To Beta or Not to Beta

It's time...

Ok, the day has finally come. Lucasarts and Bioware have finally announced game testing for Star Wars: The Old Republic. We are approximately 10 months from launch and from what we have seen so far of the game in demos and videos, it looks remarkably well polished and ready to go for a game just out of alpha stage.

The usual computer game stages run: alpha, closed beta, open beta and then release. For anyone who might not know what those are, alpha stage is in house development, tweaking, testing and revamping. Computer program beta testing is when a company allows people outside the company to try the program.  A closed beta is by invitation only, such as what Bioware is running at the moment. These stages are usually less polished, less complete and often have gaping holes in places that need to be found and fixed. One of my favorites was in the beta for a game called Global Agenda where if you fell through the map, you wound up upside down on another map. It was annoying at the time, mind you and they fixed it fast. But looking back it was hilarious. The whole point of a beta is to find the problems that the alpha stage missed so they can be fixed.

Open betas are usually for games that have a large multiplayer section, or games that are totally multiplayer, like MMOs. The point of an open beta is also to find bugs, crashes and other potential fail points, but also to stress test the servers. Nothing is more annoying in a MMO that you pay a subscription fee to every month than having it say ‘I am sorry, the servers are full’. Or worse, being in the game and not being able to move because of the transmission lag. Or the game launcher crashes due to a massive influx of players. All of which I have had happen in various MMOs since my first, Star Wars Galaxies.

There are of course problems with betas. The public sees things that can sour them on the game. I have taken part in several closed and open betas for games and have to say that after the betas, I bought one of the games. None of the others held my interest. This is one problem, another is that beta is not about getting to play the game before anyone else. Many people see betas as just that, an advance showing and in some ways they are – but the point of a beta is to find and fix problems, not to have fun. You can have fun in a beta, I have on several occasions – but it is also a lot of work.

First you have to find the problems. These can be game-breaking bugs such as crash to desktop errors. They can be as obvious as a hole in the ground where the code doesn’t show and your avatar falls through and keeps falling. Or they can be as subtle as a single misspelled or wrong word in a quest dialogue box that sends the player to the wrong place to do the quest. Or even worse, the quest location icon shows the wrong place. That can get very aggravating. They want all of these things fixed before launch, not that they can be, but they seriously want to try. Most of the problems I found in betas were somewhere in between. But then comes the really not fun part.

You have to report the bug, in as much detail as you can possibly achieve. Sometimes you have to try and repeat the bug. If it is a game crash, was it your system or the game engine? That hole in the ground that your avatar fell through? Is it easy to find or hard? Is it on a critical quest path or off the beaten track? Either way it needs to be addressed, fixed if possible, blocked off somehow if not. And yes this means you have to read every single line of quest dialogue. Often two or three times. Then you have to run every single quest. It is a lot of work, and most of it is boring as all get out. And whatever work you put into the game, usually gets wiped every week or two, or will definitely be wiped when the game launches. It wouldn’t be fair to regular players otherwise.

Now, the fun part. You get to see the game before almost anyone else. That is cool. You get to try the game before anyone else, which is very cool. You get to be a part of a living, breathing entity and watch as it takes shape. You get to meet other, like minded players, and sometimes those relationships last past the launch of the game.

But the main focus of beta testing, is the testing. You are not there to have fun, although you can. You are not there to meet people, although you can. You are there to find and report problems to the development team so they can be fixed. Many people seem to forget that. Beta testing is not just about playing the game. It is work, hard work. It can be incredibly rewarding when you go into the game later and say to yourself: ‘I reported that, and they fixed it, sweet!’ It can also be incredibly annoying: ‘What? They haven’t fixed that hole in the floor of this instance yet? Geez it’s been there since the beginning of beta…” Some problems take longer to fix, and some problems simply can’t be fixed. But the job of a beta tester is to find the problems and report them so the development team knows what is wrong and where.

I for one, hope to get an invitation to the closed beta portion of Star Wars: The Old Republic. I hope to be able to give hands on help to the development team in creating this piece of Star Wars history. I hope to play a trooper and see just how effective a heavy repeater can be against those pesky lightsaber wielders. I want to play an Imperial agent and snipe enemies of the Empire down from cover. I want to help balance and tweak the game so it is as epic as I believe it can be when it launches.

Do you want to take part in the beta? Why or why not?