Demos are dull. Betas are the new hotness. Getting to play a game before it’s finished is thrilling - when it’s not bugging out or shoving pre-order reminders in your face, that is. Technical woes aside, though, there is one notable problem with betas that rarely gets called out:

Betas break competitive games.

Increasingly, the beta label is applied to games that are feature- and content-complete, requiring only minor tweaks and optimisation prior to release. The core experience has been nailed down, and is effectively the same come launch day. Participating in the beta, then, gives players a huge leg up on everyone else. They get to learn the layouts of maps, the locations of the best weapons, the optimal upgrade paths for various character classes. They get used to the weight of movement, the limits of the terrain, the idiosyncrasies that distinguish the game from its contemporaries. Controls become intuitive, the rhythm of the game like second nature.

The competitive advantage this confers is enormous. When the full game launches, beta players dominate the ranks. Their in-game unlocks and perk progression might not carry over, but their skill certainly does. Against the uninitiated, the beta players might as well be ninjas, striking from the shadows before newcomers even take their first step. Constantly getting ganked without reprieve makes for a crappy time. Who wants to keep playing if they’re always losing?

Matchmaking is supposed to address issues like this - ‘supposed to’ being the operative terms. The algorithms designed to assess player skill tend to be extremely narrow, putting too much stock in kill/death and win/loss ratios. These numbers can be especially misleading in team games with multiple ways to contribute to success: capturing control points, spotting enemies, couriering teammates around the battlefield, and other supportive activities. Eventually the imbalance becomes too severe for even a computer program to miss, but by then it’s often too late. With so many multiplayer FPSs, free-to-play MOBAs, and competitive MMOs vying for our attention, if a game stumbles at the starting line, we aren’t going to hang around while it picks itself up again.

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Participants in the Evolve Beta on Xbox One had a sizable advantage over everyone else when the game launched.

The window in which new players can feasibly compete with their seasoned brethren is already tiny. Jumping into Call of Duty or Battlefield just a month or two after release is often an invitation to abject slaughter. At that point, the servers are almost exclusively the domain of hardcore fans, the kind that play one game and one game alone. This phenomenon ruined Rocket League for me: I had a blast for the first week or so, and then average skill level shot so high that amateurs like me were left in the dust.

Betas only shrink the window of equality further. Those who sign up already have a vested interest, with a drive towards topping the leaderboards. This only broadens the divide even more. It gets even worse when the beta is limited to people who pre-ordered or a lucky few chosen by chance; at least open betas allow for everyone to get in early - in theory, at least.

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Betas can harm a game as much as they help it. While they give developers an opportunity to test new features and solicit player feedback, they also threaten the competitive stability multiplayer games rely so heavily on. The industry-wide push towards always-online experiences and rewarding time investment over player skill only exacerbates the issue. Sure, we can choose to play exclusively with friends or simply endure the disappointment of a 0-kill, 20-death battle record, but we shouldn’t have to. Either matchmaking algorithms need to improve significantly, or beta participants need to be appropriately handicapped come launch day. Maybe for the first couple of weeks, players with beta experience could be allocated their own servers separate from those coming in fresh. New players could join those too if they wanted, but at least they’d have a more welcoming arena in which to learn the ropes.

That’s just my thinking, though. What about you? Do you feel betas confer an unfair advantage? Or am I just really bad at competitive games? (I suspect this is very much the case!) If you have any thoughts, I’d love to hear them!