Closed Betas and Group Culture

A while back I wrote an article about the Attraction-Selection-Attrition model that I thought could explain why gamers choose what guild, clan, or message board community that they do. You can read the article for the details, but the gist of it is that people…

  • Are attracted to organizations that share their values
  • Are selected by organizational membership gatekeepers based on how well their values match the organizational culture
  • Leave organizations over time as their values become (or are revealed to be) out of synch with the organizational culture

Founders, early members, and leaders have a disproportionate impact on defining values, which we call the “organizational culture.”

Recently we’ve been hearing an awful lot about two high profile closed game betas: StarCraft II and Halo Reach. It occurred to me that the ASA model of organizational choice could actually be applied to explain what kinds of people are attracted to closed betas and what lasting effects they have on player bases.

Halo Reach

You have failed the secret group handshake!

First, people who like the game series and the subculture around it are attracted to the beta. These are probably going to be your most hardcore fans –people who gush enthusiasm for the game and everything that goes with it. Casual fans or non-fans are not likely to even be interested at this point without coaxing.

Second, those fans are willing to go through some pretty crazy hurdles to get selected for membership into that beta testing group. They’ll preorder your nutso collector’s edition. They’ll subscribe to services they don’t want just to get into the beta, or they’ll buy Halo ODST as much for the Reach beta code as the game. And we all heard those stories about early StarCraft II beta keys going for hundreds of dollars or more on places like eBay.

All along the way, the beta testers are defining the culture for the group by forming explicit or unstated but understood agreements about what kind of behavior is allowed, encouraged, or unwanted. If everyone in the Halo Reach beta is foul-mouthed and hyper-competitive how much of that do you think is due to those shared expectations formed by early adopters eager to get selected into those ranks?1

The third piece of the model is admittedly a little sketchy, as the beta group doesn’t really experience attrition of these fans in the same way that employers have employee turnover. If a beta opens up to the public or a game goes retail the hardcore beta tester groups aren’t likely to leave 2 but there MAY very well be tension between the old beta testers and the new “scrubs” that flood the game. And beta testers may try to create their own sub-groups and isolate themselves in their own sub-culture.

Anyone have personal experience with this kind of thing?

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Footnotes:

1. Answer: quite a bit, though it’s worth noting that it’s also a carry-over from the previous games.
2. Unless they think the game isn’t worth paying for, but that’s another issue

8 thoughts on “Closed Betas and Group Culture

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  2. Actually, I think the third leg works just fine here. Those players who don’t like the foul-mouthed hyper-competitive atmosphere stop playing, maybe during the beta, maybe later. They don’t talk up the game, they don’t recruit others.

    It’s good to remember that we’re well down the road of this process when it comes to titles like Halo and Starcraft.

  3. I’m in the Starcraft 2 Beta.

    So far no one’s been foul-mouthed. The gameplay is a really hectic clickfest, you don’t get a lot of time to talk. So interaction is usually limited to just a gg at the end.

    It also seems to me that the cheap moves aren’t quite as annoying as in other games. In WoW sometimes you’ll have a Rogue who you had no chance to see keep you stunned so you have no chance to retaliate. This may get a player annoyed at the game design.

    The Rogue will then /spit on you, teabag you and corpse camp you. This will get a player who was already annoyed in general specifically annoyed at his opponent. There is good reason not to have cross-factional chat in WoW.

    In Starcraft while you might if you’re new be annoyed to be wiped out by a squad of invisible Dark Templars or zerg rush there are counters to these moves and people soon learn them. You really don’t have anyone but yourself to blame if you lose and the game lacks specific ways to belittle your opponent.

    Another issue is that we couldn’t figure out how to talk. It’s not obvious although occasionally we’ll meet someone who has figured it out. So even if we felt like saying our opponents are lame we can’t actually do it.

    You’re right about it being hardcore. Most people are scarily good. Even at the bottom of the ladder you face veteran online RTS players.

  4. Starcraft 2 had some pretty insane competitions for beta keys. There was quite a bit of rage when newb WoW players got the keys over loyal fanbois who were busy watching every stream of sc2 pros.

    The quality of play in sc2 up to the gold level is still pretty low. A large number of people just don’t know how to think about the game to play an RTS effectively.

    IDK if this group theory works at such a general level. It could be applied to clans, but you may run into problems defining “hardcore” players.

