When a game carries a beta tag, even on a console, players expect some warts. After all, one purpose in holding a public beta is to ensure the final product is as strong as possible. At the same time, a public beta is a very important way to spread buzz about an upcoming game, as it gives gamers a (normally rare) opportunity to try a portion of the game for free.
In terms of assisting development, Gears of War 2 desperately needed a public beta, as that game launched with some of the worst server issues and net-coding problems I have ever experienced. When it comes to 'selling' a game, Halo: Reach would have sold millions of copies no matter what, but the beta also sold a lot of people (including me) on the numerous design changes Bungie had made from the previous game.
Two high-profile public betas for multi-player games, Crysis 2 and Killzone 3, were just held. While the betas will surely impact final development of the game, they were both being held very close to launch, so the main impact will be on server issues (both had some warts there) rather than big-picture design changes. This is especially true of Killzone, whose beta occurred after the game 'went gold'. On the other hand, while having a minor impact on design, both betas will have a huge impact as marketing for the game - which this article will focus on.
Since Crysis 2's beta happened first, let's talk about that one first. I've written at slightly more length about gameplay here, but here we're focusing on packaging. The package for Crysis 2 was rather small: a basic deathmatch mode featuring one map - a rather small map to boot. 'Skyline' felt like 'Highrise' and 'Estate' from Modern Warfare 2 melded together, giving the game a very similar feel Call of Duty. This may have been an intentional decision by Crytek and EA, but to me it failed to offer a reason I should check out the game aside (keeping in mind we're not talking gameplay here).
Later in the beta, the 'Pier 17' map opened for some players (not me). Based on what I've seen online about the 'hidden level', it did a much better job of showcaasing the unique aspects of Crysis 2 - particularly the lighting in CryEngine 3. If you have an arguably more unique map, why not use that as the first thing players will experience of your game - especially ones trying to decide if it is worth their money?
Perhaps they chose 'Skyline' in order to acclimate console gamers to the Crysis brand, giving them a dose of something familiar in a compact map which could easily be 4 v 4. That said, straight-up deathmatch on one map (and a sort of second map) isn't much of a marketing tool - especially one with a rather brief run. There's no concern of people playing the beta instead of buying the full game, so why didn't Crytek open up the game just a little more? By failing to show more of what is on offer in the full game, it fails to grab my attention, and thus fails as a marketing tool.
After feeling constrained and quite honestly bored with Crysis 2, the open beta for Killzone 3 was surprisingly expansive. Despite only offering one map, Frozen Dam, Guerrilla opened the entire suite for gamers to explore. I spent most of my time in 'Guerrilla Warfare', which is straight up Team Deathmatch action, but the range of classes and customization options open up very different play styles.
More notably, Frozen Dam itself is more than one map. Deathmatch games are restricted to one portion of the map, but the larger game modes like Warzone feature the full map (and an appropriately larger number of players). This is very similar to the way DICE created multiple versions of the maps in Battlefield: Bad Company 2 to support its different Conquest, Rush, and Squad Deathmatch modes. The dual nature of the map, combined with the number of modes on display, helps keep the brief beta fresh in a way that Crysis 2 failed to deliver. I came out wanting to pre-order Killzone 3, while Crysis 2 left me uninspired.
The most impressive aspect of the Killzone 3 demo was the inclusion of its 'Botzone' offline mode, carried over from previous games in the franchise but notably streamlined in its implementation (it is much easier to set up a match, configuring it to your liking, than in Killzone 2). Though Guerrilla was likely still running metrics in the game, here was something that didn't directly impact the stated purpose of an open beta after a game has gone gold: testing server stability. It was a particularly nice touch the first night I played the beta when connection issues kept me off the servers for close to an hour, but I could keep evaluating the game and learning the map on display.
[Note: a version of this article previously appeared on my blog, The Acerbic Gamer.]