Open beta: the double-edged sword

We’ve come to a time in the MMO genre’s lifespan where players expect and anticipate an “open beta” period. If an MMO developer doesn’t hold an open beta, we assume they’ve got something to hide. If an open beta period is too short we snark about the developer not really caring about our opinions because they haven’t left time to react to them.

The problem is that most of us players aren’t really beta testing; we’re sampling. We want to get into the open beta so we can play for free for a few weeks in order to determine if we want to buy the game when it launches (in some cases we’re playing for free with no intention whatsoever of buying the game). And the problem that follows is that we’re judging the game when it isn’t at its best.

This post is of course a direct result of the Star Trek Online open beta debacle going on right now. Cryptic has invited lots and lots of players into the open beta and the game is really suffering for it. On the one hand, I’m sure Cryptic is gathering a ton of data about where the net-code needs more polish and how much hardware they’re going to have to have on-hand to ensure a smooth launch. So that’s good.

But the bad news is that players are trying to play and having a horrific experience. I was actually laughing at how awful the lag and rubber-banding was when I created my first open beta character, but I’d played in closed beta so didn’t really need the tutorials, and I know this behavior wasn’t typical for the game. It ran much better in closed beta and I, being ever the optimist (HA!), am assuming it’ll run much better after launch, too.

But Joe Gamer, for whom this is the only STO experience he’ll know before deciding whether or not to part with his cash, probably isn’t laughing. From the onerous process of downloading the client to troubles logging in to not being able to move once you get logged in, the open beta experience is strongly urging him to cancel his pre-order and give STO a pass. And he’s telling his friends, who aren’t in the open beta, how bad the experience has been, so they’re canceling their pre-orders as well.

Now I’m not here to defend STO. I have pre-ordered but almost against my better judgement. But my issues aren’t with lag and performance so much as they are with the design of the game. I will say that you shouldn’t base your final judgement of the game on the horrible, broken performance of the open beta.

So what can game developers do? I don’t think they can completely fix the problem, but what would help is to offer trial accounts from Day 1. Let people sample, for free, the final, launched game. That would cut down on the number of beta testers who treat open beta like a preview program. This solution comes with the downside of a less robust stress test, of course. I suppose designers have to weigh the benefits of a good stress test against the lost sales of people getting fed up with the performance of the game in a crowded open beta.

You only get one chance to make a first impression though. I’ll speak heresy and suggest that a really bad open beta might do more harm to a game than a rocky few days at launch. Once a customer has handed over his $50 he’s apt to put up with a rough patch and keep checking back in until things get better (assuming that happens in days, not weeks). There’s nothing to keep a beta-tester around and once they walk away from your game, they’re probably never going to come back.

15 thoughts on “Open beta: the double-edged sword

  1. Good post. As a person for whom this IS my first STO experience and I do want to test it for bugs and what not it has been a nightmare during PEAK hours.

    I did not fall for the sucker bait of Champions Online to get into Star Trek because I was in the CO beta and it sucked so I knew what I was getting into. But I had hopes that STO could improve on CO and plus I like Star Trek. But this open beta…UGH.

    So far glad I saved my money

  2. “Ill speak heresy and suggest that a really bad open beta might do more harm to a game than a rocky few days at launch”

    Not heresy…absolute 100% frakkin truth.

    You are spot on for the rest of it as well, and this is a topic I touched on myself (http://www.cedarstreet.net/2009/11/two-mmos-admit-beta-is-marketing.html) a while back. Cryptic is blatently the worst offender, IMO, of treating the beta as a marketing gimmick rather then an opportunity for players to help fix the game. They’re playing up the expectation that a LOT of gamers have that beta = pre-order trial. Unfortunately, what Cyrptic is offering is absolutely abysmal in terms of what the game will be.

    I’m pretty sure that the Champs Online beta was the same way, with crappy performance. IMO, they got that under control in time for launch, so I’m not going to sweat it for STO. Plus, no MMO is ever finnished, so it’s safe to assume that Cryptic — if they respect the weight of the Star Trek IP — will burn whatever oil they can get their hands on to fix the game as quickly as possible.

  3. I hope they fix it. We need more space MMO’s, scratch that, we need more GOOD space MMO’s. Anyways its funny how people see “beta” and they see “free trial”. I live my life in software development and all I see when I see “beta” is “bugz”.

  4. Well said. I’m not sure if there’s any way to correct the impressions though. You want a big population in open beta to do adequate stress testing. You want to emphasize that it is a beta and not a preview. In the end though I’m not sure what a developer could do to get a player to realize that beta is not live. I’m reminded of how most users treat popup warning boxes where they’ll click ok before they even read the message asking did they really want to delete something.

  5. We expect Betas to be free promotions with minor testing nowadays.

    The problem with a Beta is you get bad press if the Beta has issues. And it has issues – not only the lag. Gameplay, especially Away Missions, are “rough” around the edges, to put it politely.
    If it is really a Beta, I somehow do not see how I could help to improve the game, contribute something meaningful… that can be fixed till 02. or 08. February, I heard release got pushed back.

    And hey, just because I cancelled my Preorder for now does not mean I cannot be ensorcelled to preorder again. I cancelled Guild Wars, too, and then I bought the CE and play(ed) for four years in a row. 😉

  6. “So what can game developers do? I dont think they can completely fix the problem, but what would help is to offer trial accounts from Day 1. Let people sample, for free, the final, launched game. That would cut down on the number of beta testers who treat open beta like a preview program.”

