When Beta Isn’t Beta

In my last post I took a look at the recent events over in Neverwinter, and the relationship between developers, players and Betas. This issue is one that a lot of people are catching onto in various ways and Troy Blackburn over at Gamebreaker.tv, asks whether or not Neverwinter can really be considered to be in “open Beta”. His answer is quite plainly no, which is unsurprising and a view I completely share. However his arguments about the role of players in this recent trend caught my attention. The implication seems to be that as players are so quick to slate any problems at the launch of an MMO, hiding behind the “open Beta” tag is somewhat defensible as a shield from the inevitable criticism  of equally inevitable launch problems. This argument isn’t particularly convincing. As Troy states, developers are legitimately entitled to beta testing and beta periods of their games. Thus, they should not be using the beta period as a pseudo or more accurately, flat out launch, but for its intended purpose of finding and fixing bugs and working on balance. The fear of launching a bugged and unbalanced game should spur developers into extensive testing, not  be an excuse to launch the game in the bubble-wrap of “open beta”. What follows is the original article in full:
Is Neverwinter Really In "Open Beta"?

Does “Open Beta” Really Still Apply To Neverwinter?

That’s a question I’ve heard come up a lot concerning Neverwinter, and it’s not the only free-to-play MMO that does or will raise questions as to at what point a game needs to stop being referred to as “in beta”.

Free-to-play MMOs have an advantage that other games do not, in that they don’t charge players to actually get into their game and try it out. At any point from beta testing all the way through to the end of its existence, the term free-to-play means that you will not have to pay to access the game. MMOs that want to charge you to access the game have to define a point at which open beta testing is closed so that they can begin to charge players to access and play. Without that defining moment of charging for a game and having to officially declare the game “launched”, many free-to-play games are free to walk a fine line between open beta and launch.

neverwinter mmorpg     Is Neverwinter Really In Open Beta?

The lines are so blurred, in fact, that many free-to-play MMOs go years in an “open beta” state, and some never even make it to an official launched state before the doors are shut. Take the f2p browser-based sandbox MMO Glitch for example. After extended beta testing, the game officially launched in September of 2011, only to be reverted back to a beta state a month later. The game spent the next year existing and running in beta testing before it was finally closed down for good in December 2012, without so much as an attempt at a relaunch.

Allods Online is another game that spent an extended period in an ongoing open beta state that seemed to never end. Free-to-play games like Glitch and Allods can get lost in the confusing world between open beta and launch, and if your potential players are confused about the status of your game, it can’t be good for business.

So Why Is It So Confusing?

To understand why the line is so blurred for free-to-play MMOs, let’s go back to what qualifies games you pay for as launched. You ready?

You pay for them.

That is the defining moment in which most games have to consider themselves launched and open for public consumption and criticism. But here we are with these games that don’t charge you to play, but still happily take your money through cash shop transactions while continually stating that they are still in beta and that the players are helping to test the game and find bugs. And that’s where the blurring of the lines for free-to-play games happens, at the point they begin accepting your money for items in the game that they say is still in beta testing.

Their argument? Well it is simply that you don’t HAVE to pay anything if you don’t want to. It is your choice to spend money or not in a game that is still labeled by the developers as “open beta”.

So basically, they are saying players shouldn’t be upset when bugs happen because it’s beta, but pay me anyway.

They Took My Money, So It’s Launched

Quick, name me an MMO that launched without server problems, log-in issues, graphical glitches, gameplay bugs, and general crashes.

The answer is none. Ever.

neverwinter mmorpg     Is Neverwinter Really In Open Beta?

Sure, some games have had much smoother launch experiences than others and a large portion of folks may not have noticed any problems, but trust me, every game has launch issues. A large open beta is a great way to identify many problems that seem to only occur when large amounts of people get on your server and begin to wreck it in every way humanly possible.

What I’m getting at is that every MMO that hopes to launch a functioning game deserves a chance to have an Open Beta phase. The devs can find and resolve issues that simply do not come up until you get a large number of players in the game.

Free-to-play creates an unfortunate situation for players however, in that the devs are able to hide behind this shield of “Open Beta” for as long as they wish, and it does help soften the blow of launch issues because you do have those people who chalk every problem up to beta and automatically assume that a fix is forthcoming.

What It All Means For Neverwinter

Neverwinter is accepting money, there will be no character wipes, and a new update with end game content is on its way. That’s not Open Beta. That’s a launched game, and at this point Cryptic and Perfect World need to step out from behind the “open beta” curtain and avoid the confusion and negativity that comes with hiding behind the beta flag.

Yes, you are entitled to an open beta testing period, but going full launch mode and calling it beta testing is not beta testing.

What It All Means For Players

I think most of us stopped considering Neverwinter an open beta game after the first couple of weeks. At this point we’ve had a major in-game exploit happen, and while we did get a 7 hour roll-back, no character wipes will occur. If this were really beta, they would have wiped that mess clean and started over. But we all know this isn’t really beta, and many of us would have been more upset to have our character wiped at this point than we were over the exploit because we consider the game launched and thus have invested a lot of time and energy into our characters.

So now Cryptic has found themselves in an awkward position that certainly should have called for a wipe, but they would have alienated a very large portion of their player base by doing so because they promised no wipes. Walking that fine line isn’t always as easy as it looks.

Players aren’t entirely without blame here, however. MMOs have issues at launch, and we love to tear them to shreds over those problems. Again, yes, some games have more issues than others, but they all need time to sort out problems after launch, and we often do not give them that opportunity before we rip their games apart. That being the case, why would a developer NOT take advantage of an opportunity to use a little smoke and mirrors while they fix launch issues?

The Breakdown

The simple truth is this. They can call it what they wish, but Neverwinter has launched. It is a fully functional MMO with an operational cash shop, persistent characters that will not be wiped, what seems like a fairly large player-base, and content updates on their way. Be honest Cryptic. That’s not Open Beta. But as players we seem unable to accept the fact that MMOs need a little time to sort out all the bugs and issues that their game has. Despite the fact that every game ever launches with problems, we seem to expect perfection at launch. We’ve lost touch with the reality of MMO game launch at some point.

neverwinter mmorpg     Is Neverwinter Really In Open Beta?

If a game wants an open beta period, that’s fine, they deserve it, but don’t go full-on launch mode and then try to call it open beta. It insults the intelligence of most of your players.

Players have a right to criticize games for things they do not like and problems the game has, but you should never write an MMO off in its first few weeks of existence. An MMO is a growing, evolving world, and most of the time you will find that these games only improve with age.

Be patient, have fun, enjoy your time in the game. That goes for both the players and the developers.

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