Thursday, May 10, 2012

Money Up Front, Fun After

Kotaku: Let’s Try Something New: Stop Preordering Games

When it comes to MMOs, it is tough for me to decide whether I agree or disagree with this article.  Sure, it has been really awesome the last few years to get beta access for preordering.  However, those betas do not seem to have that much influence on the final product.  Often, they are so late in the development cycle, that they are just slightly buggier versions of the retail copy.  Other times, their sole purpose seems not to test the design, but to instead test the networks.  Preordered betas are really just demos to keep fans excited or to get them to commit to the game ahead of the reviews, not the constructive entities they could and should be.

In the past five years, I have only preorded two MMOs (though I have come close to preordering others): Warhammer Online and Guild Wars 2.  I followed Warhammer intently throughout its development, hoping it would save me from being enslaved by the Warcraftian machine while also appealing to some old school design principles (namely world PvP).  

It didn't.

I don't want to beat a dead horse and harp on the flaws and failures of Warhammer Online.  That has been done.  I will say that I disliked the majority of the game, with the key exception being the classes, namely the Engineer.  I learned all of that in the month of beta testing I got in, and by the end of the second month I couldn't play anymore.  I am sure the two Warhammer fans out there, if they ever read this, would accuse me of not giving the game enough time, but the problems that drew me away were the same major design flaws that were readily evident in even the last iteration of the beta.  Basically, the open beta for Warhammer Online was not a beta at all, because there was nothing left that could have honestly been changed in time.

Guild Wars 2 has been a different animal.  Like Warhammer, I have followed the game for a long time, rather intently soaking up and sharing any scraps of new information with my friends.  But in stark contrast to Warhammer Online and so many other MMOs, the Guild Wars 2 preorder bonus of beta access is not just access to a few days or weeks ahead of launch.  It feels a little bit more like an actual beta test, and without any set release date and two major sections of the early game missing, there is plenty of time for testers to impact the design of the game and hopefully improve it.

As of writing, however, that remains to be seen.

We won't know how Guild Wars 2's preorder beta access has effected the end result for at least a few more months.  We can, however, see how little it helped Warhammer, though perhaps nothing could have righted that ship.

This all leads to my central point.  Even as a preorder bonus, beta access is not and should not be a gimmick.  I don't think that everyone that plays a MMO is instantly a designer, and that every single voice in a beta test needs to be treated as gospel.  However, these people are still your customers and are very loyal ones at that to plop down their money so early.  Developers need to listen to any and every player they can, even if for just one second.

In closing, I guess I both agree and disagree with the article based on specific conditions.  I agree with preordering MMOs for beta access when developers intend to use that beta constructively, and to listen to their base's opinions without prejudice.  I disagree when these preordered betas are nothing more than glorified demos.  I do not preorder to follow the trend, I preorder to show genuine support and care for a product.  And however naive it may sound, I always hope to see that support and care returned.

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