Reaching Beta: Learning from Game Testing

Some might consider Tuesday, September 14th “National Halo Reach Day” and take the day off of work to play the newest version in the Halo gaming family (we will be at the office). But before we get to tomorrow, let’s take a look a few months back when video gamers were offered a short sneak peek of Halo Reach as a beta candidate. Now I’m by no means a serious gamer, and I’m not a very “strong” Halo player (you can see for yourself and challenge us if you like… leave your gamertag in the comments and we’ll friend you), but Halo Reach is an interesting beta release case study beyond the gaming community.

Without going into depth about the gameplay, there are five aspects of the Reach beta launch that the interactive industry can learn from.

1. Gameplay Feedback

From a pure gameplay standpoint, the beta release puts the game into the hands of actual gamers to see if they interact in the ways the game designers and developers expected. Gamers test the controls, environment interaction, weapon functions, and game variants. This is pretty straightforward beta testing: put a release candidate in front of people and see how they interact. The feedback obtained from these interactions can help modify weapon capabilities, map adjustments, power-up abilities, etc.

How does this relate to interactive design: Putting a beta candidate in front of actual people provides feedback and interaction that can’t be obtained within a closed system of testers or by “what we think people will do.”

2. Learning How to Adjust Community Engagement

The Halo “community,” meaning the people you encounter during XBox Live multiplayer gameplay, can be some of the most juvenile, ignorant, and intolerant people you’ll encounter, and a serious lesson on what anonymity can create online. But it is a community, and there is the opportunity to interact before you even get into a game. In Halo 3, players are given the opportunity to accept the type of game they’re going to play as offered up by the server (straight-up fighting, objective-based games, etc.) or veto the game and accept whatever the server offers up instead. This takes the power of determining what to play out of the players hands and puts it in the servers’s hands.

In Halo Reach, instead of accept or veto, players have the chance to vote on one of three game options. This not only puts more power in players’ hands to choose what to play, but it creates a “mini-game” of winning the game type you want to play. It makes players feel proactive instead of reactive. This simple change to the pre-game environment changes how players interact with each other. Is it a step towards civility through democracy? Probably not, but it does change how you engage in the game.

How does this relate to interactive design: Provide people with deeper interactions that allow them to control the result instead of trying to force people down a path they don’t want to go down.

3. Introducing New Game Behaviors

In addition to voting instead of the current accept/veto option for game type acceptance, there’s new gameplay behaviors that have been introduced in the beta. Instead of having “power-ups” like in the current Halo gameplay (you can pick up invisibility/cloaking or an overshield), power-ups are built in to the type of character you select to be. Players can choose extra running speed, a jetpack, an “invincibility” shield, or a invisibility/cloaking ability, and the different power-ups equip your character with different weaponry. These new power-ups only last for a limited amount of time, and recharge after a certain duration. But it adds a different strategic dimension to gameplay: what kind of special ability and weapons will help me in the game type I’m playing and the map I’m on? By introducing this function in the beta, game developers can see how people are using these power-ups, as well as the simple fact of introducing this feature to players.

How does this relate to interactive design: Instead of launching a ton of new functionality all at once, get people familiar with new features by releasing them incrementally. With redesigns, we tend to think about releasing everything at once, which can be overwhelming for people. By giving them tastes of new functions and features, they become comfortable with a new function, allowing them to be ready for the next new feature.

4. Measuring Gameplay

By having a beta release, the game developers can track practically everything done within the gameplay environment. Which game types received the most/least votes? Where did players die the most? What weapons were used the most/least and to what effect? What power-ups did people select the most/least? Did players quit games, and when? How did players spend their “points” in modifying their appearance?

How does this relate to interactive design: See how people are interacting, and to what extent. Through analytics, focus groups, and engagement metrics, find out what people are doing so you can have an idea on how and why to improve and adjust the experience.

5. Marketing

The beta release created a way to market the launch of the new game well before the game comes out. Coverage through news and social media provided a way to promote Halo Reach months before the official launch. And players had a chance to sample Halo Reach beforehand so they’re more inclined to purchase it.

How does this relate to interactive design: The interactive experience is marketing. It can (and should) be something that people will talk about and share. And letting people try before they buy allows them to sample before purchase. If they like the sample, they’re more likely to purchase.

I read somewhere (wish I could remember where) that about 13 million beta games were played while the beta release was available. That’s a lot of beta testing. Oh, and yeah, we’ll probably be playing this around lunchtime on Tuesday, September 14th if it arrives in time. Look forward to seeing you online!

(Image on right from weeble.net)

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