By a show of hands, how many of you picked up Crackdown for the Xbox 360 back in the day just to play the Halo 3 beta? Yeah, it looks like a lot of you. Which is okay. I remember the days when getting into a beta was a big deal.
Now there are some of you who don't know what a beta is, and that is okay. A beta is a development stage for video games that allows people to test said game before it releases. Betas usually are more open to the public and represent the most accurate depiction of the finalized product.
At one point in the history of computer gaming, being involved in a beta test was a big deal. Usually a developer would give closed beta access to players that helped provide feedback or just became such a super fan that it was seen as a reward for players. Although just playing a close to final build of a game wasn't all they did. Tons of feedback and user input would be calculated by both players and developers to see what people were doing in their game. For example, if a weapon was way too overpowered, they would fix it prior to launch so that perhaps more people would enjoy it.
Some betas are used primarily just for stress testing of servers. When you play online with other players through the internet, you are put through a server. The server connects all players together in a single area of the internet. So when you play Call of Duty, you're logged into a special server that runs the online portion of Call of Duty. But how do they make sure that the server would be able to handle almost a million people playing the game all at the same time? By stress testing. It enables people to measure how many servers they may need to keep the game running at a good pace.
Now, we have come a long way between the early 90's to today when it comes to these betas. Now we see the term "beta" attached to every game out there. Now the beta has become more than just a test. It has now become a marketing item; just like Crackdown and Halo 3. It is used to help drive sales up for their titles. Rainbow Six will have one on 9/24, is it to help drive up the sales in this specific moment? Most likely, since the game doesn't release till late December (which is a death wish by industry standards). Call of Duty ran a beta test for Black Ops 3 several weeks ago, and that became a big deal for people who didn't enjoy the last Call of Duty. Now they know how this one is going to play and will see the differences and most likely pick up Black Ops 3.
Now, the beta has evolved beyond just playing a portion of the game early. Companies like IBM released computer software in 1984 called WordVision. It was a word processor for their PCs. In a special "pioneer edition" of WordVision you were able to test the software for the price of $49.95. Stephen Manes (Forbes writer 1998 - 2007) went on the record saying that the program publishers managed to get people to pay for the privilege of testing a product, and that this was a brilliant marketing coup. Some companies have started to take that even further with programs such as "early access" titles. Games that aren't quite finished, but you can buy in to "help" with the process. The games are usually at a discounted price due to the condition of the game. By playing these unfinished games, you can send feedback and help the company realize what is going on in their games. When the full release is made available, you won't have to pay anything in addition unless these companies decided to mess with their now upset fans.
In the end, there is a big risk with a public beta. You're going to have one person dislike what they are playing for every five to ten people that actually like it. You're going to see people cancel pre-orders or just flat out not get the game. Other people will jump in and get the purely on what they played during the beta. This is a trend that will never go away. We may question if games like Battlefield and Call of Duty really need betas in the first place due to their already popular stature. But in relative time, Star Wars: Battlefront will have their open beta, and that is one I wouldn't miss if I was you.