There wasn't going to be a Gears of War 3 beta last month.
The huge Xbox 360 shooter was simply going to come out in the spring, no beta to precede it. You'd be able to own the full game by now if everyone had stuck to the original plan. Things changed some time late last year. Microsoft delayed the game to the fall, leaving it creators at Epic Games an opportunity they'd wanted: to make a beta.
"We were on track to ship, and so we were nearing completion," Jim Brown, who heads development on the multiplayer portions of the first Gears of War and has resumed that responsibility for the new game, told me recently. "We figured this would be the perfect chance for us to do this. So we just dove in with both feet to do everything to get it out the door. "
Brown convincingly argues that the beta was no mere marketing ploy. He says it has made Gears of War 3 much better.
"There's obviously a huge marketing component," Brown said, "We got our name out there, we got people looking at the game, we got people hands-on playing the game." He's right. The beta was popular and was played by more than a million people while it was live for about a month this past spring.
"But," he added, "this was genuinely an attempt for us to get feedback and try these new processes out. When Gears 2 shipped, it was admittedly a little bit rocky. There were some problems with matchmaking and overall game balance issues that we addressed, certainly, but that was over a series of title updates [read: downloadable patches]. It took us a while to iron out all the wrinkles, and we wanted to make sure we didn't have that initial hump to get over [with Gears 3]."
The beta consisted of four maps and three gameplay modes. Several of the weapons, liked the sawed-off shotgun, were new, as were fundamental gameplay changes like the fact that killed players could re-spawn before the end of a match. (Reminisce by taking a video tour of what was in the beta.)
"This was the perfect chance for us to test-balance our new weapons, to test the new set-up dedicated servers, to test our matchmaking algorithm, to test our point-balancing and new game mechanics," Brown said. "All these things… the new title and ribbon system, the new leveling system, all the stuff that was new to the game, this was a really great test-bed, with over a million people banging on it day-in and day-out, to see what's wrong, we hope, before we get the full game out. "
Some of the tweaks coming out of the beta were the kinds of things you'd expect: altered weapons, revised reward systems. "We changed the headshot damage on one of the rifles," Brown said. "We changed the overall power of another one." They changed the names of some of the ribbons—the accolades that appear for various feats during an online battle—and tweaked some of the awards that were given out. One ribbon reward, called Underdog, infuriated expert players. It could be earned only if you beat a player who was 25 character-levels above you. It was only worth 10 experience points, but day-one players who could play the game well never encountered any players who were 25 levels above them. They couldn't earn that reward and they complained. The result: cut.
Brown said his team at Epic also "identified some pretty serious flaws" in the layouts of some maps. The stats from the beta showed the how people moved through the games down to the individual button press. They could see how the "people in the wild" played the map vs. how the level designers intended for the maps to be played. The designers spotted bad cover arrangements that had players thinking they were covered only to painfully discover they were exposed. Changed. There were places people could sit and simply pick-off other players as they spawned back into the map. Changed. Two of the beta's four maps turned out to have big problems. "I am not shy about saying that Thrashball and Trenches were both flawed for re-spawning game types," Brown said. "We have made pretty significant changes to those maps to try and address that." A specific example: "You could take the top of Thrashball and hold it forever and never come back... So we had to rearrange weapon layouts and cover layouts to balance out that map and make it more playable overall."
There were changes made that you might not expect. Some players thought that Anya, the Gears character who was a playable fighter for the first time in the beta, was "a little more gruff and vulgar" than she should be. "Her lines got toned down and pared back a little bit."
Epic developers studied player data. They played their beta obsessively. They read through the forums. The game's community manager answered more than 50,000 e-mails during the beta period, Brown said. They soaked in the response.
Gamers aren't always right. Game designers know this and they can't make a change just because a part of their game has been criticized. Take the sawed-off shotgun, a new weapon introduced in the Gears 3 beta that Brown's team knew would be controversial. "That was obvious," he said. "It's a weapon that lets you run up to someone, shoot them in the face and they explode. It's binary: you win or you lose." They'd made the weapon for players who aren't experts. "The sawed-off is intended to be for a new player who really isn't that experienced with the game, really isn't that great of a player, but they can still run up to somebody, pull the trigger and they still get that awesome moment where the dude explodes, they get points, ribbons start appearing on the screen, and there's a big celebration. There's this big sense of accomplishment. "
The introduction of the sawed-off in the beta freaked some players out. "We were kind of shocked and surprised at how passionately people felt about it," Brown said. "There were people who thought it should be cut; there were people who said it was the greatest weapons in the game." But the developers stuck to their gun, because they discovered that there were message board threads like that for every weapon in the game. Each was loved by some and hated by others. That, they decided, was a sign of creative success. They'd made guns that appealed to a variety of player-types, each catering to different play styles. They did make some tweaks to the sawed-off, but the uproar about its inclusion didn't discourage them. Beta players found that it could be countered, and that's what mattered. It had its place.
But the most important information they gleaned and the most significant changes that were made were and will probably remain invisible to most Gears players. They involved the game's network infrastructure. Testing that, Brown said, "was really one of the biggest and best things we got out of the beta." Previous Gears games didn't use dedicated servers. They didn't rely on the kind of networking that has to connect match-made players efficiently through a data center and server farm. The popularity of the beta, with more than a million people playing, helped ensure that those systems worked and that, when they failed, they could be fixed. "We made some very significant changes," Brown said, noting that the volume of play was forcing tweaks at their data center that the people at the center had never seen before. During the beta, the Epic team would take part of their game's online systems offline, change settings, change code and make a pile of improvements. "Having those one or two days of downtime on the servers now means we don't have to do it for several weeks after we ship."
Brown considers the beta a huge success. "We learned so much," he said. "There are innumerable changes we've made from code side to content side… so many things that will let this be more successful when we launch it." In fact, Brown said they're now afraid that if they tweak things too much now that people who loved the beta will be angry about those tweaks when the game ships. So they're being careful.
One other thing: The Epic team didn't realize that the beta players were going to love chasing and shooting the game's chickens. Does that mean there will be more chickens in the final game? "You have not even seen the beginning of the chickens," Brown said. "I know there were some doubters in the office and that we were able to throw some extra support on them for the full game, I will say that." He's not sure if he can promise that chickens will be added post-beta, but it sure sounds like those birds are safe from being cut.