The inconvenient truths behind betas

Enjoying advertising Halo: Reach for Microsoft? What's that you say? You're just playing it? You're an intelligent, free-thinking, anti-establishment individual, and there's no way you'd help out a global mega-corporation with its marketing?

Well if you're playing the Reach beta, or any other in fact, that's exactly what you're doing. And it's far from the only way you're playing into the industry's hands. Want to know how else you're helping it do all the things you probably moan about on a day-to-day basis? Here we go...

Betas are viral adverts

Online viral ads are like wasps at a picnic. They're annoying and they just won't go away. You try to do what your mum always told you to do - i.e. sit still and ignore them - but there's always some fool running around, flapping their metaphorical arms about and throwing sugary e-mail juice and Youtube cake all over the place. Why are viral ads so crap? Because they masquerade as a real piece of content and spread like wildfire when people start telling their friends about how cool they are.

Now let’s think about betas again, shall we? They're ostensibly just game demos. Except that they're game demos that everyone gets really hyped up over, because they're only available for a limited period of time. And people get even more hyped because said demo is only available to a limited number of people. In actual fact that limited number of people is freakin' huge, but because they're called 'betas' rather than 'demos', the general perception is that playing this demo is an exclusive experience. Also, being released as a multiplayer beta test, these demos are always multiplayer-focused, thus inherently social experiences. What does all of this add up to?

Above: A platoon of MAG PR men being airdropped into the beta

VIRAL HYPE! You absolutely have to get you some of that EXCLUSIVE ACCESS BETA.  You know, that one that isn't just a demo at all. And when you've got it,  all your friends need to have it too. And then you all start talking about the cool stuff you did in that EXCLUSIVE ACCESS BETA last night. 'Hey Jim, did you not hear about all the cool EXCLUSIVE ACCESS stuff we were doing in our EXCLUSIVE ACCESS BETA last night?' No Jim did not. And Jim is sad, because Jim now really wants to access things exclusively. Just like you. So he gets on-board and has an upcoming game advertised to him as well. EXCLUSIVELY. Just like everyone else.

Betas are cereal box toys

Now let's think about betas again. Say, for instance, a new, big budget game is a bit of an unknown quantity in terms of projected sales. These days  publishers need their triple-A releases to be guranteed mega-sellers, or the development costs are going to flatten them.

So what to do if a game isn't quite a dead cert? Like in the way Crackdown was an untested new first-party IP from a talented but lesser-known developer. Or in the way that Halo 3: ODST was an unusual spin-off without its parent franchise's most-loved characters, and rumoured to be a bit short for a full-price game? Or in the way that Splinter Cell: Conviction was a radical reinvention of a  long-flagging series, which had probably already cost a metric shit-ton of money, having been taken back to the drawing board halfway through development? How do you make these releases safer? You throw in a beta for a bigger, safer game.

Crackdown got Halo 3. ODST got Reach. Splinter Cell got Ghost Recon. And their publishers breathed easy, knowing that although already decent games, they'd be that little bit less risky now that they had a viral ad for a bigger game cereal-boxed onto the game disc. After all, quality alone is no guarantee of success.

Betas want you to spend more

The only thing the games industry hates as much as piracy is the second-hand market. Second-hand games, as we all know, eat kittens, and turn innocent babies into nazi weapons of mass-destruction used by illegal immigrants to steal our jobs and sink  the games industry. So what's the intelligent approach to increasing sales profits on brand new games? A strong, uncomplicated, digital sales model, with discounted prices for discless copies of the game, made with reduced overheads? An overall increase in quality control, and the culling of less than stellar titles from each year's release portfolio? No. It's e-carrot time again.

The traditional method used is to gimp some aspect of the game for second-hand buyers, by way of a special code only available to buyers of factory-fresh copies. Free multiplayer maps and tits are two popular choices. But now we have betas. Ever  wondered why console multiplayer betas have become so numerous recently? Ever wondered why the most recent ones have been made available not through application form, but via on-disc key or pre-order bonus for another game? Or even the betaed game itself?

Beta keys are the new Parisian boobs. Fact.

Don't think we hate betas. We don't at all. They can be a great way for fans to get excited about a game in a totally communal sense, and we're currently having a great time with Reach. But whenever you're playing one, just be aware of the many possible reasons it's happening.

But what do you think? Do you love the sneak previews that betas provide? Or do you see them as nothing more than cynical marketing tactics? Let us know in the comments, or via our heady portals on Facebook and Twitter.


  • Link555 - May 18, 2010 4:38 p.m.

    Poor Jim
  • EnragedTortoise1 - May 18, 2010 12:22 p.m.

