Microsoft versus Sony, Battlefield versus Call of Duty and Forza versus Gran Turismo. These are some of the rivalries that can get people talking about console wars. “Game On or Game Over” is your place to get inside the minds of Nicholas and Andy as they seek to find the true meaning of gaming and tackle some of gaming’s most controversial subjects. Both are award winning authors – although the awards haven’t been mailed or created yet — but trust them. Would they lie to you?
Andy: I have to say it’s good to be back in the swing of things, lots of upcoming releases and gaming news being released seemingly every time I turn around, but most importantly we are back writing our weekly article again. We have a chance to talk about whatever we want, and Steve has been more than gracious allowing us complete control over what we talk about. This week I would like to talk about something that gamers love, but over time have had more and more conditions applied to them to the point where their original intention of them doesn’t seem to be the case anymore.
What I want to talk about this week, at least to start, are game betas. When beta first started to become commonplace they were for a few really specific things. Testing game balance, server strain, ironing out unexpected bugs and probably a couple other things I can’t think of right now. For the purpose of our discussion this week I want to make sure we are talking about game betas and not game demos.
Now-a-days it seems like all these beta have conditions attached to them. “Pre-order now to get guaranteed access to the beta.” “The beta will be a closed beta, register now for a chance to get chosen.” Then you see a post on a gaming website that says “Hey, we have thousands of closed beta codes register now.” Or, my personal pet peeve in terms of betas are those which are platform exclusives. It doesn’t seem like betas are really true beta anymore. It just seems like they are being treated like pre-order DLC, a way for a company to get my email address to be put on a mailing list and a way to “reward” people who game on a certain specific platform.
Before I jump too high onto this little soapbox though, what are your feelings about beta and how they have changed in the last say 5-10 years?
Nicholas: To be honest it’s never something that I’ve ever been affected by, mostly for the fact that I’ve never participated in one. There are times when I’ve seen posts or advertisements about signing up for the next Xbox dashboard beta for example, but I’ve never made that step to actually register and be a part of it. I know you mentioned that there’s a distinction between a beta and a demo, but for me, at least in the recent years, I’ve always considered them as demos almost. If not a demo, then certainly a change to push the testing side of game design back on the consumers who have paid for them.
You raise an interesting point about the fact some betas are pre-order or console specific, and it makes you think about what their underlying purpose is. Like you said, when you think of ‘beta’ you’re meant to think of testing, but when gamers are spending $10 to reserve their game and they’re reward with a glorified demo in doing so, it kind of makes you think what’s going on.
You’re obviously a lot more invested in this though, so I’d like to flick it back to you. Are betas something you’ve regularly participated in and if so, what do you think about the supposed shift in the nature of betas? Why is this a problem?
Andy: I actually try to be a part of as many betas as I can. I enjoy testing things, finding things that work/don’t work and submitting feedback to developers. I also like playing betas if I am unsure I want to get a game or not. With all that said, there have only been two betas I have played in the last year where the developer actually asked for my feedback via email, surveyor a specific message board. Those were The Crew and Evolve. All the other betas I have played have been exactly what you described, glorified demos.
It’s smart marketing actually when you think about it. If I tell you something is a beta, then if anything goes wrong you’ll just think to yourself “Well this is a beta so that’s OK.” Whereas if I tell you it’s a demo and something goes wrong you’ll have a completely different reaction to it. I don’t think we are really seeing true betas anymore. This is especially true for games that have “betas” two or three weeks before the game releases. Take NHL 16 for example. The game released on September 15th, but two or three weeks before that we were treated to a beta. In that short time frame I don’t see how you can get data, analyse it, fix it and then get it into the base game.
The one that really got me thinking about this topic though was the recent Call of Duty beta. “Exclusively” first for PS4, you know not for hardware reasons, time or logistics – but because PlayStation paid for the DLC to be exclusive for 30 days so naturally the beta should be the same. And of course in order to get into the beta you had to have pre-ordered the game, because it was a pre-order bonus. However, if you waited for two days the ‘exclusive’ beta became open to everyone.
