The closed beta for Sea of Thieves kicked off this week, and it didn’t take long for the hot takes to roll in. There were widespread server issues and general technical problems that prevented people from playing, leading to Rare extending the beta test by another two days. I saw someone suggest the game was already a sinking ship, implying that beta tests shouldn’t be deployed in this sort of state.
Which kind of got me thinking just how the meaning of the words ‘beta test’ has eroded in recent years. To my mind, the very reason the Sea of Thieves closed beta has even taken place is so that these exact issues come up and steps can be taken to solve them before launch. Rare still has nearly two months to go until Sea of Thieves’ March 20th release date so there’s plenty of time to make changes, particularly on the technical side of things.
But regardless, players were disappointed, and there’s an argument being made that a beta test serves as a demo, and it’s not good enough it shouldn’t be provided to players. A lot of this is down to a few publishers clearly using open betas as temporary demos. When you’ve got the likes of Battlefield 4 and Star Wars Battlefront playable the week before the games are due to launch, it’s more a case of marketing than testing. It’s caused a gradual erosion in how we perceive beta tests; many expect a fantastic, playable game in a near-final state or they cry foul.
It wasn’t always like this though. Years ago, beta tests were a fair bit less common but they were also deployed to the community in the understanding that this was for testing. Things would change and the feedback from players would help to change it. Players were being given an early chance to play the game in order to help out the development team. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.
I think a lot of the added complexity of this situation comes down to the bizarre trend of charging gamers for beta access, whether that’s a direct payment for an early edition or a pre-order bonus. The instant this is done, as was the case with Sea of Thieves, gamers shift from being beta testers to paying customers. It’s really strange that this has even become a thing, let alone a standard, with fans effectively paying to do the testing for a game. It does mean that if anything about a beta test should disappoint, they’re going to complain, and we’re seeing this with Sea of Thieves. While Rare hasn’t come right out and said it, this is probably a large factor in why the beta has been extended. Fans have stumped up $60 for a pre-order on the assumption they’d get to play the SoT beta for four days, and when they don’t get that they’re probably right to ask to be recompensed.
When I started writing this piece I was vehemently on the side of a beta test being exactly that - a beta for testing purposes. The further delve into the issue though, the greater the argument a beta, particularly when paid for, does act as a demo, and perhaps gamers are right to expect more. The answer, I suspect, lies somewhere inbetween.
What are your thoughts? Should beta testers cut developers some slack, or is it right to slam a game if the beta has serious issues? Let us know your thoughts!