Life, The Universe, And Gaming — Betas Need To Replace Demos
Previously on Life, The Universe, And Gaming: Okay I really just wanted to start a column like that, at least once this year. At least it’s relevant this time! In my previous column I spoke about the marketing process, making particular reference to what Electronic Arts did with the demo for Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. In it, users were rewarded with bonus content for both the full game as well as Mass Effect 3, just for playing through and completing the demo. Effectively, this goaded a lot more gamers into downloading and trying out the game; marketing genius.
“You are in a maze of twisty passages, all alike.”
The same applied for the demo of Mass Effect 3, which I have since played through six times — one for each class — in singleplayer, and for just over nine hours in multiplayer. Now, with both a preview and a hands-on, we’ve heard quite a bit about the demo in terms of what you get with it so I’m not going to spend too long on that. I will say that the lack of conversation options and actual story-related events was welcomed because I really did not want to be spoiled just for trying out a demo. I will also say that the demo sufficiently showed off a few (but not sufficiently enough) of the modifications made to the third game’s mechanics, such as the different enemy types and slightly modified skills system. I would have liked to see more of the characters I recruited in the second game (and seriously, who the fuck is Cortez?), but that was a minor niggle. What I did not enjoy was the morose, almost doomed feeling that the prologue attempted to convey, but it didn’t quite carry through because they showed what… actually I’ll just leave that for the review, shall I?
This past Friday (since I lacked a Battlefield 3 Online Pass I had to wait a few days) the multiplayer component of the demo opened up for all. Wait actually that’s a bit misleading. The Mass Effect 3 demo contains a singleplayer and multiplayer component, but it is important to note that the multiplayer component is in fact a beta that is contained within the demo. The difference? The easy version is that a demo (short for “demonstration”) is a showing of the final product, a minor glimpse into what you can expect of whatever is being shown to you. To that extent, most demos are released close to the time a game goes gold (development is complete and the games goes into publishing) while other demos are never released because the time between going gold and releasing is so short, or game developers feel no need to offer a demo in the first place. More on that later.
A beta on the other hand is a test. A gaming test in this case. There is actually a rather insightful wiki on this topic, but suffice to say a beta will always be used by developers to test out an aspect of the game they are developing. You’ve seen it before with various other betas such as the Gears of War 3 beta which we covered in extreme detail last year, as well as the Dota 2 beta that many of you are either enjoying or still struggling to get into because your friends are being selfish with their game invites, or something.
The multiplayer component of Mass Effect 3 is a beta, and one that is very much necessitated given the amount of time I’ve spent with it, and the sheer number of glitches and odd bugs I’ve experienced that include but are not limited to; casting powers that send enemies to the other side of the map, dying without actually taking any damage, clipping entirely through the game world and then randomly popping up somewhere else in the middle of a group of enemies and the ever-classic complete loss of all sound for no apparent reason whatsoever. In this case, bloody well done on having a beta, BioWare. Now together we can iron out all of these problems and hopefully have a far more refined and issue-free multiplayer experience when the game releases in a few weeks, almost definitely to a day-one patch that fixes all of these issues.
In an early column of mine, I mentioned something called metrics. Every game that has released in recent years has underlying techniques for data collection and measurement encapsulated within the game. These mechanisms are completely passive and never show themselves entirely to the user but will report back to the developer on all sorts of statistics. Let’s use Gears of War 3 as an example of this. Metrics would report on the average amount of time a player spends in a game, the average amount of time that player spends behind cover, the weapon that player starts with and how long that player continues to use it before switching to something else, the body parts that player aims for while shooting and their hit accuracy, and so on and so forth. For each and every game, literally thousands of unique statistics are recorded and processed by the game, per player. This is how developers learn more about how gamers play their games, and how they continue to improve and balance the experience through patches or minor title updates. And this is why a beta is invaluable to developing something that is especially experimental with as few hitches or glitches as possible.
