Vague Patch Notes: Don’t be the MMO beta defense squad

Plue Brotocol.

Every week, I have to think about betas. I have to think a lot about betas, in fact. More than I ever wanted to think about betas. Far more than I ever wanted to think about games claiming to be in beta when they clearly aren’t or games that have been released but are still hiding inside of early access like somehow it only counts if you say it does… but that’s getting into an entirely different discussion than this week’s topic.

So in this edition of Vague Patch Notes, I’m here to advise you – and by “you” I am referring to members of the MMO community as an aggregate – that it’s time to stop buying into the beta defense. The game that you are playing in beta is, most likely, within sneezing distance of the game that will be launching in its full form. And not only is it not your job to defend the game from people throwing shade at the title in testing. It’s probably actively harmful.

We’ve talked about this before on Massively-that-was as the “beta defense.” The idea put forth by this particular syllogistic argument is essentially that games can change during testing, people not playing the beta aren’t familiar with the game, and things being changed shouldn’t be targeted for criticism; therefore, people criticizing the game just don’t know what’s going on because they’re not in the beta like you.

This is a bad argument for several reasons. The first and perhaps most obvious one is the same reason why fans waiting outside of a theater for a midnight opening of a film may not be the right audience to evaluate a film’s quality. Being in the beta probably means that you’re already interested in the game and hopeful about it being good, which also probably means that you are evaluating it based on how well it adheres to your ideals about what the game was supposed to be.

That doesn’t mean you’re incapable of evaluating it, of course; it just means that you should be aware about your biases going in. We all have biases, and the real trick is accounting for them and letting them inform without dictating your opinion. That’s part of being a journalist.

I just moved here, and I don't want to live here any more.

But the beta defense has problems far beyond your ability (or lack thereof) to properly evaluate the game’s qualities. For starters, and perhaps most importantly, when the game is in beta that title is fundamentally finished.

You’re about to argue that, I’m sure, and you’d be right to point out that beta can launch low on content and with many systems yet to be refined. But in any kind of public beta, it’s important to note that the important part of that phrase isn’t the word beta – it’s the word public. It means that whatever is or isn’t in the game at the time of launch, the developers sat down and decided that yes, this is worth showing off to people who have not yet played the game and/or been iterating upon these systems for months and years at a time.

In classic software parlance, beta means that the product is feature-complete but not necessarily refined or finished. New World, for example, has had a number of test events that have added new content, new systems, and so forth. But if the game moves into its beta, it’s not going to subsequently announce a heretofore undiscussed system wherein you can craft your own magical familiar and summon it as a pet. That system would be in there before beta, even if the initial beta didn’t have everything in place that it would eventually include.

To put it more succinctly, the beta is your visual and public proof of concept. It’s stating what players and fans can expect from the finished game. It’s much more sensible to treat the beta as being more or less what the final game will look like, barring major behind-the-scenes changes that you can’t anticipate.

But that’s the other big problem with the beta defense. It’s assuming that a point of criticism will be addressed in the final game in lieu of any actual announcement of same, and down that path lies the madness of assuming something is going to be fixed just because it’s an obvious problem.

Now… this seems logical, at least coming from a place of good faith. After all, if everyone sees something as a problem and the developers are still in a place wherein changes are not simply permitted but expected, why wouldn’t these elements be changed before launch? The answer is predictably simple, though – it’s very easy for systems that players hate to be the darlings of certain developers who will go to bat, insisting that players are doing things wrong rather than changing the core design.


When you take all of this together, you find yourself starting to acknowledge a fundamental truism. Whatever the state of the game internally, and whatever the intended end point of the game will be, the game in beta – and the information about same – is specifically coming from the development team. Everything being put out in advance comes from the source, excepting the occasional bit datamined out (and even that requires first allowing the public access to the beta information just as certainly).

That means that if people are drawing the wrong conclusion, the problem doesn’t come from the people drawing the conclusions but from the sources of information in the first place. Therein lies the final problem of the beta defense – it’s being the defense for a game that shouldn’t need a defense force in the first place.

If you’re going to be doing the work of defending a game, you should be getting paid to do so. (And as discussed previously in this column, you still shouldn’t be doing anything of the sort even if you are getting paid to be a community manager.) Beyond that? It’s the problem of the game’s developers and staff to “defend” the game, which means controlling the flow of information, possibly being better about communicating, and so forth.

Obviously, the impulse to do this is pretty clear. Just like that audience lining up to see a movie at midnight, if you’re in the beta, you’re probably already invested in this game. That means you probably are inclined to go to bat for it, correct assumptions that you know are incorrect, and otherwise speak up in its defense. It’s an understandable impulse for a game you’re predisposed to like and possibly already do like.

But past correcting things that are factually wrong (and possibly not even then), being in the beta does not obligate you to be a defense squad. Being an observer of the beta certainly doesn’t. Someone being wrong about the game doesn’t affect you in the slightest, and it certainly isn’t something you need to debunk. Even if you know for a fact that Item X is being changed and this person just isn’t aware, you don’t need to devote your time to communicating that fact for people who don’t know it.

Don’t be the MMO beta defense squad. The beta is a test. Your job within the beta is to test things, see what is and is not working, and hopefully figure out if the game is for you or not.

Sometimes you know exactly what’s going on with the MMO genre, and sometimes all you have are Vague Patch Notes informing you that something, somewhere, has probably been changed. Senior Reporter Eliot Lefebvre enjoys analyzing these sorts of notes and also vague elements of the genre as a whole. The potency of this analysis may be adjusted under certain circumstances.
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