Sunday, 15 April 2012

Better the Beta You Know: GW2, EQ2

I bought Guild Wars 2 this week, a game that doesn't yet exist. Spinks think this demonstrates poor organizational skills on my part. Ravious put his hand in his pocket but he's a little concerned about where we might end up if a precedent is set. Just to give a little perspective, I was chatting with someone at work yesterday who told me that he and his girlfriend are going to see Michael MacIntyre in August. They bought the tickets last August. Paying for things that don't yet exist is not something ArenaNet just invented.

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?
I've done a lot of MMO betas. My first was Anarchy Online, for which they sent me the client in the post, on CDRom. I still have it somewhere. I spent most of a week trying to install it. Never got it to run but that didn't stop me buying the game when it came out, when it still didn't run. Anarchy Online remains the benchmark for the worst MMO launch ever. I think it was three months before they actually charged anyone a subscription because that's how long it took before the game was playable.

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
This is where I should make a confession. I really like bugs in MMOs. I see them as content. I've probably had almost as much fun out of bugs over the years as gameplay, which is partly why EQ2 Test was my home server for more than five years. I like finding bugs and I like reporting them. I've had everything up to and including all my characters vanishing from bugs and while I get as annoyed as anyone would when I can't do what I was planning, dealing with a funny, odd or flat-out game-breaking bug sometimes turns out to be a lot more involving and thought-provoking than whatever I had in mind. It's true dynamic content.

 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
Then there's the opportunity to say "I was there", although that can be a very bittersweet experience. Some MMOs I've beta tested have been more to my taste at some point before launch than they ever managed afterwards. It can be a little galling to remember that the game you're playing not only could have been better but was. I'd rather know, though, than not know.

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.

5 comments:

  1. "Paying for things that don't yet exist is not something ArenaNet just invented."

    thank you, thank you.
    it did boggle my mind how some articles made ArenaNet out to be the villain when the concept is completely ordinary for many wares and services we all pay for on a daily basis. not sure where the double standard comes from or maybe people are just not thinking straight because it's novel in this particular area.

    I care about MMOs enough to include them in my monthly expenses - they're not a side hobby to me. I'm fine with pre-purchases like this (the launch is imminent so who cares), I'd also be willing to pay more for a great MMO. price in general doesn't interest me as much as what I get in return.
    it's not just the beta access for me which as you say rightly, isn't really a testing beta for GW2. early access seems a fine reason to get the pre-purchase.

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  2. Good point on the three-day head start. One thing that didn't occur to me while I was writing this post was whether I'd have pre-purchased if I was in the closed beta. The headstart meand I would.

    In fact, for convenience alone I probably would have pre-purchased even if there were no material benefits. I'd rather get it out of the way as soon as possible and forget about it since I'm 100% certain to buy the game on release day anyway.

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  3. Fascinating insight into your twisted mind and why you play so many betas. One thing I don't like in MMO's is dealing with bugs. You see, that's my day job. I'll report them if found, but with the ethereal nature of MMO's nowadays my interest in bug squashing has dropped off the cliff.

    Now you have me wanting to participate in betas just to see the "end of the world" moment. I had never thought about it in those terms before. Going to have to pay attention to games going dark.

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  4. I was thinking about this the other day. In around 2008 my role at work changed. Instead of working "back of house" and talking mostly to colleagues I went to working out front and talking mostly to the public. I now spend all my working day making small-talk with total strangers.

    My desire to do the same in MMOs (PUG in other words) dropped off a cliff. Whereas I used to come home. log in and help anyone with anything that needed doing, join PUGs and generally socialize right, left and center I began to value my privacy above all else. I'm only just starting to come out of that phase now.

    Makes sense that you wouldn't want to replicate in your leisure time what you do for a living.

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  5. I have a love hate thing with beta. I love getting into beta but I still hate having to wait for things once I get in. I don't have a lot of patience when it comes to waiting, heh.

    Like MoP, I'm 'scared' to do too much because I won't want to play WoW at all at some point. But I still enjoy checking things out and reporting bugs.

    You can have some very interesting memories from bugs, I'll agree to that ;)

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