Let’s consider a game like Skyrim, which was initially lauded for its accomplishments as a mainstream RPG, but then fell to the wayside after mass criticisms regarding the amount of glitches (some game-breaking) that were experienced by players, as well as the sharp lack of replayability. Because of course, after spending 200 hours playing through a game, the first thing I want to do is start over…
Skyrim could have had a demo out. Scratch that. A beta. It could have, and it would have helped Bethesda to discover tonnes more of those glitches that evaded them during closed game testing sessions, perhaps resulting in a better title with more staying power.
Unfortunately, developers frown upon demos when it comes to certain types of games and in others they simply don’t feel a need to put one out. Now it’s perfectly understandable that some games are tough to implement as demos. Most RPGs fall into this category even though Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning did it so right, as well as various other open-world titles or games that are heavily focused on story. Other games are far easier, such as Dead Space 2 or a shooter. Demos are great for showing off what a game is capable of without necessarily giving away too much, while still appeasing a gamer’s desire for some entertainment. In fact, if you had the bandwidth you could very easily be entertained for months with just the demos you get off Xbox LIVE’s Games Marketplace or the PC and PS3 equivalents.
Betas for games differ in that they are usually only offered for the online multiplayer components of games. Consider all of the betas I mentioned previously as well as the ones you might have recently heard of. All multiplayer-centric, even if — as is the case with Mass Effect 3 — the game itself is mostly a singleplayer offering. What betas do for gaming is invaluable, as I’ve mentioned before, so the question then becomes: Why don’t developers start offering singleplayer betas?
Imagine if you will a beta for Skyrim a month before it released. Gamers were offered a portion of the game-world, let’s say gated by invisible walls but large enough that they could explore everything within that portion of the world. Story-relevant quests were either removed entirely or stopped at a point, but all other quests in the area were free to be played and tasked the character with moving to locations within this gated area, allowing for a miniature sandbox version of the entire Skyrim game world. Gamers would jump at the chance to play for free, a game they had been looking forward to for ages, but also it would allow developers to play-test everything from battles to shouts to spells to perks to quests to dialogues and everything in between. The result? A more refined, streamlined, better tweaked game that wouldn’t require consistent patching to get right, post-release. Sure the odd patch here and there but most of the glaring issues would have been ironed out by the hundreds of thousands of gamers who downloaded and played the hypothetical beta.
Who wins? That’s right: Gaming!
Gears of War 3 is one of the most complete and perfected multiplayer experiences that you will find today, and it’s because of the amount of work that Epic Games put into getting out a beta and analysing the results of the aforementioned metrics, then taking those and making the necessary fixes, tweaks and changes. Is it a completely perfect experience? No, not by a long shot (see what I did there?). Is it as close to perfect as any other game has come? Fuck yes, it is.
If Mass Effect 3′s full release has a multiplayer component that is as glitchy as the demo’s beta is, I would be sorely disappointed in BioWare. However, I have incredible faith in their (tangible) ability and the success of a well-structured beta. So I will continue to play the Mass Effect 3 multiplayer beta into the early hours of every morning because I want to help BioWare to better what is most definitely not a tacked-on feature. One that I wish to see rise above other multiplayer offerings and stand tall, making Mass Effect 3 something of an uber-game alongside such iconic greats as Half-Life 2 and Dragon Age 2 (kidding). Or maybe I’m just in love with BioWare. Either way.
Will there ever be such a thing as an open singleplayer beta? Who knows. Should there be? Most definitely.
It needs to happen.
The pros simply outweigh the cons and if the gaming industry carries on in its current direction towards an entirely digitally distributed platform, betas will be invaluable methods of testing as the time between going gold and releasing diminishes. Effectively, voluntary gamers will double as free games testers, and number in the hundreds of thousands for some games. Everybody wins.
Until then, I’m off to play some more Mass Effect 3 multiplayer. Join me, will you?