Tag closed beta

A Letter To All MMO Developers Out There

Of course, this post has nothing to do with Final Fantasy XIV's open beta. Of course.

To whom it may concern.

Dear MMO-designers, companies, economists, marketers, PR-agents and all you others involved in the development and launching of a new MMO.

We love you, we really do. Many of us jump between many different games, read up on news and theories and all MMO-related things that we can get our hands on. Hey, some of us even blog about you or go chasing you down with a camera man in tow whenever we get a chance. For some of us, the thought of not having an active MMO sub at any given time feels odd. We’ve seen countless games go into beta, many more launch and even some crash and burn.

But there are a couple of things that you never seem to learn, one lesson that you really need to finally wrap your head around. While not everyone will stick around and play your game for very long, while a lot of people will return to World of Warcraft or Everquest 2 or wherever they originally came from after a while, there seem to be a huge hunger for new games in the genre. Some games develop a huge following long before launch, fansites start to pop up in a matter of days after a simple announcement. And every time the word “beta” is mentioned, a lot of people will jump.

You guys need to be better to anticipate the amount of people that will come storming your servers by the time you go into open beta. You need to be prepared, you need gauge your own hype. Take a look at your balance sheet, see that terribly big number next to “launch day expenses”? Copy it and put it next to “open beta launch” too. If you don’t do that, how about just skipping open beta in the first place? You got your closed beta feedback, use that instead. Use other ways to stress test your servers before launch, if that’s what you want the beta for. If you’re a small company with limited funds, that might be the best way to do it. If you’re a large corporation, the first option is probably the better.

Ok, I lied. It does have to do with Final Fantasy XIV's open beta.

Also, and this has been said so many times now, at some point “open beta” became synonymous with “free trial” for many. I’m not saying that’s a good thing, but it happened. I’m not sure who to blame, the companies or the players. It doesn’t really matter, it’s the way it is. Unless your beta product is very, very polished your game will probably suffer because of it. People decide if they are going to pick up your game on launch day or not from the quality of your open beta. There are different ways to handle this, and placing your open beta really close to launch is a gamble – it gives you more time to prepare, but if players feel that the game isn’t ready for launch things might get messy anyway.

I just thought you should be told, again. The strategy that all of you seem to be using these days is pretty flawed. You need to learn to humble yourself a bit, to plan better, and be prepared for the storm that will hit your servers. Trust me, it will come.

Yours truly,

Petter

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I’m In Your MMO, Reviewing Your Beta

Last time there was any talk about how to (or how not to) review MMOs was around the whole Eurogamer vs Aventurine debacle (often called “Zitrongate” after the reviewer). This was obviously a deep and traumatic event for some people, especially Darkfall fans that still can’t stop taking cheap shots at Eurogamer (despite them doing a re-review of the game). To me, though, the question has crept back into the front of my mind, as I’m currently reviewing two MMOs at the same time.

Ensign Squid

Ensign 418 of 666, codename "Squid", at your service.

As I mentioned in my last entry, this is an incredibly stupid thing to do. Last time I had two MMOs on my hands, I decided to skip one of them because the other had more priority (Aion over the first Runes of Magic expansion), this time both felt important enough to warrant my attention. It’s Global Agenda and Star Trek Online, two completely different games that both feel interesting enough to cover. I kind of wish I had stopped myself, but it’s too late now. They shall be reviewed.

So how do I go about reviewing a MMO? Thing is, I’ve had access to both of these games’ betas, Star Trek Online all the way back since closed beta and Global Agenda since some point during open. If I just had gone down the same route as a lot of other games journalists, I would have played both extensively over a long period of time, then tried them out for a bit after launch and then getting my reviews done a few days after they were released. Job done, I can sleep at night, my editors are happy, our readers are happy, everyone is happy (except perhaps the developer/publisher, if I had decided to give the game low scores).

My problem is that I refuse to review a MMO based on beta. No matter what people say, a beta is not a finished product. It might be as close as you can get, and most of the time the end of open beta will look exactly like the launch candidate, but by calling it “beta” and not “head start” or “early access”, the developers themselves are saying that the game is not done. So I won’t review it based on my experiences during beta, just like I would not review a game based on a late preview build (which are almost always like the finished product, except for perhaps a couple of bugs). I am not going to play the beta for anything except for an early look at what the game might become, just so I can get a review in a few days after launch.

Also, more often than not, the developer adds some form of patch close to launch that changes some fundamental things to the game. It might not warrant the title of “miracle patch”, but it’s often enough to make the game at least a bit better (or, in the case of Champions Online’s launch day, worse according to a lot of people). It’s kinda sad that this doesn’t happen earlier during the beta process, but the reason is probably that the developer still thinks beta is beta, while the marketing department thinks it’s free marketing. I’ve seen way too many reviews, some even printed in a magazine and passed off as a “real” review, that have even taken beta rumors as facts.

Global Agenda

This is my Global Agenda recon character. She dies a lot.

