A beta test is usually the second test (after alpha) of a product. It's the first test by its actual customers. It all starts with filling out the beta form on the game's site. You need to know your computer settings and configuration. This alone can be difficult if you don't know a lot about your computer. You may need to answer questions relating to the game's genre and list previous games you've played. Most likely they'll ask how much experience you have as a beta tester and how much time you're willing to spend testing the game. These two are the most important. In order to be accepted to for a closed beta, you need experience and a LOT of time. If what you fill out meets the requirements of the game and is impressive to the company, then they'll choose your application over others; thus you're accepted as a tester. You will be contacted and asked to sign an NDA (non-disclosure agreement) which asks you to keep everything about the game confidential until they say. Once this is done they'll send more information on how to get the beta (whether it's downloadable via ftp, or by Fed Ex to your home). Many times they'll send you a free copy of the game when it's released, or other rewards such as a T-shirt.
When I fill out the form I always put a LOT in the "comments" box. I list previous games I've tested and what I plan to do as a tester. I must be willing to devote hours of my time to help with testing. When I was accepted to my first closed beta, this helped me get into other closed betas, which in turn, helped me into other closed betas, until I can make a whole list of games I've tested for experience.
When I got the StarSiege beta CD in the mail, I read the letter that came with it first. It looks like I will get a free copy of the game when it's released! It told me where to report bugs, and where I could find a list of known bugs on the Internet. After looking at the list I will remember not to report these bugs when testing the game. For EverQuest, I won't get a free release copy of the game for testing, but it's still rewarding to know I've helped make a game better. For testing 7 Kingdoms II not only will I get a free final release copy for testing it, but if I do a good job I'll also get my name in the credits under a "Special Thanks" section! I don't always get a beta CD in the mail though. Sometimes it's required that you download the game off their ftp server. A LOT of free memory is needed on your computer to do this, and it's almost necessary to have a cable modem.
My goal as a beta tester is to give feedback on changes I'd make to the game, and to report bugs. I must act like I am the developer of the game. What would I change to make it better? To "draw in" the player? How could I make this game fun not only for beginning gamers, but also for experienced gamers that have been playing the game for months? What can I do to add to the features of the game? Are the graphics good enough? Does the sound add to the game? Does it make the game better, or does it get annoying? I must also try to find bugs in the game. I try to make it crash and make it do something wrong. But before this you have to install the beta. This is the first part of beta testing and sometimes can be very frustrating. It's called the installation test. It's quite simple; make sure the installation process works correctly. If it doesn't, it's extremely important for me to report it. If testing a multi-player game server, stress tests are very common. A stress test is used to put a game "beyond its limits". The company may have a set date and time of when to log on to the game so they can get as many people playing at once as possible. When testing I always have a notebook and pen handy because if the game freezes and I have to restart I'll need to write down any error messages I receive. I will also want to remember every step I took to encountering the bug. Then I restart the computer, open the game, and try to retrace the bug. I look at my notebook and do the same things I did before to find the bug. Hopefully the same thing happens again. I report the bug, restart the computer, and try to find another one. I always include in my bug report my system configuration, and any other programs I had running.
In EverQuest there were quite a lot of options and buttons to press. So I had a little "strategy" to testing it. I would first press every button to make sure they worked properly (Guess what! Pressing one of the buttons caused the game to crash). Then I pressed each one while fighting a monster to make sure they worked in combat. Then I killed the monster using every technique possible. I let it kill me. Then I earn experience, gain levels, and play as a more advanced user. I test out my skills and spells. I try them where I normally wouldn't be able to use them (fire spell in water). These are known as function tests. I report all the bugs I find, and all my suggestions to make the game better. What do you know! In a few days they've come out with a new patch. They've fixed the bugs I reported. I make sure that the repaired bug or newly enhanced feature works correctly in the new patch. This can be called regression testing. Usually there's not a problem (but you never know!).
Testing can also be very frustrating. The whole point to beta testing a game is to find bugs. Trying to reproduce the bug is, by far, the most difficult part of testing. I list on the bug report the EXACT steps I took to encountering the bug. This is where testing can be tedious and often frustrating. When I was playing StarSiege I was in the middle of a battle with another mech when the game crashed. Well, I went back to try to reproduce it and found that this would be close to impossible. There were so many little things I did (and the littlest thing does matter) that no matter how hard I tried it probably won't happen again. I keep playing until I encounter another bug. Then I make an attempt to reproduce it, just like the one before that. It's very rewarding if I am able to reproduce it and may help out quite a lot if I report the bug properly. And yes, sometimes the NDA can be a frustration too. For a closed beta you'll need to agree not to give out any information of the game. So you'll have to wait to show your friends until the release of the game.
I always like being one of the first few people to see a game before the release. If I'm testing a game I don't have to worry about waiting for delays in the final product shipment, etc. And if it's a game I would have wanted anyway I'll most likely get it for free! As a beta news reporter I have insight to the game, will know the conditions of the beta and future betas, and with permission of the company may be able to write up a preview or post some screen shots. It's a nice feeling if you receive the final release of the product in the mail when it's all done. Then you can add the game to your beta-testing resume!