Massively Overthinking: The state of early access, alpha, and beta ‘testing’ in the MMO genre
I remember years ago when then-Massively-columnist Rubi Bayer let loose with a blistering rant on the state of faux beta MMOs. She helmed Betawatch back then, see, and she was fed up with (mostly imported) MMOs claiming to be in beta when in fact they’d soft-launched. A lot of readers didn’t understand her fury at the time, but boy have things changed, right? Now, every game’s in on that very old trick, only they call it early access now, while some are still pushing the boundaries, charging $1000 for pre-alpha.
MOP reader Pepperzine proposed a topic for this week’s Massively Overthinking that’s right on point. “I was thinking it would be interesting if we could discuss when people consider a game to be in alpha/beta versus a final launch as a topic,” he wrote to us.
Where’s the line in 2017? Let’s dig in.
Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): For me, as soon as you charge a consumer accessible price for your game, it’s released. You can put “early access,” “beta,” or heck, maybe even “work in progress,” and I’ll still talk about your game as a finished product. For you sausage-factory fans, I’ll tell you now that my position does get me in trouble, but frankly, I don’t care. I take this position even with games I like.
There’s a job called “QA Tester,” and those are the people who should be playing games when they’re unfinished. Those people are finding the bugs because it’s their job to do so and the company’s job to fix them. It is not the playerbase’s job to catch developer errors, and frankly, I find it both lazy and abusive. Games are expensive to create. I know, I get it. But I also feel like a lot of what we get are cash grabs. Old school MMOs not only had actual betas but launched buggy as hell without asking the consumer to consider the game a beta. They took a subscription fee and fixed things while adding content, and at least the ones I played did this at least on a monthly basis, often with weekly maintenances and hotfixes as needed.
Not everyone is going to pay for a subscription. I understand that. But you don’t need to insult your own game by releasing it and saying, “Don’t judge it yet, just pay for it while we fix it!” If you give us non-abusive store options (maybe additional customization options, character slots, reasonably priced non-stat-granting monocles…), we’ll pay. But as soon as you tell me your game isn’t finished but you want my money? “Released” is all I see, and that’s exactly how I’ll judge it, because that’s how casual customers see it.
Brendan Drain (@nyphur): I’m completely biased on this because I have a game in early access currently (a non-MMO space 4X game called Predestination on Steam), but here’s a viewpoint you won’t hear very often: As useful as it is for developers to have a game in people’s hands for testing and feedback purposes, I don’t want to do early access at the alpha stage or even crowdfund my games before the core gameplay is in place. Many new indies are practically forced to do it because games cost money to develop, and almost nobody will take a financial risk on new independent studio. I’d much rather develop in secret for several years and then have a big surprise announcement when the game is ready to show to the public, when it’s polished enough that the press might take it seriously, or at least when the core gameplay is all in place so we can act on feedback immediately. Broken early access games are a symptom of a broken industry.
Regarding definitions, I’d call a game an alpha when there’s a fully playable vertical slice of the core gameplay but it still has missing features and content, there may be game-breaking issues, and the core gameplay may even change based on feedback. Most devs do not want to let the general public play their games in this state but I think it’s perfectly acceptable to enter something at this stage into Early Access, providing of course that you’re up-front and honest about the development state and future plans and you need feedback this early to help shape the development of the remaining features and content. Once all the core gameplay is implemented and the devs are focused on iteration, balancing, tweaks, polishing, cosmetic changes, or adding more content above the basic requirements, that’s a beta stage. The expectation is that it’s too late at this stage to make fundamental changes to the core gameplay, and again it’s perfectly acceptable to be selling the game at this stage if devs are up-front about it.
