Why is it that betas are turning into full fledged marketing strategies? That’s the question I asked myself after I read a recent beta reminder email from GameStop. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing I like more than getting early an preview of a game, and I’m sure that there are millions of other gamers out there that feel the same way. The thing is, companies are noticing and starting to prey on that; and while the final decision to buy rests in our own hands, when will this current trend of “double selling” and using Betas as a sales crutch stop?
What I mean by “double selling” is the following. I’m a developer/publisher and I have a lineup of games to be released during the year. I have a title that I know will sell well by name alone (think Halo: Reach) and another one that may have some trouble getting off the ground (think Halo: ODST). What is a game company like me to do?
Simple: give early beta access to the “hot” game for those who buy the “OK” game (that they really don’t want). From a business perspective, it makes perfect sense. But what about the consumers?
During this generation, console beta’s have gone from being something super exclusive where actual user feedback was not only recommended but actually necessary in many cases. In only 3 years time it has transformed and (under extreme situations) has even replaced actual demos for many big budget titles. Gone are the days of subscribing to certain magazines, taking surveys, and joining sites like PlayStation Underground (remember that?) in order to be honored with the privilege of joining a Beta and being an actual, you know — tester.
I mean seriously, when was the last time we’ve seen a real server stress test?
Although “double selling” looks like a can’t miss strategy from a company stand point, you do still have those rare instances when it can blow up in their faces as well. This happens when early beta members get access and realize that “hey, this game is probably going to suck.” The core audience and video game site readers (like you) know that things like bugs and such can be patched for improvement but the average consumer who also happens gets early access will more often than not simply write-off the title, take that five dollar pre-order they had originally placed and slap it onto something else the next time they’re at the store or shopping online.
For consumers the problem is that they’ve already bought the game that earned them the early access. So now they’re turned off by the beta, no longer interested in the game they originally wanted, and 60 bucks lighter for their troubles. And just to add insult to injury, the “exclusive” beta that was only available if you purchased “Game X” is now being given away by every video game related Facebook page and Twitter account that you can think of. Ah yes, marketing at it’s finest.
Not sure how much longer it’s going to continue but at the pace that things are going this year alone, it looks like we’re just getting started. Pubslihers and developers alike are chaining games together like it’s no body’s business (See: SCEA). And yes, while the final decision to purchase does rest in our own hands, instead of dangling a Beta carrot in front of everyone to buy all of their titles these developers and publishers should cut a deal on the price or offer some other incentive on the upcoming “hot” title instead, and maybe people will take a chance on their “OK” title as well. While they’re at it they should also make the word Beta’s actually mean something again, maybe even (crazy thought incoming) ship a better final product.