Out of all the open beta discussions that I’ve seen (is it a free trial, should it be given a pass because it’s a beta, etc), I’ve yet to see anyone mention that timing of an open beta could play a key role in the games reception. Since an open beta, unlike a free trial, is only available for a limited amount of time, a player must make the choice of playing for free now, or not at all, and I think this has a huge impact on how a player perceives the beta itself.
I’ll use my recent venture into Fallen Earth as an example. I’m currently playing two MMOs that I’ve very happy with (DarkFall my primary, WAR my secondary), and I’m also playing Blood Bowl as my non-MMO game. Those three games basically dominate all my gaming time, so in order to get some time in with Fallen Earth, I had to cut back on DF/WAR/BB. What this means is that even before I create a character, FE is being compared to the three games above due to time constraints. If I was not playing any MMO at the time, FE would stand alone and be judged strictly on what it offers, plus it would very likely receive more consistent playing time and patience. When the FE beta crashes, I’m left with the choice to either log back in, or switch to DF/WAR/BB, and that only makes each crash more noticeable and detrimental.
Right out of the gate, just to capture my attention and eventually money, FE has to beat out DF/WAR/BB, which is unfair in a number of ways. I’m already comfortable and established in the other games, they have had some time for patches and fixes, and you know, I like those games (otherwise I would not be playing them, other than DF, I’m playing that as part of my Crusade of the Miserable), which means I have to like FE more in order for it to get attention. That’s a MUCH different challenge for any game than being ‘interesting enough’ to spend some time with. (Which IMO is why Aion is getting as much attention as it’s getting, because so many people are in that ‘space filler’ state with WoW slowing down for them and WAR/AoC/etc not delivering what they hoped for)
Let’s assume that in 3 months my interest in DF fades, WAR still has not fixed T4, and I’m done with BB, and NOW the FE open beta starts. It’s very likely I’ll put in far more time with it, learn more about what exactly it’s trying to do, get into that comfort zone with its controls and systems, and very likely, enjoy it a lot more overall. It’s the same exact beta, just at a different time in my current gaming cycle. Now instead of one short blog post about my time with it, FE gets 2-3 posts a week, breaking down the details and overall reporting that it’s a fun, unique MMO offering. My blog might not influence thousands of people to put down cash for FE, but replace this blog with someone over at Massively or PCGamer, and clearly timing could really add up.
While this whole scenario is similar to say, releasing a game in November among the usually holiday rush, the difference here is that people WILL try your beta because it’s free and they know time is limited, they just won’t give it as much time/patience/effort as they would under different circumstances, and we all know how important first impressions are. The only ‘fix’ to this issue that I can see, besides releasing your open beta when most people are bored (whenever that is), is to not limit the beta period to a short timeframe like a week or two. With such a short timeframe, its far more likely someone is only going to log in 1-2 times, for a few hours, and with MMOs being as complex as they are that’s just not enough time to do anything but glance at the graphics and do a few very basic tasks. That works great for Aion, because graphics and being familiar is what that game is trying to do, but it hurts a game like Fallen Earth, which is trying to shift the usually MMO focus a bit and try something different. Give people a full month to try the game out, and I believe more people would get beyond the first 3-4 hours (not all of course, Ed Zitron will still complete his full review based on your character creator and some forum posts), get into the heart of your game, and get a more honest view of what you are trying to do. If you honestly have a solid product that does indeed do some interesting things, that will only help you in the long run to not only draw people in, but allow people to give more complete and hopefully positive word-of-mouth.