As I've said before, how we pay for MMOs is quite possibly the single least interesting aspect of the entire MMO phenomenon. We're all adults. We can spend our money how we like (although if it genuinely makes a meaningful difference to your household economy whether you spend £50 on a video game this month or in three month's time it's entirely possible you shouldn't be spending it on a video game in the first place, but then, hey, I'm not your dad so knock yourself out!). No, the part of the discussion that spun out of this which interested me was whether or not beta access counts a "benefit" to players.
|So, crabs again?|
From then on I applied for pretty much every MMO beta and got into plenty. A surprising number of my fondest, most lapidary memories of a dozen years spent trekking through virtual worlds come from betas. The thrill of using a jet-pack in Endless Ages (still the best flight experience I've had in an MMO); seeing the Capryni scatter as they scented a prowling Gingo in Ryzom; riding into Lomshir for the first time in Vanguard.
And the bugs. My god, the bugs. Pushing through a gap in geometry to break into someone's house in Endless Ages and not being able to get out again (that was a re-roll). Falling for fatal damage every time I even passed close to a griffin tower in EQ2. The plain unplayable lag in Rubies of Eventide, Horizons, EQ2, Vanguard... well, every beta ever at some point, come to think of it.
|Waiting for the end of the world|
A huge part of the interest in playing MMOs for me has always come from trying to understand how they work. It's one reason I don't like tutorials much. I like to observe, gather data and test hypotheses while playing. I like it best of all if I'm never quite sure, even after extensive research, what the hell is going on. Bugs open up the cover so you can see the gears whirr and betas pull back the curtain so you can see backstage. More than that, you can chat to the stage manager, the make-up artist and the props team. A good beta will offer multiple channels of communication with the developers, from ad hoc in game chats through organized content testing to lengthy forum discussions. It's not one-way traffic, either. In a good beta you have a real chance to influence the detail, even the direction of the game you eventually hope to play. I've seen countless changes made in good betas as a result of player feedback (and countless more ignored but, hey...)
|Wonder if woodworkers get a scratching-post recipe?|
That's a good beta. A bad beta is one where nothing you say, nothing anyone says, seems to be getting through to anyone that cares. Where feedback is ignored, issues glossed over or there's always a "miracle patch" just round the corner. I'd name names but the NDAs for betas like that never end. (The only genuine miracle patch I ever saw was in the final week or thereabouts of EQ2 beta when, after a month of game-breaking, unplayable rubber-banding lag and innumerable fiddle-faddling changes to changes to changes that had just about everyone playing believing the launch should be delayed at least another three months, we logged in one day to a lag-free, reasonably smooth, certainly fit-for-launch MMO. They said they had one last patch that would fix most of the major problems and they really did. Of course it didn't address any of the gaping holes in the underlying design - Scott Hartsman had to come in and start on that six months later, but you can't have everything. At least it ran! )
|Mandatory letterbox format preserved for disbelieving future generations|
And finally there's the end. The day it all stops. Sometimes the server just closes and re-opens as "Open Beta" the next day and it's all a bit of an anticlimax, but often there's a big party, or an apocalypse. My favorite beta memory ever comes from EQ2. Everyone gathered at the Claymore in Antonica for a party before the world came down but right at the very end, just before the countdown started, I decided to go into the great dark in my own Inn room, just me and my cat. I just made it back in time to sit on my bed and then the world ended. You just can't buy that.
|Boom, out go the lights.|
Oh, wait, now you can! That's where we came in. Will GW2 beta weekends have any of the benefits I'm gushing over? You wouldn't think so. They will be totally nonexclusive, open to all for the payment of a fee. They'll be isolated weekends, not a continuum. It's unlikely that a community will have a chance to develop (a beta community can be a very different beast from a Live one). Above all, people will have paid to be there and will have entitlement issues off the scale compared to those normally seen in betas (not that those aren't often ridiculous in themselves).
These weekends will probably be much more like the marketing-led Open Betas MMOs throw out like chum to bring in the fish they hope to land at launch. But maybe not. Rift's beta weekends were proper betas, even at the end when they were letting everyone in. Every single Rift beta weekend was arguably more entertaining than any weekend post-launch. Any way up, I'm happy to have the opportunity, even if I did have to pay for it. It's money I would have spent in any event and it will buy fun I otherwise wouldn't have had.
I'd have preferred to have gotten into the closed beta, all the same.