Not Your Granddad’s Open Beta
Back in Autumn I preordered Aion to get access to its beta, now I did the same for Star Trek Online. This model of handing out beta access seems to get more and more prominent, and judging from the amount of people in the STO beta it’s working quite well – at least when your goal is to gather many preorders. From an actual testing point of view I’m not so sure. The STO “open” beta started on January 12th, the game will go public on February 2nd – that’s a mere three weeks of open beta and virtually no time in between the end of beta and the launch of the game. Can this really be considered testing or is it just a money-grabbing scheme?
It’s easy to demand that game companies shouldn’t put games on the market before they are finished, but that’s a promise that not even Blizzard is able to keep anymore. The Wrath of the Lich King expansion was launched with major holes – quite different from Blizzard’s previous “It’s done when it’s done” philosophy. I understand why this happens – game companies need to make money, developing MMOs costs a ton of money, and MMOs are essentially never complete. It therefore makes sense for a publishing company to set a deadline by which production on the game is halted. Luckily, MMOs can easily still be improved right up to the launch day as opposed to classic offline games which need some time for production and distribution. Every major MMO has a “launch day patch” anyway, delivering the changes that have been made between pressing the game discs and the actual launch.
I’m quite confident that many of the bugs found in STO during this open beta period will be fixed in such a launch day patch, but there won’t be any major changes to game play anymore. Yet, in-game chat is full of people claiming that whatever somebody else is complaining about is fine “because it’s just a beta and things will change”. No, they won’t. Not unless they are simply bugs.
I suppose that many testers would suggest to completely remove or replace sector space in the game (see Monday’s post), but that is something that won’t happen this late in the development cycle. Knowing this diminishes my feeling of worth as a tester quite a bit, as no one is interested in my intellectual opinion but instead just in me pushing the game to its limits. Most of those who bought their beta access probably don’t care about this, since they never really intended to test the game anyway.
From a game quality point of view, this seems to be a bad choice as well, however. Star Trek Online is clearly unfinished and could use quite a bit of work in various areas. If the release date was in July, for example, I might actually be quite excited about the game. A solid foundation is there, but that needs to be tested and tweaked into a decent game now. A February launch makes that impossible.
I find it quite odd that a somewhat experienced company like Cryptic would make such a mistake. Unless they are really running out of money and would go bankrupt otherwise, it surely must be better for them in the long run to delay the game a bit and get more money out of a quality game later. Age of Conan should have shown them exactly what happens to games that launch too early – they roll over and die. I have no idea if Age of Conan is actually a decent game now. I played it for a week at launch, hated it, and never touched it again. I can’t help but wonder whether MMO creators have given up on getting large sustained numbers of subscribers and decided to live on Box sales instead. If they have, giving the public early access for reviews might be a very bad idea – I haven’t seen many honest reviews yet that actually recommended getting the game.