Monday, 10 May 2010

I am not a target market (or at least I wouldn't be if I didn't enjoy buying things so much)

The infamous words of Johnny Rotten appropriately set the tone here: “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” If only we paid a little more attention, us ‘modern gamers’ would find ourselves answering ‘yes’ to this question on a regular basis. I could use numerous examples to illustrate my point here; the scourge of subscription fees or even DLC swindles, but I’ll resist the temptation in order to bring something else to your attention, something you may not have given much thought – the horror that is the ‘exclusive beta’.

The idea of a Beta itself is not one that I oppose. Games like Halo Reach will greatly benefit from their beta testing – allowing it’s designers to fix glitches and rebalance the gameplay before retail release. Reach’s Beta serves so many purposes; it’s findings directly affect the game’s development, it gets the fans hyped and it makes them feel as if they are an important part of the design process, which they naturally should be. My issue is more with the frequent misuse of the term: when developers describe a humble demo as a beta. They deliberately abuse the term to make their game seem all the more important, to give it an air of exclusivity and make us want it all the more. They invite us to ‘take part’ rather than simply ‘download’ and so many of us are willing to participate. I’ll admit, I’ve done it a few times now; sat on Twitter waiting for codes and gone through shitty, long-winded registration processes just to get myself a beta code. Not once did I ask myself the right questions: Is this actually a Beta? Is there a feedback system in place? Is there really enough time between now and the game’s release to implement any of this feedback? Nearly every time, the answer would have been ‘hell no’.

If you’re wondering why publishers and developers engage in such seemingly deceitful and devious behaviour, the answer is quite simple. They aren’t pure evil nor do they get off on hoodwinking you, it’s just that they’re getting a bit desperate. Right now, we are experiencing one of the gaming industry’s most fruitful and productive periods. Naturally, there are a great number of games all vying for our attention, desperate for us to send our hard-earned coin in their specific direction. Nothing wrong with that. Go capitalism. The problem for the companies is that competition is tougher and they have to come up with more imaginative and elaborate ways in which to make us believe that only they deserve our patronage. In times such as these, the ‘Beta’ is a marketing man’s wet dream. Getting customers to work for a code instantly raises brand awareness. You can tell your friends, you can gloat and you were aware of and thinking about that one particular game the entire time you were doing it. The process of working for the beta code is a persistent form of advertising and every time you gloat, every person who follows your words, makes you the guy with the digital sandwich board. Before you realise it, you’ve allowed yourself to be marketed to and you’ve done somebody’s job for them. It wouldn’t be so bad if you’d got paid, but all you were left with was a shitty demo for a game that nobody really cared about until they identified the distinct whiff of exclusivity.

My heart goes out to the various marketing departments that try these tactics, because my better nature believes that it was probably the last resort. When the previews and trailers aren’t paying off, poor little Johhny Marketing Department has to resort to the false beta to drum up some interest before release. I want to buy these guys a book filled with Donald Draper wisdom so that they may see the error of their ways and I pity them because it’s a tough job. On the one hand you’ve got disgruntled, loud-mouthed gamers like myself who scarcely have an eye for anything that isn’t made by Capcom and on the other you’ve got jaded games journalists who have to play the same old crap day-in, day-out. Simply put, there’s always going to be a lot working against the marketing of any game, especially with the shelves being so crowded.

Publishers and their marketing departments continue with this sort of behaviour for one, simple reason. We, the gamers, allow them to. Every time we cue up for a demo masquerading as a beta, we are telling them that this shit works. As consumers, we should remain stalwart, sensible and demanding. There will always be plenty to play, so stop running around and stop allowing yourself to be marketed to. Those marketing guys get paid tidy sums, so make them work for it. Every time we get over-excited at the whiff of something being even mildly exclusive, we are doing someone’s job for them and sending out the message that they don’t need to try with the products any more, because the marketing works like a dream.

1 comment:

cr0nt said...

I hope you are aware that there is currently a terrifying precedent of 'paid for beta testing'.

Looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, its a demo.

Irregardless of how many people play test a game, there will be others that immediately come up with something that wasn't thought about and you have a patch a week later.

So many companies are watching us play games while we are playing games with feedback code hidden deep inside their games so that patches and fixes can be created I don't see much point. For one the internal testers should have the balance down quite quickly. So other than marketing, there is little point to them.