Helping Shape the Game
Today's video games are remarkably complicated pieces of software, and it takes a great deal of rigorous testing to ensure that the final product is not only reasonably free of bugs, but also enjoyable to play. While the opportunity to beta test a game was once quite rare, it's become a great deal easier to get into betas in recent years. One reason for this is that there are more online games in development. Game companies have also discovered that beta tests, like playable demos, can be very good promotions.
Testing is done in several stages and, particularly in the case of MMOs, the later stages often include numerous beta tests and stress tests. Quality assurance begins when the project is in alpha with staff that have a special talent for breaking games, so by the time it's ready for beta the most serious bugs have usually been squashed and the game's core features are in place. Unlike their single-player counterparts, online games often need the server side of the system tested to ensure that it can handle the load placed on it when large numbers of people are playing.
Depending on the game, beta testing can be a lengthy process, which is itself broken into different phases. A common approach is to begin with a relatively small "closed" beta where only a select few are allowed to participate. Most developers solicit applications from gamers shortly before the beta starts, but I've noticed a trend toward inviting people that are active on the game's official forums, or in some cases, those who have preordered the game. It's also not uncommon for beta spots to be made available through game magazines and Web sites. Further invites are usually sent out over the course of a closed beta as the developers resolve existing problems.
When developers screen applications for prospective testers, they're looking for people with a passion for games, good communication skills, and lots of time to play. Bug reporting experience can help, but feedback from people who aren't familiar with games of a particular kind can also be beneficial, so developers frequently seek to have a pool of testers with a mix of gaming backgrounds. Naturally, a highly-anticipated game will get a lot more applicants than less well-known titles. For some games, you'll have to follow related news pretty closely and try to get your application in as soon as possible after a beta announcement.
If you are involved in the early stages of beta testing, be prepared to offer some feedback on the game. This can come in the form of one or more questionnaires that help developers evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the game, but the center of communication for beta testers these days is always the game's official forums. There you will find lists of known issues and bugs, as well as places to comment on the nuances of the game and make suggestions. Expect these forums to be password protected and subject to a non-disclosure agreement (NDA).
When a game is near completion, developers sometimes want to see how it will perform with a large number of players using a wide variety of computers, so they conduct an "open" beta where thousands of people are allowed to join. For stress testing purposes you might be asked to log on at a particular time, or access to game servers may be limited to certain hours and days.
Although less feedback is expected from beta testers at this point, there is no substitute for having a deluge of players romping through a game to uncover problems that may have been overlooked. There is a chance you will discover a bug that hasn't yet been reported, which gives you bragging rights with your friends when the NDA is lifted.
Open betas try to admit as many people as possible, but they don't always accept an unlimited number of players. It's normally quite easy to get in, so the largest hurdle is often downloading the game client, which can be over a gigabyte in size. For this reason, beta testing a next-gen MMO isn't an option without a broadband Internet connection unless you can find the client distributed on disks.
As I mentioned earlier, game companies have recognized that a successful open beta can be the kind of promotion that money can't buy. A beta is an effective way to raise people's interest in a game with some hands-on experience, hopefully turning them into subscribers when the game is released. Subsequently, many open betas have become more like previews or demos than tests, and some companies have even started referring to them as such.
It's also worth noting that MMOs regularly operate test servers long after the game has launched, allowing them to test patches and future content before it goes live. These are generally open to any subscribers who are interested in following the game's ongoing development.
Know Your Hardware
When you encounter a technical problem in a game, there is always a possibility that it is specific to one of the components in your computer or your current configuration. Have your system's specifications ready and be prepared to submit information saved from the DirectX Diagnostics tool in Windows. You may need these details as early as the application process.
Finding a bug in a game is almost as much of an art as it is a science, and it often happens by accident. When you come across a problem, the first thing you need to do is replicate it. If you can't make it happen again, there's little chance of isolating the cause. The trick here is usually doing the exact same things in the exact same order that you were doing them the first time you encountered the issue.
Should you find that you can replicate the problem, check the list of known bugs on the game's Web site, and if it's not there, submit a bug report. They will have instructions on how to do this, and you'll want to tell them everything they need to know to replicate the problem themselves.
In the early stages of beta testing you can count on being bound to a non-disclosure agreement, which is a legal contract that creates a confidential relationship between the parties to protect trade secrets. What this means is that if you proceed to discuss details of the game in public without consent from the developer, you may find angry lawyers at your door.
It's understandable that developers don't want their hard work revealed before it's ready. Not only is there a risk of having innovative features and ideas stolen, but critical evaluations of games that still aren't complete could potentially have a very negative impact on a game when it does get released. NDAs are usually lifted toward the end of the beta testing process.
So Why Do It?
Unlike working for a developer or publisher as a game tester, beta testing hardly ever pays, so you might be wondering why people bother. Playing bug-ridden, unstable games with restricted play times and frequent patches can turn out to be more frustrating than fun. The reality is that some games are created on small budgets and tight schedules, which can result in a greater dependence on the diligent bug reporting and feedback of testers. Don't be too surprised if you end up spending more time describing problems than playing. I've come across several betas that could have easily turned into full-time volunteer work.
You may also be disappointed to find that some of the bugs and problems identified during beta are not fixed before the game is launched. Developers have to do what they can in a reasonable time frame with limited resources, which can mean waiting until after release to deal with certain issues. Publishers usually have the final say on quality assurance, but every high-end PC game has at least a few bugs when it hits store shelves. As we all know, constant patching is a way of life with MMOs in any case.
The appeal of beta testing is the chance to play a new game for free, and possibly discover a problem or offer feedback that improves the quality of the game. It's always special to be among the first to get your hands on a game, and on rare occasions people have been known to make industry contacts and acquire jobs through testing. Of course, as betas become more accessible, more gamers are treating them like they would a demo or free trial and using them to decide whether or not to buy the game.
Making a contribution to a game, however small, can be an extremely rewarding experience even though it takes more effort than simply playing. While consuming games is a lot of fun, helping to shape a game gives you a sense of satisfaction that you just can't get from a high score.