Gaming's Struggle for Survival in a Tough Economy

The US economy is in recession. Some people and news sources recognized the recession before economists admitted it, but almost everyone agrees about the situation now. In fact, many other nations are feeling the crunch now, and the reduction in discretionary cash has hit the gaming industry very hard. Sony reports cuts to eight thousand jobs but says the reduction won’t affect Sony Online Entertainment. Rumors of developers going without pay abound, like the one about the workers at Factor 5. MMOGs already on the market are looking at server merges to compensating for the loss of subscriptions. Meanwhile, NCSoft trimmed personnel but still couldn’t save Tabula Rasa.

Unable to resucitate: Tabula Rasa is doomed.

Ten Ton Hammer readers recognize MMOGs as a great value for their entertainment dollars and are committed to them, but the flailing economy likely will continue to affect the production of MMOGs in 2009. Companies will be forced to adopt new marketing and retail strategies to recoup escalating productions costs. They may have to alter their revenue models as well to finance support of their games once they launch. With the new year just around the corner, let’s examine four strategies that could become prevalent in 2009.

Pay-to-Play Beta

Martuk hits the nail on the head when he identifies three types of beta testers in his Hyborian Beta Tester Guide for Age of Conan. Some people beta test to help the developer iron out the bugs. A good chunk of the beta tester pool merely wants to preview the game before it launches. Everyone else falls somewhere in the middle. They want to see a game before it comes out and catch a few bugs in the process. Typically, beta testing comes in two waves. Closed beta is an invitation-only affair with smaller numbers. The focus is on polishing content and squashing bugs. Open beta usually allows anyone to jump in and is a good test for server capacity, performance, and social systems.

Some gamers argue that beta testing is an important marketing tool for a game, and NetDevil’s Scott Brown agrees. Despite the use of a non-disclosure agreement (NDA), it seems inevitable that information on a beta will leak to the press. Allowing gamers to play in a beta can often sway them to purchase the title at release. Open betas have almost replaced the trial version of games, giving players roughly a month prior to retail in most cases to get attached to game.

Developers take note: Ralsu beta tested DDO, and it' still alive and kicking.

The general consensus among gamers is that beta testing is performing minor quality assurance work for the developer without getting paid. No company can afford to hire thousands of QA testers to sift through all of the content in the average MMOG, so beta testing performs a service for the developer. Often beta testers develop a sense of entitlement; they expect something for their efforts. I’ve seen threads titled “Reward for beta testers?” or something similar for the last four MMOGs I have beta tested. Sometimes developers do offer rewards ranging from reserving character names to small in-game items, to an easter egg in the game to commemorate all beta testers. As far as I know, the name Ralsu can still be read among the other beta testers at the fountain in the newbie area of town in Dungeons & Dragons Online.

The old method of selecting beta testers may be endangered as the slumping economy forces developers to find new ways to finance production. One solution to financial woes I have heard bandied about is pay-to-play closed beta. This theory asserts that a pay-to-play model ensures the beta testers are dedicated to finding bugs. The resulting higher quality of the product at open beta ensures more positive word of mouth advertising. Proponents argue that gamers already pay to beta test in a lot of cases, citing the thousands of beta keys given away at gaming sites where only paying members can win or are heavily favored to win. Benefits of this model include the supposed better quality of beta testers and the cash flow going directly to the developer instead third parties. The major drawback is that it required testers to pay though thousands get in for free under the current standard. An economy that forces people to keep a close watch on their expenditures may not be the best circumstance to introduce this model.

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