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You say Beta I say Beta

Betas for MMORPGS have evolved quite a bit over the last five years or so, and I think different publishers, developers and consumers have varying perceptions of what they are, or what they should be. It used to be true that a beta was a period in which the rough or un-finished product was tested out by users and then improved based on player feedback. That’s not really true anymore, now they are much more of a marketing exercise than they have been in the past. Betas used to be primarily something that’s part of the development process and any marketing gained through it was a happy side effect. Now it’s the other way round and they are primarily a pre-launch marketing tool.

Gamers have become more savvy and demanding; it is no longer acceptable to put a sub-par product out into open beta. They no longer accept crashes or bugs like they used to, in the early days of MMORPGS (Ultima, Everquest) players that were in the betas were the hardcore of the hardcore, they loved the fact that they could contribute to the development process. They understood they were looking at something in an un-finished state and their expectations matched that. They posted detailed bug descriptions on forums and despite the games flaws, became invested in it and therefore supported it through to launch and beyond. Probably through a combination of bragging rights, and joy at being able to contribute so closely with the dev process.

The online gamer in 2011 is a lot less forgiving, if you put into open beta anything other than a ready to launch product you’re seriously risking a failed launch. Gamers expect a polished and bug free experience and no longer have the patience to stick it out, partly because consumer habits have changes and partly because the space has evolved. There are so many other competitive products to choose from. During the open beta of Everquest  there weren’t that many other MMOs a player could migrate to, today it’s a very different landscape.

I remember launching a title in 2007 in which we had 80,000 players signed up to the European beta and about double that between North America and Europe. The game was far from ready, and that’s an understatement.  It wasn’t stable at all and had zero polish. As a publishing group we pretty much begged the developers not to move into a Open Beta Test (OBT). Due to various politics, that I won’t go into here, they had the final call and decided to move ahead let the crowds in. It was a disaster: press slammed the game, the forums lit up with negativity and everyone internally started scrambling in a dance of  ‘i told you so’ and ‘what do we do now’. I won’t bore you with all the issues the product had, the main point is the game wasn’t ready and the product never recovered from that very first critical impression because we blew it with our early adopters, the word of mouth was poor and it was downhill from there. We did manage to get some press back to re-look at it post launch and the game was in better shape at that point but it was too little too late, the numbers dwindled and eventually the game was sunset.

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