Open betas: Marketing, testing, or both?

“There’s plenty of potential there and it’s in better shape than most MMOGs I’ve beta’d (minus LotRO and WoW of course which seem like flukes in the industry).”

That was part of a comment from Bildo, about my last post, talking about the Age of Conan beta. It got me thinking about beta testing, marketing, and competition in the mmorpg marketplace.

I agree with both of Bildo’s points. It’s true, mmorpg beta tests can be quite unpolished. Making mmorpg’s isn’t an easy task, and getting hit with your first large influx of users can reveal all sorts of problems that must be addressed. I agree that stable mmorpg open betas are fairly rare. I’d add DAoC to Bildo’s mention of WoW and LoTRO, and WAR has the potential to be a pretty solid open beta/stress test candidate.

While I agree with both Bildo’s statements (has potential, polished beta tests are rare), here’s why I don’t think those facts offset the problems of Age of Conan’s first open beta weekend.

It’s precisely because we’ve endured so many bad betas and shaky launches that Funcom is facing an uphill battle over the next couple weeks. They have to convince everyone who’s new to beta that they have a solid, polished game. Expectations for mmorpg’s have changed since the days of, say, SWG, where you could release a buggy, underperforming game and have people stick around for the novelty while the game matures.

I’m guessing, since Funcom has been fairly quiet this weekend, that they have their own testing priorities, and their own reasons for releasing what is, in some ways, a gimped client compared to what the closed beta testers can access. In a pure test environment, I could understand that decision. However, in the current mmorpg landscape, I think you have to treat your open beta as marketing as well as testing. Despite the fact that polished open betas are rare, one of the more recent major mmorpg’s accomplished that (LoTRO), and the biggest mmorpg (WoW) is justifiably famous for polish. There is a standard upon which your game will be judged.

If Funcom had a damn good reason for going with an older build (which I suspect they did, this isn’t their first time developing a game), they didn’t fail at testing. They might be getting incredibly valuable information from testing on this build, and it might have many positive ramifications upon launch. Where Funcom failed was in marketing. They didn’t engage the community, explain what their testing plan was, or explain why they used an older build. That kind of communication and transparency would have gone a long way toward establishing some trust in their decisions and in their game.

I trust Bildo’s opinion, and Keen’s opinion. I believe them when they say there’s a good game here. I can see flashes of it myself. What I’m worried about is Funcom’s ability to communicate their decisions to their customers. Managing your community doesn’t start when the game goes live. It started when you lifted the NDA and let 50k more people into the game.

I think Mythic has an edge here. I can’t imagine a whole weekend going by without a post from Mark Jacobs explaining why they put in an older build, when a newer build with multi-core support might be added, and addressing concerns head on. Yep, open betas are for testing, but you can’t ignore the marketing.

The good news is, I don’t think this is impossible for Funcom to turn around. I think releasing a build that performs as well as the closed beta supposedly performs will go a long way toward getting everyone excited again. Talking to us about why they chose the old build, what they learned, and what else we might expect during beta would also help. Those two things could quickly swing community favor fully behind Funcom, and I think the game can reach the potential Bildo’s talking about.

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2 Responses

  1. I agree that the major failure was not engaging the open beta community. The testers never got a baseline to know what type of test results they should expect. Instead when bombarded with buggy code and glitches they assume, not without merit that the game is not ready for release. I still think they dropped the ball in that respect.

  2. The recent drama, brought about by some questionable decisions by FunCom regarding their AoC open beta, has opened up a larger can of worms as far as I’m concerned.

    While part of me can understand their logic behind using this the beta as a publicity promo, the underlying problem remains in that they are inviting a certain of gamer into the testing period.

    Players are using betas as more of a ‘is this the next game I’ll be buying?’ test drive as opposed to approaching it with a ‘right, let’s see what I can break in an attempt to help fix any bugs’ attitude.

    I think that this is at least partly responsible for the deteriorating standard of games on initial release.

    However, this response may have moved slightly off track from the OP and for that I apologise.

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