For the last year, it has become more and more popular for MMOs to release with what has been called a “soft launch”. In general, this means that the game is opened to the public on a date, money is accepted by the company for items or perks, and the game continues in this open beta style of play until a day when it officially goes live. I can see why this would be appealing to game developers as well as any investors that may be backing such projects. Keep in mind that these projects are often in progress for years without a single penny to show for it. That’s a long time to go without seeing any type of cash flow for your efforts.
If your game was ready for an extended closed beta, or even a limited open beta (I don’t think pure open betas are healthy for a game), it’s easy to see how it could be decided that instead of doing a beta, a soft launch may be a better idea by allowing people to play and purchase in-game perks. On the surface, it sounds like a win/win situation for everyone. Players get to show support for a game they’re excited about while developers get some extra money need to complete a project and add more polish, all while having a paying testing force.
Doing a soft launch also allows a company to downplay the severity of any major issues that arise since the game hasn’t officially launched yet. To pull this type of launch off with any success, there are a few of things are needed. The game needs to be legitimately ready for launch, you need a player base frothing at the mouth to get in, and you need items worth purchasing in-game.
Neverwinter is a good example of a game that did this pretty well. On opening day, the game was already fun to play and fleshed out with good features. There were some bumps in the first week (as are expected in nearly any launch), but they were smoothed out quickly. The other thing the Neverwinter team did well was creating a set of bundles with desirable “Founder members only” items. The biggest bundle cost nearly $200, but was the only way to play a Drow (a dark elf). There were plenty of people like myself that couldn’t resist, being the Dungeons &Dragons fanatics we are. The only true failure I feel the game had was the lack of useful customer service, but I’ve already discussed that at length.
Even with the success of the game, the official launch day came with barely a ripple in the gaming community. Those that wanted to play the game already had been for some time. As a result, rather than roaring into the market like a lion, it meekly entered official launch status to the quiet, but polite, applause of press members that were ready to come forward with their reviews.
Not everyone has had the successful start that Neverwinter has and there are plenty of reasons for that. [Edit - Firefall statements redacted as the game is still in open beta. ~ Dalmarus]
MechWarrior Online may not have accepted money too early (at the time, the game appeared to be far enough to enter this stage), but the failure of the development team to add significant features since they first started accepting money was far too long. In fact, since the initiation of the Founders program over a year ago, there is still no sign of factions, house wars, or clans anywhere. That is, unless you count a non-functioning tab in the Mech Lab that’s been there for over a year as well.
It’s in this that MechWarrior Online committed the cardinal sin of the soft launch – they officially launched with a bare minimum of game features in place. As I mentioned in my review last month, what the game has is functional enough, but it’s missing so much more that it wasn’t close to being ready. Even worse, was the lack of fanfare on the actual launch day.
Players (and reviewers that were asked to wait to test the game until the official launch) were expecting a massive patch on launch day. It was expected to not only be the miracle patch to “fix all the things”, it was also expected to add a number of new features. Instead, it did none of this. It was a tiny patch with extremely minor bug fixes, thus crushing the hopes of much of its player base.
These kinds of failed soft launches do nothing to help the game industry or its player base in any manner. They often do far more harm than good, and it’s time development teams and publishers put an end to the practice. For a game to succeed and be popular, it needs a certain amount of flair and hype, as well containing features with full functionality. Anything less is not only insulting the people that have worked on those projects for years, but to the players they were meant to entertain and engage as well.