The inconvenient truths behind betas

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 abouton 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 alwaystold you to do - i.e. sit still and ignore them - but there's always some fool running around, flapping their metaphoricalarms about and throwing sugary e-mail juice and Youtube cake all over the place. Why are viral ads so crap? Because theymasquerade 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 everyonegets really hyped up over, because they're only available for a limited period of time. And people get even more hypedbecause 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 anexclusive experience. Also, being released as a multiplayer beta test, these demos are alwaysmultiplayer-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 ACCESSBETA last night. 'Hey Jim, did you not hear about all the cool EXCLUSIVE ACCESS stuff we were doing in our EXCLUSIVE ACCESS BETAlast night?' No Jim did not. And Jim is sad, because Jim now really wants to access things exclusively. Just like you. So he getson-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.

Sowhat 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 butlesser-known developer. Or in the way that Halo 3: ODST was an unusual spin-off withoutits parentfranchise's most-loved characters, andrumoured to be a bit short for afull-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 boardhalfway 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 gamecereal-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 hatesas much as piracy is the second-hand market. Second-hand games, as we all know, eatkittens, 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 qualitycontrol, 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 onlyavailable to buyers of factory-fresh copies. Free multiplayer maps and titsare 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 beenmade available not through application form, butvia on-disc key or pre-order bonus for another game? Or even the betaed gameitself?

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 onFacebookandTwitter.

David Houghton
Long-time GR+ writer Dave has been gaming with immense dedication ever since he failed dismally at some '80s arcade racer on a childhood day at the seaside (due to being too small to reach the controls without help). These days he's an enigmatic blend of beard-stroking narrative discussion and hard-hitting Psycho Crushers.