Maybe I am in the minority here, and maybe I’m making this too much of an issue, but I don’t like being misled. If I am playing a beta I expect there to be updates, tweaks, bugs and whatever else may pop up. I also expect that when the game releases, things will be different. Yet, aside from a few changes to The Crew, I can’t think of a beta where things actually changed. For me the beta issue revolves around the idea of what a beta is supposed to be, they should not be lures to get pre-orders, or to reward a certain platform or group. It should be about testing the game and server strain. If it’s anything else call it a demo and be done with it. It just drives me crazy how much misrepresentation goes on in the gaming industry, not just with betas either. Am I making too much out of this, or is there really something here that gamers should at least be aware of?
Nicholas: It depends on what the impact is to gamers. It’s hard to argue how it isn’t a bit of a scumbag move to entice gamers to pre-order your next title so they gain access to this ‘exclusive’ beta, only to have it then be made available to everyone two days later. At the same time, what’s a pre-order mean for a chance to play the game (albeit an unfinished version) before it’s released? If those gamers were going to get the game regardless, and by pre-ordering they not only get a taste of what’s to come but also the chance to give feedback to the developers, what’s the harm?
As far as what purpose betas actually solve, it would be a matter for the developer I’d assume. Some betas will be to look for feedback from gamers on how to improve the product – perhaps some weapons are overpowered, the physics of most cars are too slide-happy or maybe there are gameplay elements that simply don’t work, but it could also be to test how their servers react to traffic. If it’s the former then yes, you’d assume the betas to be released months in advance and for the developer to follow up with an option for feedback. If it’s the latter then it really doesn’t matter what the gamer thinks because it’s not the point of them participating to begin with. In those cases it might be sufficient for the beta (note: I almost typed ‘demo’ as I was writing that) to be released a few weeks before launch.
If I may go on a tangent, all this talk about misrepresentation is making me think of something else. Not too long ago we were speaking about unfinished games, launch day DLC, micro-transactions and the like. Recently, developers like Turn10 with Forza Motorsport 6 and Ghost Games with Need For Speed have made players know that their latest titles won’t feature micro-transactions. This is a far cry from their previous titles that were littered with them (anyone remember the uproar with Forza 5 and their token system?). As developers move away from one shady practice are they simply moving to another? Is this change in the nature of betas the new micro-transaction? Given what I’ve said above though, if betas aren’t really betas anymore, is that really that bad in the scheme of things?
Andy: Before I get to the question in your last paragraph I want to touch on something in your first part of your reply. “It depends on what the impact is to gamers.” That’s the issue I have with a lot of these recent betas, there is zero impact – not on the gamers but on the game. It seems like betas are no longer about fixing, fine tuning or testing; rather they have become part of the cycle of the hype machine for games. If that’s the case call it what it is, it’s a demo. If I had to pre-order a game to get access to a demo I wouldn’t feel nearly as strongly as pre ordering for beta access. Of course it’s easy to play the system if you really want to, and that’s what I did for Call of Duty Black Ops 3 beta. I walked into GameStop and said “hey I’d like to pre-order Call of Duty.” The sales clerk’s eyes lit up and rings me up. I drop the $5 get the receipt, see the code on the bottom and then say “on second though I’ve changed my mine.” I got my money back and walked away. Is that cheeky to do? Absolutely. But if you want to hide your beta… erm, demo behind a wall like that don’t think gamers won’t do it.
It’s funny you bring up micro-transaction because when I was thinking about this topic that was one of the things in my mind. I love, love, love the fact that some developers are coming out and saying “Nope no micro-transactions here.” Hopefully, we see more and more doing that. Forza, Need for Speed and the next Hitman game have all said it and I applaud them for it. Yet, the realist gamer in me then switches to the line of thinking “what are they going to charge me now for then?” That makes me a little sad if I was being honest.
Sad that I have gotten to the point of thinking about the negatives. Instead of just being happy with (hopefully) a new trend, I start thinking about content cut from the game to be sold piecemeal to me. Sad that I wonder what the company’s DLC model will look like. I have always been a glass half full type of person, yet when video games are involved I seem to have shifted to a glass half empty mentality. I don’t think the whole beta scheme is going to replace the micro-transaction because that’s not additional revenue for the developers. It’s mostly just extra hype. Being the realist, that revenue has to come from somewhere. So I have to ask, if more and more developers ditch micro-transactions how do they make up that revenue? I can’t see them taking a hit on it, so it has to come from somewhere right?
