Developers commonly populate pre-release tests of their games by giving away Steam beta keys. Valve calls these keys "release override keys," because they grant access to a game before it has released, and developers have to contact Valve if they want more than 1,000 of them.
It's an imperfect system, and today, Valve announced an alternative called Steam Playtest. With Playtest, users can register their interest in a game's beta test by clicking a "Request Access" button on its store page. The developer can then grant access to batches of players from their Steam control panel. No keys are sent or redeemed.
Aside from simplifying the process, Playtest solves some behind the scenes problems with beta keys. Like Steam demos, Playtest betas will have their own identity on Steam that's separate from the actual game being tested. "This means Steam Playtest won't cancel out or compete with Wishlists on your real game, and Steam Playtest owners cannot write user reviews," writes Valve.
Those are issues with beta keys, though, because providing early access to the game without creating a secondary identity can cancel out Wishlist entries (because the beta tester now "owns" the game) or give a user the power to post a review before release. Wishlisting affects promotion on Steam and is one way developers estimate how well their game is going to do when it launches.
"We saw a number of other surprising or unofficial solutions to the same set of problems," writes Valve in the Steam Playtest FAQ. "Stuff like offering a demo that was really just an Open Beta, or shipping a free 'Prologue' game to build momentum. Devs were using whatever tools they could to build community and gather playtesting data. Those are great problems to solve, so we want to provide an official, well-supported solution that is easier for developers and more consistent for players."
I suspect a number of developers will continue to do things the old way, because it gives them the freedom to run beta key giveaways on multiple websites, or to share keys with a fan mailing list that they maintain. But Playtest appears to solve some serious problems and make the process of running a beta easier, so look out for that "Request Access" button on more Steam store pages.
Funnily, Steam Playtest is currently in beta itself, and interested developers have to request access if they want to try it. When it's ready, though, it'll be "self-serve."
"Steam Playtest is free to use, for developers and customers," writes Valve. "It doesn’t support commerce or monetization, and is not a replacement for Steam Early Access. You could even use Steam Playtest prior to, or alongside, Early Access."
That last bit is an important distinction. Early Access is a category of game on Steam. Early Access games are unfinished, but they are available for purchase and are meant to remain available through to their 'launch.' Steam Playtest is for temporary access to games for testing, and participation in a Playtest must be free. "It's not OK to monetize [Playtests] with in-game transactions, or sell access," says Valve.
One final note: The Total War Elysium example image above isn't just a mock up. You can request access to the Elysium playtest on Steam. I gave it a try, and it immediately granted me access.