Betas have become a popular marketing tool in recent years. It’s odd when you think about it. We praise “polished” games but jump through marketing hoops to play an unfinished one. Personally, I think it’s the industry’s insane demand for the new, New, NEW that drives us to consume that NEW thing even through it’s not actually complete. But that’s a discussion for another blog. For now, I’m more interested in what happens when this marketing train flies off the tracks.
This year we’ve had four major betas: Gears of War 3, Uncharted 3, Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, and Battlefield 3, the latter of which has become a cautionary tale of how not to do a beta.
Like all PR nightmares, the core problem with the Battlefield 3 beta was one of messaging. While developer DICE said “beta, beta, beta,” what consumers saw was “demo, demo, demo.” And it was not a good demo. Not only was it a poor representation of the franchise, lacking the major features that set Battlefield apart from other shooters (there were no vehicles and precious little in the way of destructible environments), but it was also buggy as hell. Kill Cams regularly fell through the world, so would the player if you went prone, you could spawn on dead squad mates, etc, etc. Naturally, this didn’t sit well with gamers, who complained loudly. The complaints so annoyed DICE’s Community Manager Daniel Matros that he chided gamers on the community forum:
Right now, I am not in the mood to even browse in here and check out most parts of the forum. The beta is a privilege, not a right. The vibe I’m getting now is just that tons of ungrateful people don’t understand how much work we are putting on this game how many overtime hours we are doing and also how many meetings we are in to ship a game like this.”
While I can sympathize with someone faced with an onslaught of negative criticism, Matros’s response highlights just how out of touch DICE was with their community.
The Battlefield 3 beta wasn’t a privilege. It may have been a privilege for its first couple days of release, when access was limited to those who had pre-ordered copies of Medal of Honor the previous year, but then the beta opened to everyone and became a demo. It was made widely available on the PC, Xbox LIVE, and Playstation Network, it was heavily promoted on the Xbox dashboard and PSN homepage, it was free, and most importantly it was starting mere weeks from the game’s actual release date.
This timing was the biggest issue. People understand that a beta is a naturally unfinished product, but the closer that a game gets to release, the more complete we assume it to be. So to release the naturally unfinished beta mere weeks from the actual release date means that those inevitable bugs and technical issues become unfairly indicative of the final product. Put simply — and obviously — a beta-demo should be more like a demo and less like a beta.
That kind of polish isn’t just there to boost consumer perceptions of quality but actual quality as well. DICE made several changes to the multiplayer based on feedback from beta and promoted this fact to anyone that would listen in an attempt at PR damage control, but these changes caused more problems. Since the time between the beta and the game’s release was so short, those multiplayer changes had to be incorporated in a Day 1 patch, and it was too late to get them on the disc. EA apparently thought that these changes were so significant that it was worth delaying review copies being sent to press outlets, thereby forcing reviewers to play patched version of the game rather than an early, unpatched version. As a result of all this, there were very few early reviews of Battlefied 3.
Not only does this harm the perception of the game’s quality — we’ve all been trained by the movie industry to know that if a studio doesn’t provide review copies of a product for the press ahead of time, it’s probably a shitty product — but it also gives competing games a chance to steal valuable hype. Uncharted 3, which came out a week later, had reviewers gushing with praise, and those positive reviews were plastered all over gaming websites the week of Battlefield’s release.
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The beta-demo has a fine line to walk, and EA clearly slipped this time. With betas being an established and popular marketing tool, it’s important for publishers to take note of what EA did wrong and keep that in mind when creating their own beta schedule. Hype, after all, is a very fickle thing.