The Beta Band

The Halo Reach Beta was released this evening on Xbox 360, free to anyone who has a copy of Halo 3: ODST. Of course, the waters were muddied slightly by the issuing of pre-beta beta codes (that’s not a word duplication!) to people hitting F5 on every videogames website in the world.

Once the beta was revealed to be hosting a few hundred thousand people tonight, the servers collapsed, which is unsurprising. It’s a network stress test, after all, and is useful information to make sure that the same thing doesn’t happen when the game proper is released.

But betas are increasingly starting to resemble advertising campaigns, alongside their supposedly intended purpose as a forum to provide useful feedback for developers. Halo 3 had a beta, which quickly became a crazy-hyped bit of marketing for the game’s multiplayer component. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare latched onto this, and I swear that its beta, which appeared a couple of months before release, acted more as a recruiting sergeant for the game than it did an exercise in balancing the multiplayer component. Sales of Modern Warfare then went through the roof on release, and it’s arguable that the game would have been a fair bit less successful without the advance titillation.

So where does a beta cross the line between testing and marketing? Well, maybe with the Halo Reach Beta itself, which was promoted last week by a live action short film depicting the “Birth of a Spartan”. When a network test has its own expensive advertising campaign, you know that we’re in different territory now.

More and more games are using the facade of a beta to drum up excitement for the finished product. Where once a single player demo was released, now there’s much more anticipation at the prospect of a limited multiplayer experience that runs for a few weeks and guarantees bums on seats. Or so you’d think. Bizarre Creations’ new racing battle game, Blur, wasn’t exactly enjoying major hype beforehand, and its recent beta only had a few hundred people playing each night, a situation so worrying for publisher Activision that it was reduced to making the code-based private beta accessible to everyone in order to make the servers look more busy. This may well give Activision’s PR guys the lay of the land about the uphill battle they face, as despite being good, the game currently looks dead on arrival unless it gets some seriously high review scores. The paucity of people on the servers in this case might even put players off the game.

Halo Reach’s beta forces people to buy a copy of Halo 3: ODST to become involved (unless you were lucky enough to get a code last week, as mentioned earlier), much as the original Halo 3 beta was only accessible following a purchase of Crackdown. So as well as marketing for new games, they can even be made to stimulate sales of older games. With the lines becoming blurred about the true purpose of these betas, it remains to be seen where the phenomenon will go next. For sure, when it comes to the big releases they’re incredibly popular. But with them increasingly resembling marketing campaigns in their own right rather than what we used to understand as a beta test, maybe the developers/publishers should start to be a bit more honest about the reason they exist.

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