The latest DCS World Open Beta patch is out and it appears that patch 126.96.36.199726 is, for lack of a better term, a big mess. Dozens of comments and what appear to be hundreds of bugs that cause significant problems for DCS World players are littered through this open beta release and some of them are bad enough to prevent people from even flying some aircraft in any sort of meaningful way thanks to display bugs. This is hardly the first time something like this has happened so is it time to rethink the way that DCS World structures their releases?
Stable versus beta
DCS World is released in two different release pathways. There is a stable release and a open beta release.
Stable is updated infrequently and only typically after several open beta patches have come out. It’s intended to be the more ‘stable’ release that has fewer bleeding edge updates and where most things work correctly or about as well as they can be expected to.
Beta release is where testing is typically done. Beta software is usually something that is theoretically content complete (in reference to the current version anyways) but undergoing testing to find problems. It’s where new features go to get tested and then later approved for stable release.
The reason for the open beta model
One of the key reasons for the open beta model is that Eagle Dynamics is a niche software company operating in a niche market. Flight simulations are big and demanding but they command only a small audience relative to the rest of the entertainment industry. Large companies with big audiences can afford to have large testing teams and can crunch bugs more effectively as a result. At least, that is what happens in theory and anyone who has been a Battlefield V fan over the last two years can attest to how often even big teams can make major mistakes and release game breaking or experience busting patches.
One of the words we have from Nick Grey, co-founder of Eagle Dynamics and owner of The Fighter Collection as well as an increasingly vocal voice in the DCS World community, is that the open beta and the early access release model help Eagle Dynamics get thousands of testing hours in a very short period of time. That helps them make a better product on the whole as well as being an essential part of their release structure.
And generally speaking, he’s right!
No matter how big the testing team, releasing a patch to thousands of fans will organically cover the testing needs of a sim in a matter of a few hours that it could take testing teams weeks to cover. It’s a challenge of software developers everywhere and no matter how good the testing is it will always run into obscure problems once it arrives in the hands of the general public.
To some extent the open beta model is something that Eagle Dynamics needs to continue with and it has my full support but it does have a fundamental problem too – a large percentage of the community, one could even say most of the community, are using the open beta release and that is causing some friction.
The intersection between early access and open beta
There’s a crossover point between early access and open beta too. Open beta is where early access content goes first before it arrives in the stable release. That process sometimes takes months which makes waiting for a new module while your friends on open beta are already flying it excruciating. And that is the answer of why everyone has moved to open beta – because of early access.
Right now, if you want to fly the new DCS: P-47 or DCS: The Channel Map that everyone is talking about and sharing video and screenshot of, you’ll need one of the latest open beta releases to access the new content. If you have the public release, you’ll need to wait a while yet before accessing it and right now we don’t know when that will be.
As a result, much or or most of the DCS World community uses the open beta release and not the stable release. Even more, if you want to play DCS World multiplayer you have to run open beta if you want to be able to fly on any of the popular servers.
There is a difficult push and pull in place here. While open beta is essential to solving problems, it’s also the most enticing place to be for DCS World as it is where all of the new content goes first and the people are just following the newest content.
It’s a difficult position to place fans of the series in and frankly I see some fraying that edges here after the latest patch has caused so much trouble. One need only look at a recent r/hoggit thread or venture onto any number of DCS World related Discord communities to see the complaints.
The heart of the problem
The biggest problem as I see it is not the open beta patches themselves. Beta software breaks, doesn’t do what it’s supposed to, and is generally cranky. That’s normal! However, most average users of software should never interact with the beta or at least not unless they make a decision to actively try and support the development and give the beta version a try. But that’s not what is happening in the DCS World community right now.
When you break it down there are two fundamental parts of this problem:
- The open beta patches are far too enticing for the community to ignore and that has moved a lot of the community into the position of using open beta. From training servers, to single player campaign developers to dynamic war servers, nearly everyone in both single and multiplayer arenas are using open beta. The rest are often cajoled into getting it because that’s where everyone else is. It puts a lot of people who aren’t as well setup to tolerate bugs with software in a position of essentially being a public tester and that can be frustrating.
- More users are using the open beta software than should be. That means that every broken beta patch is a PR problem for Eagle Dynamics with their community managers having to deal with angry messages on nearly all platforms. It gives the impression that the team doesn’t release quality software. That is, in my opinion, hardly the case given the impressive overall nature of DCS World if you look at the stable releases and the big picture over time.
For my own part, I have spent the better part of the last two months mostly choosing to fly mostly IL-2: Great Battles with my multiplayer group because of the performance glitches and problems with DCS World 2.5.6 open beta. Yes, we absolutely could go to the stable release but then all of the servers we play on don’t support public release and are on open beta. If any one of us wants to check out the latest exciting content release we’re essentially forced to the open beta and that usually means bringing the rest of the group along with us.
What should be done?
Most of you who read Stormbirds.blog know that I highlight problems with constructive purpose. I am one who firmly believes that you have to think about and then strive towards positive change. Sometimes it takes just a small nudge in a new direction to make a big change to the status quo and some changes need to be made in my opinion.
I propose that Eagle Dynamics fundamentally alters their release strategy and that the DCS World community makes a big change in supporting it. The first change comes from Eagle Dynamics themselves. They need to commit to releasing new early access content to a stable release first thereby removing the draw to open beta for new content. Then the second change then comes from the community where we agree mostly to shift to the stable release structure on most multiplayer servers – except for those who want to do the testing. That should still be an option.
Open beta is still a useful thing to have and a smaller and more bug tolerant side of the community should still, if they want to, maintain an open beta release on their computer. Open beta would still be where engine tweaks, new audio and lighting updates, and other new features are added and tested in a bigger group than an internal tester group. New content on the other-hand would undergo a period of closed beta testing (as it already does anyways) before first emerging into the stable release structure.
There may be flaws in how this works from a developer standpoint. I’m the first to acknowledge that while I have maybe more than average understanding of this area (having worked in IT departments for a very long time), I am still not a software developer and I am not a software developer at Eagle Dynamics. So I may have missed a key mark here.
This is, however, the best way I can think of to tackle the problems of the current model which clearly is not working given the angry posts, the lists of bugs on the forums, and the number of people who straight give up and do something else until a new maybe less problematic beta patch arrive. It creates a situation where you never really know if you’re going to have fun on DCS World tonight or if you’re going to fight bugs the whole time and I think that’s what most people are facing right now and I think it needs a rethink.
DCS World needs a new release cycle where new early access content such as aircraft and scenery are tested in a closed beta cycle and then released to stable. Open beta should become a place where where the majority of other tweaks and core system changes are made. The DCS World community should then commit to moving multiplayer servers to stable release for the majority of the community.
This being an editorial is just another one of those times where I get up on my own soapbox that I’ve built here and give you my thoughts. But as with just about any subject I am also eager to hear your ideas too. How do we solve this problem or should we continue to let it go on?