Do I blame the journalists themselves for this? No, of course not. They have deadlines, we all do, and have to work towards them. Also, there’s often pressure from the readers, who are dying to try out the game but want to know what their magazine/website of choice thinks. The only way to review a MMO and get a review out quickly is to play beta. I am just lucky enough to have editors that allow me to take the time I believe is needed, up to a certain degree of course. And despite this, I never feel fully satisfied, always having to add a disclaimer that there is no way I have seen or experienced everything and that some players will always have had more time than me and is bound to disagree. That’s why we have comment fields, as long as the discussion can be kept civil.

What I would like to see is a civil discussion about how to review MMOs. Last time it happened, the discussion was filled with so much anger at Eurogamer, or disdain towards how Aventurine handled the situation, that it was almost impossible to catch the good stuff amongst the constant din. So I’m going to try here – do you want your MMO-reviews early, or are you comfortable with waiting for them? I do realize that I’m probably talking to the wrong crowd, since most of my readers here are probably just as fanatic about MMOs as I am, but I still want to hear your thoughts about one of the hardest genres a games journalist can tackle.

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Let’s Talk Star Trek Online

Me and my crew. The guys in the back are in big trouble.

I’ve been putting off talking very much about Star Trek Online here so far. It’s not that I didn’t want to, or were under any NDA (they were kind enough to not have a NDA for the press), just that I wanted to give it more time to sink it. After all, since my initial reaction was “oh my, Champions Online in space, where’s the exit button?”, I think I made the right choice.

Because, well…Star Trek Online is not Champions Online in space.

Here’s the thing though; a lot is similar to Cryptic’s last MMO, including graphical design and UI design (at least on the ground). I really had to get over that before going forward, which luckily went fairly fast. It’s not surprising in the least, the STO and CO teams have probably shared a lot of assets between each other, working on two MMOs under the same roof.

That being said, STO – at least during closed beta – didn’t run very smooth while on the ground. Space combat felt much more fluid, while the client had a tendency to stutter and spit at me at times. My rig might not be top of the line, but it is quite capable. I had similar issues with CO for some reason. I hope it will be better closer to launch.

Space combat.

Space combat is a lot of lines and floating circles. Lovely!

So far, space combat is the most fun I’ve had in STO. While I haven’t been in any huge battles together with other players, the few space quests I’ve done have all been a lot of fun. Constantly making sure that my strongest shields are facing the enemy, while making sure I can turn quick enough to fire my torpedoes when their shields are down, makes for dynamic combat. It’s nothing like EVE Online, considering this is twitch based, and it is this I am looking forward to the most when STO launches in February.

Down on the ground, the game turns into a more traditional MMO, except for the fact that you always bring a crew with you. So far I’ve only unlocked two bridge officers, one science and one engineer, that both follow me when I beam down to a planet or into a ship. The actual team you will have is much larger though, so the game fills up the empty slots with security officers – the good old red shirts that tend to get killed all the time in the series.

Firefight.

Even in closed spaces like this, the client can cough a bit.

Beaming over to a beset spaceship to save the crew is one thing, battling pirates while trying to make your way through the tight corridors. It’s standard fare, nothing to write home to the blog about. The diplomatic mission, where I had to listen to the complaints of a couple of miners and then answering a questionnaire about what those complaints were, was more interesting – no real action, it only took a couple of minutes to complete, yet was interesting enough to warrant more investigation further into the game. I truly hope the devs have done something good with this type of mission.

One thing we know Cryptic are really good at, after City of Heroes and Champions Online, is customization. STO is not an exception. You can customize your ship in a wide variety of ways, you can spend a lot of time tweaking your own appearance (and create your own race, of course) and you can do the same to your bridge officers. I’m really looking forward to creating my own, personalised team and take them out on adventures across the galaxy.

There’s a lot of things I haven’t had time to dig deeper into, like the leveling system where you get to spend points in a whole bunch of different skills (both for yourself and for your crew). I haven’t bought a new ship or fitted it with very exciting equipment either. There will be enough time for that at a later point.

Earth.

Space, compared to on the ground, runs smoothly while looking amazing.

So, where do I stand on the subject of STO? I will play it at launch, that much I know. It’s more fun than I thought it would be, especially the space combat. But when I think about it more, I am not sure I see it as a MMO right now, I see it more like a single player game where I can create my own bridge crew and customize my ship. There’s a danger in that, absolutely. Hopefully, that part will emerge when the game is finally released.

There was a major patch to the beta client a few days ago, I haven’t had time to check it out, but when I left the game it didn’t feel ready for release. The clunkyness of the client needs to go. It might already have been fixed, perhaps that last patch was some kind of “miracle patch”, perhaps Cryptic have a lot of updates to the client in the pipeline. But February still feels too soon.

We shall see what happens. I am glad we are finally getting a Star Trek Online. I was not, to say the least, a fan of Champions Online, but I hope that Cryptic will redeem themselves in my eyes with STO. They have some good stuff in there.

No, make that great stuff.

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