Valve is changing how beta access works for Steam games for the better. Instead of forcing you to input a special key from a game’s developer to join a beta, the new Steam Playtest feature makes it a lot easier to find and sign up to test games on your own.
Playtest is different from Steam’s Early Access program, which lets customers pre-purchase a game—often at a discounted price—for access to unfinished builds. Steam Playtest is “free to use, for developers and customers,” according to Valve’s official announcement post. “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.”
The catch is that publishers can restrict the total number of participants allowed in the Playtest betas, and they can limit how long players have access to the game. (Playing a Playtest beta does not add the full game to your library; you get nothing after the beta is over.)
Joining a Playtest on Steam is easy. Just load up a game’s store page on Steam and click “Request Access” if a beta is available. (The button will only show up on titles that are enrolled in Steam’s Playtest program.)
If a Playtest is full, you can still request access in case the developer opens the trial up to more players.
Since Steam Playtest is still technically in beta itself, Total War: Elysium is the only game that has a Playtest beta running, but more titles will probably show up soon. In its current form, Playtest betas don’t show up in the Steam store listings, so there’s no easy way to search for new ones. If you’re interested in a game, make sure to follow it on Steam, then follow the development studio and publisher on social media or subscribe to its newsletters to get notified of any beta tests ahead of time.
Otherwise, Steam has search filters and store categories for Early Access titles and games with demos. Reddit is also a good source for finding games with early access builds or demos, and likely Playtests, too. Lastly, many game projects on Kickstarter and other crowd-funding platforms offer demos, betas, or early access—either as a way to cultivate interest, or as a reward for backers.