Nicholas: We need to remember that micro-transactions really only gained traction towards the later years of the last generation. Yes, they existed before then, but no-one was complaining about them until recently. If we keep that in mind then we recognise the revenue from micro-transactions was only introduced a short while ago, so it might not be a case of “what will replace it with” but more so a revenue opportunity that just didn’t take off. Season passes and other DLC offerings are still being milked as much as possible, so I suspect that’s where developers will focus their attention to now. For a good example just look at Forza Motorsport 6 – the ultimate digital edition was available on the Xbox LIVE Store for $150! That’s $150 and you don’t have a box, disc or piece of paper to show for it!
On the flip-side however, look at The Witcher 3 and the upcoming Need For Speed. The former received quite a bit of free content and Ghost have spoken about free DLC offerings too post-launch for NFS. Now if I didn’t know any better I’d assume that the gaming industry was turning over a new leaf and really going back to making great games and supporting their fans with content without putting profits first. I know you said you’ve been a little pessimistic when it comes to the industry, but in just the short amount of time we’re already starting to see a good trend coming out of our favourite industry. Do you think we’re on the verge of such a movement?
Andy: I really want that to be the case but (here I go being pessimistic again) most game companies are owned by shareholders and they will always be clamouring for more profits. I don’t believe CD Project Red is though, I think they are 100% private so they can get away with it. There is no doubt that fans appreciate it. I think the pushback from most gamers over micro-transactions has gotten bigger and bigger just in the past year from my experience. Most gamers don’t like the idea of spending $60USD for a full retail release and then be bombarded with nickel and dime things on top of the original price. I don’t think anyone has problems with micro-transactions for free-to-play games, because the developer has to make money somehow. But for retail games, I don’t think there is any place for them at all.
To wrap things up this week though, I want to touch on – most certainly an unpopular possibility. Games cost a lot of money to make, no one can question that. Witcher 3 reportedly cost $60 million. Developers need to make money, after all that’s why they are making games, but gamers have successfully pushed back against micro-transactions in retail games and DLC can only really make so much money. Not every gamer buys a game will purchase DLC for it, so your attach rate is lower than the install base of the game. Developers have to look at ways to increase revenue. One thing that I would bet being discussed is raising the price of a retail game.
I know it’s not a popular option, and one that gamers don’t want by any means but, when you look at it the price of a retail game has stayed flat for quite a while now. Is it possible that in the next year or so we see a $5-$10 increase? Or, do developers/publishers just take the charade out of the beta idea and use that as revenue? Say, guaranteed beta access for $5? Maybe even charge for a demo of a game, but phrase it as a “limited rental” or some such nonsense to make it sound like something different. Maybe I’m wrong, I just don’t see developers or publishers being all nice about it and just tossing away money if they think they can make a couple extra bucks. What about you?
Nicholas: It’s an interesting thought, but unless there’s a global shortage in discs or plastic, I can’t see retailers rising the price of games without gamers losing their absolute nuts and asking for a logical explanation why. Now that said, it seems like ‘limited’ editions are increasing in price and I think that’s where some developers might be recuperating some of their costs. When some retail for $150+ it just seems like collector’s editions are more expensive than they used to be – or at least since I started paying attention.
I think this is the reason we’re starting to see a push towards the purchase of bundles at launch, like with Forza Motorsport 6 and the ultimate edition for $150AUD. This way the publisher can guarantee not just the sale of the base game, but the DLC offerings as well. I’m sure it’s not all, but they might capture a few more people at the initial purchase who weren’t deciding to get the season pass later, but since it’s available from the get-go they thought “why not?”
Only time will tell what the next scheme is by developers to make a little more coin out of gamers (if that is indeed the direction we are still going down). Right now though it seems like things are going down the right path, so I’m going to look at my glass that’s half-full of Coke and assume it is.
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