Tuesday, January 12, 2010

We Are All Beta Testers

By Kirk Hamilton

More than any other type of creative enterprise, software developers rely heavily on iteration.  That's why we see so many versions of software, why we get new releases of our operating systems and web browsers each year or two, and why terms like "2.0" and "Beta" have become part of the common parlance.  You certainly don't see movie-makers or recording artists releasing "The Return Of The King 2.3," or "FutreSexxLoveSounds Closed Beta."

For some reason, I never really thought of this concept of iteration going much past functional software - MS Office gets a new year in its title every year, Apple releases a new cat-themed OS, Windows does... whatever the hell it is that Windows has been doing lately.  However, this past year, it's become clear that iterations are as much a part of gaming as they are any other software.

I refer not only to the seemingly endless public betas we've started to see (Battlefield: Bad Company 2, MAG, ModNation Racers, the entire run of Playstation Home), but also to the fact that this year we saw so many sequels, and so many were basically just significantly improved versions of the original game. After playing through so many refined sequels, it really felt as though we the gaming community spent 2007 and 08 doing free beta testing for the world's developers, and only this year were we beginning to reap the benefits of all that testing.

The biggest reason for that was the sense that it was our feedback on the originals, given in forums, game reviews, and blogs, that helped make their sequels as good as they were.  It's easy to sit around and say that Assassin's Creed 2 or Left 4 Dead 2 are the games that we all "should have gotten" the first time around, but the truth of the matter is that it is because we let Ubisoft and Valve know what was missing from their first games that we got what we wanted the second time.

Other recent releases like Gears of War 2, Modern Warfare 2, Uncharted 2, GTA IV: The Ballad of Gay Tony, and from the looks of it, Mass Effect 2 all took criticisms of their first versions to heart and ironed the rough spots out of the sequels. It's true, also, that some games listened a bit too much to the critics (MW2 seemed to let all the praise for the first game's shocking moments go to their heads, and one could say that Assassin's Creed 2 has almost too many things to do).

It's worth noting, also, that this only seems to happen to franchises that began on the current generation - sequels to franchises from the last gen haven't faired nearly as well.  Resident Evil 5, Metal Gear Solid 4, Fable 2, Tomb Raider: Underworld, and, one suspects, Final Fantasy XIII and maybe even God of War 3, all have drawn much more mixed reactions than the sequels in the paragraph above.  I get the sense that it's a lot harder to do a sequel when you're porting an engine (and a team) from last-gen hardware than when you've built one from scratch.

It's a distinction unique to games - I've certainly never heard see a film and then say "This was a good start, but let's hope they can fix the issues in the sequel." 2010 looks like it'll have no shortage of big-name sequels, and as they begin to pour in, I'm starting to think of them not like the proper sequels we see at the movies, but rather as re-released iterations of a single product, one step further from beta and closer to the developer's definitive vision.

Come the end of the month, I'm going to be really excited not about Mass Effect 2, but about Mass Effect 2.0.