    My last betas were Bad Company 2, Uncharted 2, and MAG. The latter two sold me on those games, and the first one just got me pissed off at my parents. (long story..) But I liked it anyway. I agree with the feature, but it isn't THAT bad. Not all betas are cereal-box toys- only Halo, from what I've seen, does that.
  • philipshaw - May 18, 2010 11:57 a.m.

    You have a point but it doesn't stop people from playin the beta and enjoying it
  • CH3BURASHKA - May 18, 2010 12:46 a.m.

    I think all these truths are accepted and taken into account, at least I do.
  • oufour - May 17, 2010 8:20 p.m.

    "quality isn't enough to sell games anymore." okami is proof of that.
  • oryandymackie - May 17, 2010 6:29 p.m.

    'I am special...that's why I have access to the beta...I am special...that's why I have access to the beta...I am special...that's why I have access to the beta...I am special. I have access to the beta.
  • Shrimpandwhitewine - May 17, 2010 5:59 p.m.

    I actually don't mind the marketing, especially if it's a beta for a game that I want to do well and support (i.e. Halo: Reach) :D. That being said, while Betas are great marketing techniques, they are also good tools for developers to test their game on a massive scale.
  • CAPST3R - May 17, 2010 5:54 p.m.

    An anagram of beta is bate. Bate has 3 meanings, and sounds like another, article-related word, so excuse me if I decide to let you make your own comments on the previously mentioned fact.
  • Blackout1881 - May 17, 2010 5:19 p.m.

    Virtually every BETA I have played has led to some significant changes in the final game, they are BETA tests, first and foremost and that is why they are happening, the popularity boost is just a perk and you also forget that it is an unfinished piece of software being unleashed on the public that cynical peoople instantly try to claim is indicative of the full title, releasing a BETA is a double edged sword.
  • tacoman38 - May 17, 2010 5:09 p.m.

    but betas could also help the used games. I'm pretty sure many people bought ODST used just to get into the Reach beta. so maybe some games are using the codes, but they don't appear to be everywhere yet.
  • TheKennedyCurse - May 17, 2010 4:49 p.m.

    I generally dislike betas, (especially the Halo: Reach one, paying full price for a shitty expansion pack, just to get beta access? No thanks.), but the MAG beta, I really can't complain about. It was free, and it gave me an opportunity to try a game I was really looking forward to, to see if my excitement was warranted. Maybe they are underhanded ploys sometimes, to get you to spend more money (ie: Ghost Recon: Future Soldier, Halo 3 and Halo: Reach), but anyone dumb enough to buy a full game just for beta access for another, deserves to lose the money anyway. Free beta's, however, that are truly in the interest of improving a game, are awesome.
  • Quaro - May 17, 2010 4:14 p.m.

    I totally disagree. I've tried 4 beta versions, of games I wanted to buy, in the last 6 months. These were MAG, Modnation Racers, Lego Universe and APB. And the result was that I'm not going to ever buy any of these games. I didn't like them, and I'll probably say so, when someone asks me if he should buy one of those games. So a Beta can easily backfire.
  • KoiNeonX - May 17, 2010 3:44 p.m.

    I'm really not into the whole BETA thing. I don't even mess around with demos anymore (since the last one left corrupted data on my PS3!) I just know what I want to own and play by reading previews/reviews and knowing what type of game I'm going to enjoy.
  • bluscorp - May 17, 2010 3:09 p.m.

    Good feature David. The best betas i was in was Uncharted 2 and Bad Company 2.
  • GR_DavidHoughton - May 17, 2010 3:02 p.m.

    Jakery: It should. And now it does. Cheers for the heads-up.
  • hero2bash - May 17, 2010 3 p.m.

    great article
  • bluscorp - May 17, 2010 2:46 p.m.

    My last beta was APB.
  • jakery22 - May 17, 2010 2:41 p.m.

    In the paragraph above the ghost recon future soldier picture shouldn't it say nazi weapons? Not nazi eapons? And the last beta i took part in was the MAG one. It was alright apart from i had to download it and it took 18 hours. T_T
  • Jacob816 - May 17, 2010 2:36 p.m.

    While what you are saying is true, you have neglected to mention that sometimes betas are actually used for their intended purpose, which is to test the game. For example the Starcraft II beta has been going on for a few months now, and there have been twelve updates thus bar. This vast amount of unit balancing and tweaking is not just for the free ad money, it's vital for making Starcraft II the highly tuned and competitive game that it is. And not only to eager people get a chance to play it earlier, they also help all those other people who buy it at retail who enjoy the benefits of said balancing.
  • db1331 - May 17, 2010 2:33 p.m.

    The last beta I participated in was for Bad Company 2. You got early access to the beta for pre-ordering on Steam. I knew all my friends were going to get the game and that it would probably be good, so I went ahead and did it. I figured if the beta sucked I could just cancel my pre-order. The beta was a blast though and totally sold me on the game.

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