If you’ve been playing MMOs for a decent amount of time, it’s likely you have taken part in at least a few beta tests, be they open or closed. If a game really got you interested early, you might have gotten a chance to get into an early beta phase and really see a game from the inside. And despite the game being in rougher shape during beta than at release, how many people have had MORE fun in beta? Odd right, or is it?
In a typical beta situation (not a stress test open beta), testers play on one server and have a focused message board to comment on the game. The community is small, almost everyone playing is more invested in the game than a ‘normal’ MMO gamer, and the player-to-developer communication is usually much higher. The game usually changes at a rapid pace due to patches, server wipes are both frequent and expected, and players are more tolerant of bugs and crashes. And last but certainly not least, beta is free.
The free part is easy to understand. If you are not paying for something, your expectations are generally going to be lower than if you have to spend money. If a free app on the iPhone sucks you chalk it up to it being free and don’t worry about it. If you spend $50 on a game that’s unplayable, you are not as likely to just delete and walk away. But free vs pay only goes so far, as plenty of F2P MMOs exist, and even at that price most people can’t be bothered to play them longer than it took to download them.
The player-to-dev aspect is nice, but how many of us really expect our armchair designer dreams to be taken seriously? It’s always nice to get inside the mind of a designer and know the how and why’s of the game, but unless the game takes a turn you don’t like, you are going to remain happy reading patch notes and just enjoying the game itself. In other words, a shitty game with an active dev staff on the boards is still a shitty game, and no amount of ‘blue posts’ is going to convince you to spend $15 a month.
A far more important aspect is the player community itself. With one server, whatever happens in-game is happening in YOUR world, not on some other server you could care less about. If the auction house is really active, it’s YOUR auction house that’s active. If a major war breaks out between two big guilds, its people fighting on YOUR server. All ‘world first’ kills are also server firsts, and it’s YOUR server. That’s a big deal, and really keeps players interested in the day-to-day of what’s going on. With high day-to-day interest, you are likely to want to log in more, and that also keeps your individual interest in the game high.
In addition to the single server advantage, you are also likely gaming with only ‘core’ players, ones that all follow the game more closely and actual care about what’s happening. Generally the players are more competent, involved, and invested in the games future. That type of environment rubs off on everyone, and leads to closer and more respectful communities. The world is no longer just about what your guild is raiding tonight, the rest of the server be damned, but about seeing familiar names/faces each day and actually enjoying rather than dreading PuG groups.
While players care more about the game overall, they also don’t stress out as much about actual in-game accomplishments, in large part because they know a beta is not permanent. It’s an interested dynamic really; we are drawn in part to MMOs because of there ‘never over’ nature, yet we are able to enjoy them more when we know what we do ‘does not count’. Is there a gray area here? A Tale in the Desert has regular resets that seem to work for that game (never played myself), but would this work for others? Unlikely in WoW or similar games, but ShadowBane had one before its death with reported success (DarkFall killed SB, not the reset).
All this leads to one question; what would you pay to play your favorite MMO in a more closed beta-like environment. If for $30 a month WoW offered a premium server, aimed at the ‘core’ WoW players (include whatever bonuses/rules would go along with this to make it happen), would you go for it? Would paying double the monthly fee (or more) be worth it if your in-game experience and community was at the level of a good beta test, making PuGing enjoyable and the world more alive with players playing to have fun rather than chase the next shiny? Would you pay more to play WAR in a guild-only server, where the only players were ones in solid and established guilds, removing the zerg vs zerg herd mentality of tier 4? Would you pay extra to play LoTRO on a more strict RP server, where the spirit of LoTRO was better enforced and the more WoW-like players were removed?
As gaming matures, so do its players. Many people are no longer ‘growing out’ of playing games, but rather growing with them. Those asking mom and dad for $15 a month are now working and have disposable income. Is there a niche market for that demographic; those that are still huge fans of the genre but no longer entertained by High School humor or with 8+ hours to grind daily?