The notion that we need to rid ourselves of in this industry is that the labels “alpha” and “beta” always mean the game is still pre-launch. Several games have pushed their last server wipe or opened full sales and microtransaction stores while still claiming to be in a beta state, but that’s kind of a launch by definition. Plenty of games have also engaged their full release strategies during alpha or beta, some to capitalise on the millions of sales made in an unexpected viral push and others running sizable marketing campaigns while still claiming to be pre-release. Those games have launched. Let’s not kid ourselves that when RUST officially hits the button and leaves early access that it’ll suddenly sell more units than it has already in early access, or that PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds won’t hit market saturation in its current development state. Those games have launched.
Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I think this determination has become increasingly harder to make than it used to be. At one point, it seemed clear to me that any game charging real money was at the very least soft-launched, and those of us who’ve worked on Betawatch over the years have treated it as such, stripping those games from the list. Now it’s so prevalent that treating those games as launched when in fact they are still hobbling around on some early access or beta crutch seems like doing them a favor, and I consider it more my duty to point out that crutch than ignore it.
I think the combination of Kickstarter and the decline of AAA MMORPG development changed the MMO scene more than early access, truthfully; it primed us for willingness to pay for games years before we’d even secured the “privilege” of becoming unpaid testers, which is worse than early access. It does seem absurd to me, on some level, to criticize a game like ARK for charging for a full-scale expansion during early access when we have MMORPGs charging actual subscriptions (or $1000 pledge packages or pixel ships) before launch.
This is more or less why in our Betawatch and Make My MMO columns, we’ve switched away from trying to judge strictly on whether money is changing hands or whether there will be future wipes or partial wipes and instead focusing more on whether legitimate testing is the chief goal of live servers, while also noting the business model situation too so that gamers can make up their own minds. I’m not thrilled with not being able to categorize more clearly, and personally I will keep right on judging games as paid products once paying begins, but until players stop allowing themselves to be taken advantage of, this is the state of our genre.
Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): Considering that I now run the Betawatch feature, it might not surprise people to know that I have strong opinions on the matter. They’re probably stronger than our “official” line, but I’m going to stress this just for emphasis: If an online product is taking your money for persistent access, it has launched.
The point here is not that the game is persistent and free of wipes; the point is that you can access the game on the regular and play. H1Z1? Launched. Star Citizen? Launched. Shroud of the Avatar? Launched ages ago. Any “beta” game with a cash shop has launched, even if there’s an upcoming server wipe and you’ll be refunded your money. The game has launched and should be judged as such. Specifically, I’m taking aim at games that tend to get away with “early access” as a marker; the launch date is when that access opens.
The rationale is that you’re being sold something, and it really doesn’t sit well how many games are willing to sell themselves to players based on an early development stage that may or may not reflect what the developers are actually going to do. H1Z1 is a particularly awful example; the game basically launched as a totally different product before Daybreak decided to chase money for a free-for-all gank festival, leading to Just Survive, rebranding, and multiple abandonments. It is, in a word, dirty pool.
Yes, I’m willing to catch games in the fallout that kickstart and then sell early testing access along the way. You are selling the game. Stop pretending you’re testing the game; you’re trying to launch without having to actually finish the game. And if your defense is “well, the game isn’t actually finished yet,” then maybe you shouldn’t be taking money for it yet.
Expansions I’m a bit more forgiving for; there’s a clear division between the two. It’s not hard to see that the next World of Warcraft expansion is still in testing when it’s not on the live servers. But I feel like early access in general gets used as the same sort of defense that “it’s just a beta” used to be; we should be judging these games on the basis of launching in mostly-finished or unfinished states a bit more vigorously.
As with many things, I’m willing to judge on something of a curve, and a lot of it depends on how aggressively a given title is going for money. Titles like Camelot Unchained, for example, really do feel like they’re going in for testing; Star Citizen has been selling people overpriced ships that only exist as “we thought of this ship.” But I’m more willing to come down hard on early access as a functional launch, and open betas are really a thing of the past.
Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): Maybe I’m basic in how I see this, but an MMO is launched when (a) the world has switched over into a persistent (non-wipable) state and (b) the studio is taking money from players. I really think it’s that simple. Studios can debate semantics on this and try to apply labels in the hopes of giving them more PR leeway, but I’m not going to swallow that this is alpha or beta or whatever when both of these conditions are met. You’ve launched: Deal with it and don’t deny it.
Backing up a step or two, I honestly have no idea what constitutes test stages these days. To me, alpha means “mostly broken” and beta means “mostly functioning and currently polishing,” but I acknowledge that there are many degrees between the two.
Early access seems to be its own thing that could mean alpha and could mean beta but definitely means “we’ll take your money now, yes please.” But since there’s still going to be a wipe or two coming, it’s not quite launch. I think the industry and community has long arrived at the consensus that open beta is “we’re not actually testing anything, this is just a public demo to gain publicity,” but now it’s gotten a little more confusing with early access (which, as I said, is pretty much the same only with money changing hands).
- If you have a cash shop, you are launched.
- If you sell paid expansions, you are launched.
- If there are no more wipes because development of all core things are set, you are launched.
I don’t consider early access launch because some companies really do use that program as it was designed: as a way to further core development that couldn’t happen without additional funding. Unfortunately, there are those that abuse the program; some companies really do want to keep that “We’re not launched yet!” excuse going as long as they can! Not cool, and not fooling me. I also don’t like the proliferation of the term soft launched: launch is launch. I am, however, OK with people spending something extra on a package for a headstart and still calling the official launch the date everyone else can access the game.
Some games don’t play the “We’re still in development” card as an excuse for lack of progress, content, or other more nefarious misdeeds. For instance, I look at Warframe and wonder, now why in heavens hasn’t this launched? It looks like a launched game, it acts like a launched game (even better than a number of launched games!), but it is as far as I can tell still in open beta. Why? I haven’t seen that used as a reason to deflect criticism, and Digital Extremes is putting out constant content, including a massive– and might I add free — expansion. So I have no idea what is stopping that little verbiage jump to launch, other than maybe having to re-title the EULA you sign when you start the game. You can’t wait until the game is complete because an MMO-type game is never complete… until the day it dies (or maintenance mode, which is essentially the same thing). For what it is worth, Steam does note the game was “released” March 25th, 2013, so there’s that.
Patron Archebius: The official “launch” has become blurred in more than one direction – with the ease of patching and adding/enabling additional content, there are quite a few games that I wouldn’t consider launched regardless of what the studio says in public. A prime example of that is Battlefield 4, which “released” as such a buggy mess that they didn’t push out any major balancing patches until half a year later. The first six months were spent fixing a delightful range of game-breaking bugs, from instant-kill bullets (kinda fun) to randomly dying when jumping over stuff (less fun). This did not, however, prevent them from releasing new DLC!
For the big studios that can afford lots of QA and are going to cancel massively anticipated games because of “market forces,” betas have become ways to generate hype and see how everyone reacts to their latest lockbox shenanigans. I’m sure some valuable knowledge is generated, but how often do we hear “The beta is an old build, all the problems you’re reporting have already been fixed?” Everything is very near completion, at that point. The studio is rarely going to make any changes based on your feedback. The game has been researched, developed, and marketed – the beta is just breaking champagne against the bow.
And yes, early access has blurred this line as well. At some point, you’re paying for a complete project, and then watching it all come together. Sometimes the game, as it exists at launch, isn’t as fun as it was a few months back – ARK, for instance. Sometimes I never go back to games that I backed in early access, content with the time I’ve spent in them.
So, in short – I don’t think it matters any more. Games have moved away from being one-time releases that you dig out your SNES to play one more time. A game can be ruined or improved by changing developer focus years after launch; it can be a blast from the first moment of early access or a legitimate alpha-test slog. If they continue to improve and update their product, so much the better – but I consider a game to be launched when I can get in and play and have a good time with it, regardless of whether that’s a year before or a year after the official launch.