In a time when making a PC game without online capabilities is suicide, having a generous pool of out-of-house testers is an invaluable asset to a company. Any gaming company with enough skill in marketing to create the slightest amount of buzz about their upcoming game is sure to have more than enough hands to make quick work of the network and non-ai testable features of the game. For a given game beta, who knows how many will apply? Certainly more than are needed. So who gets to play, and who gets the shaft? More importantly, why?
Personally, I’ve filled out so many applications for game betas that it doesn’t even phase me any more: I probably won’t win, but at least I can show my support for the game. I know that the person who will win in my stead likely has more hours per day to devote to the game, more background in beta testing games in general, and has probably even played through far more games than me in his lifetime. However, in all likelihood, this person will probably have a smaller social network, and will thus not be able to market the game as effectively as I could if I were chosen. So who is the right person to pick in this (somewhat polar, contrived) situation? Do you want someone to find bugs in the game, someone who will ceaselessly play the game for you so you can log his every move and figure out where the bugs are?
This person basically serves the same purpose as any well-scripted bot that the company can produce themselves; the only difference is that the human can be used to balance more aspects of the game, since it’s terribly difficult to script intelligence in bots to the point where weapons, maps, and other niche aspects can be balanced effectively. They’ll raise their own skill in the game and be better at it when it releases, and maybe even discourage some new players from continuing their patronage. This last scenario doesn’t matter in a one-time-fee game, but for online subscriptions it matters a great deal. Most subscription games, however, don’t allow persistence of your character from beta to release anyway.
On the other hand, there is the semi-hardcore gamer who will spend enough time playing your game to have made it worth your while in ways other than finding bugs. He still might find a bug or two, or at least get himself into a strange situation which will give you a good enough stack trace to figure out where the bug is. But, more importantly, and perhaps more valuably, he will talk with his friends about the game, raise hype, network socially with others online (and in person) and probably do more to promote the game in general than the introvert in the first example. To me, this seems a more valuable person to choose.
I say all of this because of a trend that seems to happen in gaming these days. Too many times, on too many beta applications there are so many small, finicky, nit-picky questions that are clearly there to weed out those who haven’t already beta-tested for 10 games in the past. How many games do you play in a given week? How many of those games are online? If this is an MMO/RPG, how many MMO/RPGs have you played in the past? Which ones have you spend more than 100 days playing? It’s questions like these which make it very obvious exactly what the company is looking for. However, none of these questions will yield anyone like the person from the second example, the socialite. If you want someone to actually test your game, fine. If you think your company is strong enough that it can’t use some free marketing (and really, who is so big that they can say that? if they can say that, then they probably won’t be staying big for very long).
In my opinion, the “beta test” marketing scheme is one of the best, as it gets people excited about your upcoming game. It gets people talking. If it’s a bad game, then bad news and reviews will come out before you’re even done. So what? For those who remember, the upcoming game Tabula Rasa was completely different in it’s first phase than it is now. It was so bad, so bland, so generic that the team actually listened to the people who would be playing the game and re-did it in it’s entirety. Now, that’s what I call useful beta test information. Alternatively, a game getting strongly positive hype in beta (a la, WoW, Halo 3, FFXI, EverQuest, need I go on?) will produce (I predict) a far greater stream of revenue in the beginning of the game’s life cycle than would a game without this same hype.
I’m not saying that game companies shouldn’t try their best to get the best candidates for the job; all I’m saying is that sometimes the best candidate for the job isn’t the introverted, downward-spiral game “g33k” who skips his own wedding for a raid. Sometimes, the best person for the job is the person who will make you the most money. Bugs can be fixed, but a game never releases twice.