In a time gone by, a Beta test was exactly what it suggested, it was about testing the game and proividing as much feedback as possible within a certain timeframe. In the past few years things have changed somewhat. A Beta test is now more than a way to iron out any last minute bugs that could be game-breaking before a game goes gold.
The marketing wizards at game developers/publishers have realised that a Beta test can be an incredibly powerful tool to heighten awareness of game, awareness that money can’t buy, no magazine advert or banner ad could ever beat the power of the gamers’ voice.
The most recent Beta test to really embrace the concept has been TRION’s RIFT. The Beta kicked off in December so that’s just over two months ago. When the test launched, everyone who took part in Beta one was stunned at the polish and lack of bugs but we have to remember the timing of the Beta will have been very carefully planned to slot in with the release date and marketing plans.
Unlike most Beta tests these days, the RIFT Beta had set times as to when it was going to go live so instead of launching the Beta and then continually taking player’s feedback from forums and the in-game ticket system, the testing period for feedback was controlled. Each test ran for three days initially, which rather cunningly was just enough time for players to get through 6-10 character levels per session depending on the amount of time invested. So what? What this did was give gamers a small taste of the game mechanics and enough time to familiarise themselves with each zone one or two at a time as TRION slowly opened up new zones for players. The player was being restricted but TRION gave just enough that when the test shut-down players were left wanting more.
The time between each test was of course just as important as the test itself. It allowed TRION to fully digest the feedback.  Although they checked the forum feedback, they focused heavily on the feedback that came via the in-game ticketing system according to Producer Scott Hartsman because that was direct live feedback and tended to be more to the point. With TRION on-hand throughout the tests, fixes were being pushed live and features were being worked on in time for the next test. 
The week long periods of no beta access encouraged the ‘chatter’ within the growing RIFT community and afforded the press time to write. During down-time articles popped up and the community got busy in the official forums discussing likes, dislikes and generally arguing about how the game was or wasn’t a World of Warcraft clone, which I have to say became a little tedious. Regardless of that, the community was strengthening and momentum was building as word of mouth became TRION’s most powerful tool for promotion.

The Beta moved on to Beta 5 and at that point TRION were starting to really push out the Beta keys through the general videogame press and to their own community. A RIFT VIP key became a must-have object for MMO fans as they scrambled around the Internet grabbing keys. Every player knew the earlier they got on the test, the more time they would have to spend with the game. With positive articles hitting the Internet between each test, hunger grew stronger for the keys. IncGamers alone shifted 25,000 VIP keys in a very short space of time.
The distribution of keys also allowed TRION the luxury of knowing roughly how many players would be attempting to connect to servers on any given test weekend so when each weekend arrived there was always some sort of contingency plan in place to alleviate queues,  and as well know, queues  are a sure-fire way to irritate players. Within the space of an hour more servers were kicked live and any wait time was taken from fifty plus minutes to less than five at the most.
Let’s also not forget the power of Social Networking. Facebook has become a powerful tool to spread the word. In recent weeks we have seen a few developers offer incentives for communities to ‘like’ and join their Facebook page. We’ve seen the “if we hit XXXX users we will reveal something new or give something cool to the community” from a few developers, and it works. Twitter has also become a great tool, and by Beta 7, TRION had integrated Twitter into the game to broadcast achievements and more. While I am not a huge fan of Facebook, it can be very useful for promotional purposes as both Twitter and Facebook have the promotional snowball effect.
The final week of the RIFT Beta has just wrapped up and I must say it has been one of the most enjoyable and well organised MMO Beta tests I have taken part in for many years. The anticipation between each test, watching the community grow and get behind the developers, and also seeing changes to the game between each weekly break has been interesting to observe. Overall the RIFT Beta test has been a success, not only in helping the development team put the very final touches to the game, but also as a great promotional tool.
Are Beta tests becoming more like huge extended demos and sales tools? Based on TRION’s latest test it certainly feels that way, but when you have a game that’s so polished when it hits the Beta test stage it doesn’t really matter. I’m sure the TRION team were flat-out fixing all sorts of bugs and optimising servers during the test that the general public don’t know about. However, when a test runs almost flawlessly, (which the RIFT test did except for one unexpected outage and problems with ports at UK ISPs), players hardly notice and leave with a very positive feeling about the game which in-turn brings in the early subscriptions. Hats off to TRION for a job well done, with combined online marketing and the use of every tool avaialble to promote the game, RIFT could be off to a flying start.

Paul Younger
Founder and Editor of PC Invasion. Founder of the world's first gaming cafe and Veteran PC gamer of over 22 years.

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