many players eager to play a good MMO. The way the servers get hammered during these open betas is just evidence of that.

    I don’t think enough developers are weighing their options here, they just accept that common perception and the marketing dept that open beta is necessary. Then they put up with the disruption to their workflow, they go through the extra expense of launching their infrastructure before generating revenue.

    Even the stress test is a farce, for monetary reasons again. None of them have their full infrastructure in place during the tests. At most, they get to measure the impact on what they have and then attempt to scale, which as we’ve seen the results time and again, is just guesswork.

    The advent of bigger and longer open betas hasn’t improved MMO launches one whit. Is it expected by players? Yep, but they’ll still be there opening day if that expectation isn’t met.

    I’d love to see a company go with a more sane scale of closed betas for the better of their game.

  9. Katherine

    “Am I the only human being left that doesn’t give a damn about early open betas, lifetime subs, microtransactions, pay for zone, F2P, refer a friend deals, exclusive items, pre-ordering, collector editions and other aberrations? I can’t be.”

    You’re not. I vastly prefer demos to betas, because usually by the time I notice a game it’s been released already. I want to make sure it runs on my computer (and runs well); I want to make sure I enjoy the core gameplay. I don’t want to have to find unreleased games that sound good based on their genre and name, wait years for them to be finished while scoffing at all the media hype, and get into the “open” beta, only to find that it actually isn’t any fun.

    Oh, F2P is alright. I mean, you get what you pay for, but you can try it straight away.

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