The Cult of Perpetual Beta
This past Memorial Day weekend, its possible you did one of the many things that people do over a long weekend -- golfed 18 holes, barbecued, or hung out with friends and family. Or, in the event of uncooperative weather or the presence of a pioneering indoor spirit...you gamed. Unless you were a Neverwinter player. In that case, you were forced to either play another game, spend time trolling the official Neverwinter forums, or actually go outside. Thats because Neverwinter had a few problems and, through a large portion of the US holiday weekend, the game wasnt playable for a lot of people.
But hey, its okay because theyre in open beta, right? Beta excuses everything. Or does it? Im not convinced. Lets discuss the difference between beta and continuing development, what allowed for the development of this trend, and how it impacts you the gamer.
A Rose by Any Other Name
Years ago, beta was the process games went through to determine if they were functional under production loads, and to find glitches or exploits before the game went live. Over the last decade, weve seen that model change as publishers realized the marketing potential of beta.
Post-beta, as a game went live, there were always little hiccups and sometimes even major problems. Who can forget the servers crashing the night Dark Age of Camelot launched? I was one of those lucky few who had to work that night, so I had the pleasure of watching the day-punks moan all over the forums about not being able to play. Ill admit it, I giggled a little at their pain. Plenty of other games have had similar problems, and few games have managed to escape launch issues over the years.
Post-launch has traditionally been a time where developers pushed out loads of bug fixes and worked on stability issues. They would also go back to work on the features that had been intended for the game, even partially implemented, but that werent quite ready in time for release. This was the nature of things. Beta was for making the game as solid as possible before launch, and the time immediately following release was mostly for tweaking systems and fixing problems that inevitably arose with the post-paunch population increase.
Times have changed. Recently, Salem, MechWarrior Online, Firefall, Neverwinter, and plenty of other games have entered what amounts to a perpetual beta. Open beta has become a marketing ploy, but its also a means for developers to continuously work on a game, sometimes even adding and revising entire systems, while also monetizing it.
Its All about the Benjamins
The ongoing beta trend might well be the start of the next evolution. A decade ago, there was no such thing as open beta. Then the excitement of getting into beta began to show up on blogs and in forums. Magazines, online review sites, and fan sites began to follow betas closely, often working with publishers to hand out keys to eager players. The result was a great deal of relatively free marketing and attention for games before they even made it to market
I think you would find support for the ongoing open beta process among the guys who actually do the work, as well. Anyone whos worked in the IT field will emphatically impart the evil that is working on a production system. Downtime is not just a bad thing; its a sin punishable by death. But if the game is in open beta, its not released yet, and that makes it fair game for on-the-fly updates. Even better, you immediately see if anything breaks because your server, which basically amounts to a test server, is under full load. What admin wouldnt love not having to come in at oh-dark-thirty to patch servers?
The techs and the money guys may support it, but theres one other reason why were beginning to see the perpetual beta, and its a big one: the free-to-play model. There are a couple critical things about that model that allow it to work with a soft launch setup where a subscription-based plan wouldnt. You cant charge for something thats not live, and once its officially launched all the expectations with uptime and stability begin to apply. With a free-to-play model, youre not paying for anything, so you dont feel as jilted if the servers go down for no reason, and theres no need for the developers to provide any sort of compensation for the downtime.
What makes the free-to-play model especially viable is that now companies are allowing persistence from beta to live, whenever that might be. A soft launch, without the server wipes and clean slate associated with the standard launch setup, means publishers can open up the cash shops and start allowing everyone to purchase their new clothes, pets and booster packs. Think about it. You purchase the game before release through some sort of founder program and then you start spending money in the cash shop. Youre not on a subscription plan, so youre more accepting of minor stability issues. Sounds like a pretty big win for the gaming industry to me.
Im Playing, Whats It Matter?
Developers are allowing us to play their games because it generates some extra revenue for them, but the games definitely are not finished products. What sort of impact does that have on us, the gamers?
I think there are probably two main problems with this emerging model. The first issue is simply an issue of quality. Theres nothing like a deadline to make a project happen. Most games on a two-year development cycle move slowly for the first year and then, as the threat of a deadline looms, the development pace picks up to meet it. A continuous beta eases that threat, which, in theory, could actually slow development down a bit. Plus, as we discussed above, soft launched games can encounter major service or system-related problems and the publisher and developer can just smile at you and say, Well, it is open beta, you understand.
The other issue is that you give away all your power as you release your money. The concept of a game and the result are often two completely different things. Pre-order or start investing in the cash shop before a game is live, and youre really just speculating on what youre going to get. I dont think publishers or developers are out to get you, but its through our wallets that we inform them of their success or failure. Early adopters scrambling to purchase things like founders packs can make a bad game look better, at least until word gets out.
Its not all storm clouds, though. There are advantages to the new model, the main one being that, when its based on a free-to-play system, youll have a chance to play the game for free to see if you like it. Additionally, player feedback might have more impact on the games development. Weve already seen this with PlanetSide 2s new lattice system. (Though SOE manned up and actually called the game launched when they said they would. They just admittedly dont have everything in the game they want in yet and are continuing to develop it.)
Wrapping It Up
Thats the story of the perpetual beta, and really its up to you to decide whether its a good thing or not. I would just encourage you to take a hard look at your game before you do. What did the developers promise the finished game would look like? At the rate theyre working, how long will it take to get there? Or do they seem likely to get there at all? Are they making money on the game, and does that give them some responsibility to provide a certain level of stability?
These are hard questions, and Im not sure what the correct answer is, or even if there is one. I am a little concerned that well see an increase in shovelware as publishers find new ways of getting money out of us without delivering a launch-worthy product. On the flip side, I also see an opportunity for games to be developed that might not otherwise have ever had a chance thanks to the potential for earlier revenue. I guess like many things in life, the perpetual beta is neither good nor bad. Its either a scheme or a legitimate tactic based simply on how its used.
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