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Lifetap #6 - Release Date Lines Begin to Blur

Posted Mon, Dec 16, 2013 by Sardu

Lifetap MMO Daily

Welcome to the 6th Edition of Lifetap

Searving up steaming piles of MMO awesome all week long

Back when the monthly subscription model still reigned supreme for MMOs, it was much easier to determine when a game should be considered ready for review. In most cases, new titles were treated just like any other PC or console release. You’d occasionally see outlets jump the gun a bit and publish their reviews during the open beta, but that was far from the norm most of the time.

As free-to-play games have risen to prominence, it seems like all the pomp and circumstance of official launch dates has flown out the window. Soft launches dominated the MMO industry this year causing vast confusion over when exactly a new title should be considered ready for a full review.

The dividing line, it would seem, has been at whatever point developers begin accepting real cash for micro-transaction purchases. In most of these cases, the clear delineation of being a closed or open beta client has been largely ignored. Interestingly enough, however, this seems to only apply to games that don’t sell a box copy or downloadable client granting full access to the game at a specified date.

For example, during the beta weekend events for Guild Wars 2, players were able to purchase gems through the in-game store. This allowed ArenaNet the opportunity to test the billing process to insure it was ready for launch. But even though Anet was technically accepting real cash payments during a beta phase, the official reviews were properly held until the official launch date for the game.

Fast forward only a few months, and suddenly press outlets seemingly forgot all about proper review etiquette. Without a firm launch date announced, reviews went live for Hawken, DUST 514, Neverwinter, and countless other titles throughout 2013 during their closed or open betas due to developers accepting cash payments for virtual goods. In one of the more extreme cases, our friends over at MMORPG.com reviewed Dragon’s Prophet months prior to the official launch date.

The Great Monetary Divide

We’ve reached a point where many of my colleagues consider any free-to-play title that is accepting cash payments for virtual in-game goods to be the equivalent of a launch product, regardless of the status declared by the developer. Doubly so if no character wipes or hard progression resets have been announced or scheduled to hallmark the end of beta.

Newsflash: People pay money for virtual goods in unfinished games daily on crowd-funding sites like Kickstarter. Should we start reviewing Kickstarter projects too? It seems we’ve collectively decided to categorize the money spent via Kickstarter or similar funding initiatives as per-orders rather than the purchase of virtual goods. Otherwise, we’d already be seeing full reviews for games like HEX, Star Citizen, or Shroud of the Avatar that have provided some form of game client to backers and accepted payments for the privilege.

Could you imagine the outcry by fans if one of those games were reviewed today in their current form?

Of course, the early reviewers aren't entirely at fault here. It’s become increasingly less common to receive a communication from MMO developers stating that their game is either a) ready for review or b) should not be reviewed until its official launch due to the nature of beta vs. live clients. Then again, that information can just as easily be procured through a simple email or phone call most of the time.

To Be Continued

One of the reasons why this topic has been on my mind again lately is because we’re currently in the process of reimagining how we handle reviews for 2014. Full details on any of the potential changes to our review system have to remain under wraps for the time being, but you can expect to see a new approach go into effect over the coming months.

That wraps things up for today’s knuckle-splitting episode of Lifetap! Drop a comment below if you feel so inclined, or you can also do the whole social thing and follow my babble on Twitter and Facebook. I promise I won’t bite. Hard.

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