Massively Overthinking: Do MMO betas rob you of launch joy?


I use to think of betas as being unpaid labor for video game companies, but maybe I’ve been going about it all wrong. On Kotaku last month, Mike Fahey argued that betas are effectively helping him to “[rob himself] of the collective joy of hopping into a game fresh-faced and unknowing on launch day,” an experience he says he prefers to simply being able to say, yeah, I’ve been playing since beta.

Of course, our readers and writers are old hats at betas and may have a different take. So that’s what we’re sussing out in this week’s Massively Overthinking: Do you think MMO betas rob you of launch joy? Or do you still delight in playing them? Has that opinion changed over the years?

Andy McAdams: The longer I work in product development, the less appetite I have to “beta” someone else’s work, since I spend a lot of my professional time doing just that. The last time I made any effort to play in a pre-launch game “just for fun” was Landmark, and well, we all know how that went. I’ve tried Camelot Unchained’s beta weekends, but I find myself just wanting to play and a true pre-launch experience just isn’t for that. So I was never big into them to begin with, and the small interest has only diminished as time has passed.

And really, who hasn’t rolled eyes at some commenter who says, “Well I’ve been playing since beta and …” some following wackadoodle statement about how they have special knowledge or their opinion should be more valued than someone else’s. Seriously, no one should be that guy.

That being said, I think betas (or pre-launch events) are super important, especially in MMOs. There’s no way to replicate the experience of thousands of people playing stressing your infrastructure at once in a lab environment. Nor can you be sure that your carefully developed combat system isn’t ripe for exploit in some way your designers don’t expect. In MMOs there no real substitute for the real thing of having all these people pounding on the game at the same time and see what inevitably breaks.

So me? Playing in beta just isn’t how I want to spend my off time. But I think they are a needed part of the MMO development space.

Ben Griggs (@braxwolf): Brace yourself, old man rant incoming. What does beta even mean nowadays? It used to be a certain phase of testing, relying on the end-user to validate functionality of a product. Then Gmail stayed in beta for years, creating a built-in excuse for bugs and annoyances: “Well, it’s still in beta, you know…” Then Star Citizen broke all of the rules and released its “alpha” version (by definition, the version that is supposed to identify all possible issues and bugs before releasing it to the public) to the public, where it’s remained for seven years.

Personally, I prefer to wait until public release to play a game, mostly because I’d rather see the finished product. Plus, I don’t have time to provide feedback on alpha and beta releases. That’s an unpaid internship that others seem more than willing to take up, and good on them.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I don’t want to get all pedantic in my own dang Overthinking, but I feel like we still need to explore joy here. Some people do get the most joy from being first and knowing literally everything before they step foot in the launch game. I can even see how I’ve helped myself have more fun at launch by playing betas just long enough to know what class or path I wanted to take when the real game came ’round. Without that knowledge, my launch experience would’ve been far less fun.

My kneejerk on this is to say that yes, they definitely do rob us of joy, but I’m having a hard time coming up with justification for that gut reaction. I don’t think that my time spent in the betas for World of Warcraft or Guild Wars 2, for example, actually hurt my joy – if anything, they hyped me more. But that’s because I loved the crap out of those games; they were exceptional MMOs at their launch. They’re not really the rule. For games I love a lot less? Or games I’m just previewing for work? Or games my guildies are dragging me into? Hell, I don’t want to play truly unfinished stuff. How can betas for junk rob me of joy I didn’t have for them to begin with?

I think I’ve talked myself back to the side of thinking that going in “fresh and unknowing” is overrated, at least for me. Betas definitely annoy me, but for different reasons, like, say, abusing unpaid testers for QA work.

Carlo Lacsina (@UltraMudkipEX): If anyone’s watched Sword Art Online, you’ll know why I cringed at all the hate the beta testers were getting; it was ridiculous that the writers thought players actually had that mindset. But Sword Art Online was also a terrible anime. This was just the beat Overthinking to reveal my feelings on this game.

Historically, I prefer to just wait until I have the full product in my hand. I’ll play them if I need it for Massively or something, but in general I can wait. It’s especially true with MMOs for me: I’m willing to wait a few weeks after release so everything stabilize before diving in.