  5. This effect is pretty evident if you compare the communities of League of Legends and Heroes of Newerth. Both are DotA-style games, but their communities could not be more different. The former is far more welcome and tolerant of new players than the latter. While the design of LoL vs. HoN definitely factors into this, the original Beta playerbase of the two games has left quite a legacy that might never be shaken.

    Now this might be fine for the respective developers’ goals, but woe betide the n00b that picks up Heroes of Newerth instead of League of Legends.

  6. I’ve been hunting betas since I got a flatrate internet connection and I can safely say that this type of behaviour is very common.

    As group-oriented animals, we seek to find belonging in any setting, no matter how pants-on-head retarded it may seem.

    In Betas in particular you’ll get divisions defined by any type of noticable differentiation between two users.

    You’ll have the “Beta 4″ members – Who’s been playing the game since long before it was even in beta, apparently. And you disagreeing with a Beta 4 member will result in a short dismissal as you’re inferior experience defaults you to being wrong.
    Many people who aren’t Beta 4 members will still lie about it and sell themselves as it, as it makes their opinion more valid and they’re more ‘hardcore’.

    Then you have the “Pro Testers” who are a subgroup of Beta 4 but can utilized by non-Beta 4 testers to achieve higher status than Beta 4′s. The Pro Tester is serious about Testing and is getting paid by many many companies for it and everyone else in the beta is just there to test the game for free and should be banned should they ever find an exploit or bug and not make a proper report and not ever use the exploit.

    Beyond that you can have a bigger group, when the Beta 4′s and Pro’s are removed from the setting due to a closed beta being only one phase for example. In which case you’ll have the Closed Beta testers who’re higher ranked than Open Beta tester. As a random selection defines their status. In the lack of other defining qualities.

    Beyond this you’ll find just about any excuse to form a distinct group, be it the Only-Play-Underpowered-Races groups, the I-Never-Exploited-This-Or-That group, the Only-Noobs-Play-[InsertWhatever] group. And so on.

    What you’ll find is that groups are formed based on the ASA regardless of any factors, at all. Even in a setting where there is *no differenting features AT ALL*, the community will invent their own distinctions. Be it what country you’re from, how many hours you play, how many posts you have made on the forum, how old you are.

    I could go on on this subject, but this is just a comment, so. Let’s leave it at that.

  7. As a footnote, there are exceptions to this, as mentioned above.
    They are however rare and are in themselves creating a group behaviour where your general “immature” user is shunned instead and any type of non-mature (Which is defined by the group itself) acting will result in the same ASA model. Yet again.

  8. I have noticed something interesting in the Halo: Reach Beta. There are three distinct classes of people. There are the “online gamers”. These are the hardcore gamers who remind me of the “online gamer” you-tube guy. There are the “weekend warriors”. These people are also hardcore, but much friendlier, who use the game to escape their own reality, but they have not lost touch with it. The next group I call “young blood”. These are usually rich, bratty kids, age 10-15, who don’t really know how to play but they spend LOTS of time in the game and think it’s funny to trash talk people they don’t know. I call them “young blood” because I usually spill lots of the latter.

    The “online gamers” are going to talk trash anyway. They are going to tea-bag anyway. These are the people who are there to win, and they do. These people seek out anonymity to protect their real world reputation. He doesn’t want his boss to recognize him as he takes a rocket and sticks it in… well, you get the idea…

    To the “weekend warriors” the game is a way to turn down the volume of the real world. They are there to enjoy the game. They win some, they lose some. They seek out other weekend warriors to chat about their newborn kid while their character takes out opponents 10 at a time. These people only seek anonymity to protect their gaming experience from the online gamer that works in the cubicle next to you who you just spilled coffee on.

    The “young blood” feel that, since you don’t know who they are, they can disrespect you however they want to. This is usually in the form of four-lettered words being thrown around like rice at a wedding. These kids are trying to make themselves be cool by seeing how many people they can annoy. (have you noticed how I feel towards these people?) These kids are simply testing out what it is like to be a jerk in a place where they can do this with few repercussions (until their mother hears them and washes their mouth out with soap). Most will likely find that it really isn’t worth the trouble.

    In normal gameplay these groups are less distinct and there are a few other categories that emerge, but the Beta distills the player base to those 3 groups pretty efficiently. Anonymity has a distinct purpose and effect on each group. Deciding how to handle anonymity depends on which groups you want to have as the majority of your player base.

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