Making a game that is equal parts engaging and polished is no easy task. Quality assurance has always been crucial to a great release, but this facet of development is only growing in importance. As video games increase in scale and scope, companies have a few options to play around with when it comes to tracking bugs, functionality feedback, and other important kinks to iron out.
One of the most popular options is public beta testing – a great way to get feedback directly from the product’s target audience, while also benefiting from a larger volume of testers. These are clear benefits, but beta testing isn’t a one-stop-shop for a high-quality user experience upon release. An over-reliance on this method can keep your game in a difficult, stagnant position. So, let’s break down a few shortcomings of beta testing, as well as some things to keep in mind before proceeding with a beta test.
A passionate player base is, of course, something to be thankful for. Should you go through with a beta test, these players are bound to provide great feedback on the more subjective components of gameplay, as well as flagging some of the more immediately noticeable and common bugs your build has.
But no matter how diligent and eager these players are, there are inherent limitations to their skillsets. Professional testers and QA practitioners have the vocabulary, knowledge, and familiarity with reporting processes that are essential to smoothing out bugs. An additional consideration is the replicability of certain bugs and other notable instances. Professionals have much more experience and know-how to recreate the issue at hand, while a small sliver of public beta testers may or may not have similar skills.
Maintaining a ticket system for bug reports is bound to yield some useful data, but developers will surely need to parse through unclear descriptions, inaccurate terminology, and potentially even non-issues that weren't worthy of a report. Relying on public beta reports too heavily can severely clog your testing and debugging pipeline.
Gathering player feedback before releasing a final build is a great way to make the community feel involved and connected. Features can be altered or added, nuances can be tweaked, and other subjective details can be worked out for a better product. These are high-value areas that public beta tests should focus on, rather than whether or not the game is in a working state.
Large projects that stay in public betas for too long, or even get repackaged as “early access” can quickly kill enthusiasm for a game. By releasing a game that is too buggy or even incomplete, any positive momentum leading up to a general release could be lost. Early access games that focus on feature iteration reasons are likely to fare much better in the market upon release.
A noteworthy example of early access done right is Valheim, a viking survival game released on Steam in early 2021. With a lean development team, the creators over at Iron Gate Studio fleshed out an experience that had its core gameplay elements mostly set in stone. While certain features and areas of the in-game map have yet to be released, the early access version of Valheim has proven to be the latest benchmark in early access programs. It isn’t a large-scale technical test, it’s an effective, high-quality preview of what the fuller experience will look like, and this approach has yielded overwhelmingly positive results for the developers.
In a sense, early access has the potential to be a solid marketing tool, but requires proper execution. By having a greater focus on internal QA pipelines, developers can put out a build that hones in on improving the subjective experience, while those trained to do so can handle the objective technical complexities beforehand.
Shipping a high-quality title requires a lot of manpower, time, and money spent. This can ring especially true for the QA process. Thankfully, testing doesn't always have to rely solely on hiring a greater number of testers.
Whether it’s about adopting a more agile workflow, or incorporating tools like automation to test more efficiently, developers have options at their disposal that can ensure public betas either aren’t necessary, or at least used under the right circumstances.