Recently, though, I’ve been clamoring to try out Riot’s Legend of Runeterra if only because I want to stop playing Hearthstone and move on to another game. It has nothing to do with Blitzchung; I just haven‘t seriously played a TCG since 2017 and would like to dive into something that isn’t of the current offerings. I’m eager to dive into the new monetization model.

Chris Neal (@wolfyseyes, blog): It all depends on the scale of content during beta, but overall I still glean some enjoyment out of the launch by joining in the opening stampede.; even if I’m coming into a game with beta gameplay knowledge, there’s still an electricity to that initial rush into a newly opened MMO and multiplayer world.

That said, I have to admit that a bit of the initial wonder is removed, but I’m not sure that’s due to excessive beta gaming over simply joining in lots of game launches. I have been in enough launches to sort of be… not dulled to it all, necessarily, so much as familiar. Which is why most launch SNAFUs don’t get to me as deeply as they once did.

Even so, if it is a game that I truly am excited to play, I forego any beta access or invites to enjoy the full blind-run arrival. A little extra whipped cream on the initial rush pie.

Colin Henry (@ChaosConstant): Like Mike Fahey, I used to jump at the chance to play betas and learn as much about a new game as possible before everyone else. Now, through a combination of bad beta/launch experiences, and the fact that I’m now a software developer and finding bugs sounds even more like work to me than it does to Bree, I’m just not that interested. Let me know when it’s finished and stable and I’ll play it. If I’m really interested in how a game feels, I may join a free, low-barrier beta, but only to mess around for a couple hours. The same usually goes for launch week.

As for the question of whether or not playing MMO betas robs me of joy, I don’t really think that’s an issue for me. In 2019, I don’t find many “surprises” in games anymore, certainly not in ones with thousands of players chatting with each other at all times. By the time an MMO or expansion is a day old, wiki authors are already busy documenting every nuance, and min/maxers are already writing up their build guides. In a few months, the whole thing will be old hat, beta or no. And quite frankly, I kind of like it that way. I don’t have time anymore to stumble around in the dark, begging someone who knows what they’re doing to point me in the right direction for a quest, or hoping I fall into the best passives or gear for my class. If the game doesn’t help me out, I’m Googling it. It may not be experiencing the game as “fresh-faced” as if I just muddled through on day one with everyone else, but at least I’m experiencing it with less frustration.

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): The only value I’ve ever gotten from betas is to scratch the curiosity itch of what it looks and feels like — which takes about one game session — and perhaps earn any rewards the carry over to the live game. That sounds very self-serving, and it is, but it’s also the truth. I don’t beta test to help iron out bugs, nor do I see much of a purpose in extensively playing in a world that is being built around me and is destined for a full wipe. Life has taught me that I can wait for a finished (or at least, launched) product and do other things while I am biding that time.

Samon Kashani (@thesamkash): I’ve played a handful of betas, and personally I’ve enjoyed them. At least when a beta was a beta. I’m not going to get into the whole Kickstarter alpha, beta, rebranding situation. However, I think it is a huge part of why players are getting burnt out on them and left feeling like they are taking away from the launch.

When Guild Wars 2 had a handful of beta weekends, they were a blast. I remember how ArenaNet had unique events to end them. It just got me even more hyped for launch. On the other hand, we have Kickstarter games where we get hands-on so early in the development by the time the game launches (if they launch) that the game itself is almost old hat to us. I’ve been playing the game for years so launch just ends up feeling like another patch.

So my stance would be that real betas, where you played for a week or a few weekends, were awesome and just hyped me up more. But the current situation of years-long alphas and betas do take away from the excitement.

Tyler Edwards: I don’t tend to spend a lot of time in betas, and Fahey’s rationale is exactly why. I don’t want to burn out on a game before it even releases. I may poke my head in to get a feel for it, but I usually don’t stick around. The one exception is for games that are more focused on competitive play or anything else that isn’t about story or exploration. I played Heroes of the Storm heavily in beta, for instance. But I hardly play those kinds of games anyway, in beta or otherwise.

Every week, join the Massively OP staff for Massively Overthinking column, a multi-writer roundtable in which we discuss the MMO industry topics du jour – and then invite you to join the fray in the comments. Overthinking it is literally the whole point. Your turn!
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