    Yes. This is just good business, too.

    I’ve never played in a beta thinking that it would fully represent the final game. I don’t mind bugs… but I do have fun blasting core design decisions in hopes of getting them changed.

    I’m probably weird, though, since I work in games. I’ve played much more broken builds…

  7. Beta’s are big business now and almost a business model into themselves. I have to wonder how many people have already parted cash on Impulse and Steam or Fileplanet subscriptions in order to be able to play the game early.

    Personally I’m seriously considering cancelling my pre-order.

  8. Yeah you know, that’s an extremely important point that I just missed. People do buy non-refundable (or at least, not easily refundable) pre-orders just to get into the beta. Hmmm. That certainly teeters the totter a bit in the favor of open betas, no matter how bad they are.

  9. “But the bad news is that players are trying to play and having a horrific experience. I was actually laughing at how awful the lag and rubber-banding was when I created my first open beta character, but Id played in closed beta so didnt really need the tutorials, and I know this behavior wasnt typical for the game. It ran much better in closed beta and I, being ever the optimist (HA!), am assuming itll run much better after launch, too.”

    Quoted/Coloured text has been taken from the discussed article in the OP.

    Can you not read the article your trying to talk about? He is clearly not offering a balanced, concise, fact driven review which you claim.

    At no stage have I had a ‘horrific’ experience. He expected things to run smoothly on 12 of Jan with tens of thousands of people logging in at once?

    ” But my issues arent with lag and performance so much as they are with the design of the game.”

    Your kidding me? 2/3rds of his half an A4 page one sides review talks about how ‘bad’ the lag and performance is, with no update or admission to the fact that the performance over the past few days has increased ten fold and the lag has decreased also.

    “Theres nothing to keep a beta-tester around and once they walk away from your game, theyre probably never going to come back.”

    lolwut? He is clearly not a beta tester. He , as he admitted, only took a menial part in order to ‘sample the free gameplay’. An actual beta tester helps provide constructive feedback about the errors, problems and bugs. This guy is so transparent, his review is laudable only to the most dim witted, reality offset people.

    As an actual beta tester I recognise the limits of the beta, I recognise that we are not playing the release version, or even the most current version – as admitted by Cryptic – which he also fails to discuss.

    What part of this ‘review’ is actually a credible source of information? It contains no specifics about the tutorial, the actual gameplay of the non-current open bata, no discussion on its ability to be an MMO…

    It is simply a forum for his own opinions and ideas and perspectives.

    Why you would considering appreciating an opinion such as that is beyond me, but you are free to. Frankly, whether positive or negative, I expect a review to review correctly and to provide information about the topic, and to take into account the specifications and limitations under which the review was carried out.

    And yet you come to these forums and post your drivel, touting Cryptic as the bad guy because they did not post some nobody’s blogspot which contains no material value to any reader other than , as I outlined, the dim witted out of touch with reality and facts folk to which you have demonstrated you are a life time subscriber thereof.

    Thank you.

  10. I’m not sure what that last comment is about… it seems like it’s a cross post from the Cryptic forums?

    I’m hearing 1 side of a conversation but just to be clear, this isn’t a “review” of anything. I never claimed it to be and anyone who actually reads it can see that it isn’t. It was just a discussion of the dilemma that MMO developers & publishers have gotten themselves into with the beta policies.

    And how about showing some integrity and leaving a valid email the next time; I’d like to know where all this is coming from but you didn’t leave any contact info.

  11. Interesting discussion. Ive played the open beta and I have been enjoying it. I’m pretty sure it will hold my interest for at least the first month. If so i will have had fun for my 50 bucks. I agree there are some bad design decisions and it doesnt really live up to all the talk. its very repetitive and all about combat, that isnt very star trek and I doubt the core game play mechanics are going to change all that much after its release. I submitted some mission bugs and played for a few hours but I don’t want to ruin the game for myself, I was curious as hell and the beta has provided me with a much needed reality check. I’m smart enough to know that the game is still buggy and that it will improve but I can also see what lies in store for me. I wont be canceling my pre order but If there isnt some fancy patches that improve the variety of missions I wont be subscribing for month two.

  12. OK did a quick search on the Cryptic forums and found this link:

    http://forums.startrekonline.com/showthread.php?t=70503

    Which is where loli, who goes as nynik over there, came from.

    Reading the thread, it’s really interesting to see how people can take a blog post and twist it in their minds. How anyone can consider this post a review of anything is beyond my comprehension.

    The irony, of course, is that if anything I’ve been defending STO to people frustrated with the early conditions of the open beta, pointing out the stress testing is part of running a beta. nynik seems to be a fan of the game, yet he’s attacking me.

    A great example of why I avoid the “community” of official MMO forums.

  13. Nerdragers! You’ve made it, Pete! 😀

    I’m always very puzzled by irate “apples” responses when someone was writing about “oranges” — as in this case.

    If expressing an opinion about a product, no matter how tangential and no matter how short, is a review, then I’d better be careful what opinions I start expressing.

    Or not. What the f*** do I care what non-reading nerdragers think? Aaaahhh, I feel better now. Let off some spleen. More room to generate more now. 😛

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