Another Rant About Beta Testing Video Games

As I’ve been trying to make my job less mentally taxing and find ways to reinvest myself in the work I’m doing that actually pays bills, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to test software and what it means to play video games in beta or early access. I’m not going to go on another full rant about it, not so soon after the last one, anyway, but given how much of my life is given to testing software and how much is given to video games, it’s difficult to avoid considering the place those two things intersect.

Many of the games I’ve played and enjoyed the most this past year have been games in a pre-release state or games that have been so buggy right after launch that they’re essentially still in pre-release. Today, even, I booted up the latest patch of Baldur’s Gate 3 to play with my friend, and that game is the most “early access” game I’ve ever played.

Despite being from a big (ish) studio and garnering a huge amount of media attention, it’s still incredibly limited in scope. There’s no clear end to the course of the game’s plot and playtime, there’s a huge swathe of features that may never be implemented from the core D&D 5e ruleset or have yet to be implemented, and every new patch requires hours of patching and updating and installing. I even had to do a windows update and a display driver update just so the textures in the game wouldn’t load and unload constantly. Sure, my graphics card is old, but it’s not THAT old and it’s still well above the minimum requirements for the game.

No one twisted my arm. I thought the game would be fun and I was dying for SOME KIND of Dungeons and Dragons experience, given how rarely I get to play rather than run a game, so I bought it. And while it eventually reaches some kind of stability after each major patch, it’s clear that the game started out as something other than a strict D&D 5e adaption and is being slowly worked towards that goal. It’s also clear that playing the game in the week after a patch means I’m going to have an awful time because I crashed the game half a dozen times in the four hours I played it today, got blank-screened three times, and have the worst luck with the game registering I’ve created the correct conditions for sneak attacks to hit.

The friend I was playing with had almost none of those problems. She was prompted to update her display drivers correctly, and she never had the gameplay issues I did (though I will admit that some of my gameplay issues might just be how well I know D&D 5e and the fact that this game is not exactly those Rules As Written). No crashes on her end, either.

Which is pretty in-keeping with the life of being a tester. You sort of get a feel for how to find and push at the edges of the code you’re working on, so you do stuff like test the automatic pathing for characters (they used to run right through all the fire and now they avoid visible hazards). Or test the jump-pathing that used to run you right up the edge of what you were jumping off rather than let you jump from further back if you could get to your chosen destination without needing to move. Or doing odd button pushes to check response time. And sometimes, like my auto-save crash issue, you’re just unlucky. I don’t believe in the bad luck of the software tester, but I also personally believe I have bad luck in everything except dice rolls (though I don’t have good luck there, either. I just roll high, no matter what. Even if it’s bad to roll high, I still do it). So it might just be a “six of one, half dozen of another” type situation.

Either way, it’s just disheartening to see such an acclaimed, attended game rely so heavily on community testing. I understand there’s a huge degree of choice and options and data to test, but a lot of that should be covered in automated test or by a gaggle of testers hired just for that purpose. I mean, I KNOW for a fact, from my testing, that rogue sneak attacks only work when using the “ally within five feet” rule IF said ally has actually made a melee attack against that foe. They get the “threatened” tag as soon as they move within melee distance, but sneak attacks only work AFTER the melee attack has been made. Which is not how the rule even SAYS it works. This isn’t even a 5e versus BG3 thing. The ability says “within 5ft” and says nothing about requiring a melee attack.

I get it, there’s a lot to check when you’re importing a TTRPG into a video game, but you should absolutely be hiring the testing staff you need for this. It’s all math, mechanics, and rules, and a lot of that could be covered by a good team of test engineers and some good automated testing, but they’re sending this out to the community to test and we’re paying them for the privilege of doing it. And this is just normal. This is expected.

It makes it really difficult to get interested or enthusiastic about my job when most of the world seems convinced that they should be able to pay to do my job on video games and that any expectation of a well-tested game is an unreasonable one.

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