Open beta does not mean what it use to in the MMO world. Back in the day, open beta for an MMO was not a big deal, and for the most part was quite similar to the most recent closed beta period. Generally all the die-hard followers of a game were already in beta, and going to open beta did not generate a flood of new players. Most importantly, open beta was still recognized as a beta, so things like bugs and missing functions were the norm. To be honest, back in the day the first few months of release were also a beta period, with bugs and crashes being common, but yea… Open beta was not looked as a marketing tool, but rather as a final stress test before going live.
Today open beta is much different, and this is mainly due to the growth of the MMO space and the amount of interest any major MMO builds before its release. Games like AoC and WAR have massive followings long before release, with hundreds of thousands of players following the progress of each game, all dying for a chance to play.
Closed beta today looks far more like the open betas of old, with more players just playing rather than actually testing, and with beta leaks become big business. The developers no long just put up one server with the whole world open and ask people to run around and test it, today they ‘focus test’ in stages, herding the beta testers from one area to another in order to gather the data they need. It’s a very defined and orderly process, watched closely by all parties involved.
But by far the biggest change to the entire process is the period of open beta itself. No longer any kind of test, open beta today is a marketing scheme to drum up interest and get hype to a boiling point right before boxes hit the shelves. Since the market has changed, so have the rules. The ‘beta’ part of open beta no longer applies, as most players today will judge what they see in open beta as if it were the actual game. If a game is broken or has key features missing, which at the open beta stage should be viewed as a huge issue anyway, players will react and respond, spreading negative word-of-mouth about the game, beta tag or not.
Developers need to be aware that they no longer cater to a niche market of the hardcore; gamers who accept bugs, server crashes, and imbalance as a part of MMO life. Today in order to reach the numbers some studios target, they must cater to the general public; the five minute attention span, one bug and I’m out gamer who has four other MMOs to fall back on should your game not deliver immediately and completely.
This brings me to the most recent ‘open beta’ with AoC. While AoC has done a decent enough job generating buzz, most view it as a ‘maybe’ product, especially given its M rating, it’s setting, and the rumored ‘twitch’ combat with a PvP basis. AoC is exactly the type of game that would greatly benefit from a flawless open beta, something that turns all those maybe feelings into buyers, and something that generates enough positive buzz to reach those that have looked past it. Unfortunately that’s just not the case.
For starters, my own personal feelings about AoC are very meh. The screen shots don’t impress me, nothing that I have read has really jumped out as a game breaker, and most of my ‘upcoming MMO’ attention has been focused on WAR, a game with a much stronger setting and developer pedigree. But since I already had a FilePlanet account, I figured I would give AoC a shot and try out the open beta, thinking maybe something about AoC will warrant dropping $50 on a box; only to find out that the open beta is not exactly ‘open’, even to those that have already paid for the FilePlanet account. FilePlanet has instead opted to release beta keys in waves on a first come first server basis. If the current wave is out, you have to wait until the next one opens, which happens at random during the day. AoC is basically asking us to ‘camp’ a website in order to ‘loot’ a beta key, an OPEN beta key. Now as much fun as camping a mob for hours/days is, I think we are well beyond that stage in MMO history, not to mention the fact that we are being asked to jump through these hoops for a game most already consider passing on. I’m guessing I’m not alone in the ‘one and done’ category here.
In addition to my brief but disappointing first experience related to AoC, we have the great reporting done by Keen and Graev. After reading their experience with AoC, it sounds like FilePlanet did me a favor and saved me however long it would take to download the 13gig beta. While they found some aspects of the game impressive, the general feeling I got from their site (which overall tends to have a glass half full take on most things) is that AoC has some serious issues, both in terms of bugs/balance and also with general design. When people comment that the PvP is broken during a PvP weekend, you have some issues.
It will be interesting to see what lessons are learned from the AoC beta experience. Tabula Rasa was crippled at release thanks in part to a poor showing in open beta, and is still trying to recover despite being a much better game now than it was back then. Pirate of the Burning Sea got a nice boost from positive open beta feedback, but then saw a crash a month or so after release when the shine wore off and the broken underbelly was exposed. The most famous open beta of course was the one for WoW, which played almost exactly like WoW did at release, and really generated a ton of positive buzz for the game (which already had a lot going for it, but open beta took that to a new level). It will be interesting to see how WAR handles open beta, considering the massive amount of interest for the game already. While a bad open beta might not cripple the game, an open beta on the polish level of WoW might catapult WAR and give it a fighting chance to hit the multi-million player level Mythic and EA are hoping for.