Don’t Rush The BETA

More than any other type of game, MMOs have a symbiotic relationship with their players. It’s crucial for the technology powering the game and its play mechanics, and the game’s reputation and public perception are all positively defined in the BETA stage. In the early days of MMO development, the traditional closed and open BETA phases (the former private, the latter public) were an opportunity to test technical aspects of the game and determine how it played with a live audience.

Not any more: as NetDevil’s Scott Brown states, "The BETA period isn’t for testing any more; it’s more about marketing. Of course, it’s the first time you get a sense of the scale of players and true balance, but the game needs to be polished by the time it goes to BETA."

Brown should know. By the time Tabula Rasa was entering its BETA phase in spring 2007, NetDevil’s Auto Assault had already become a byword for disastrous BETAs. Its BETA involved the servers being shut down halfway through development so that the game could be comprehensively reworked, a move from which it never recovered. "One of the mantras that went around production discussions after Auto Assault’s launch was that if you can’t get people to play the BETA for free, you have serious, serious issues," states Scott Jennings.

Success and Failure in MMOs Don’t Rush The BETA
Auto Assault (2006 - 2007) became a byword for a disastrous MMO BETA

Unfortunately, it appears NCSoft’s management didn’t listen when it came to Tabula Rasa. According to blogs by Jennings and the ex-Chief Technical Officer of NCSoft Europe, Adam Martin, it was widely acknowledged internally that the game wasn’t ready for its BETA test when the date rolled around, yet the game was rushed into it anyway.

As Jennings recounts: "Tabula Rasa had those [same] issues. Not as bad as Auto Assault – there were people doggedly playing every night and presumably enjoying themselves . . . . but it was pretty clear, at least from my completely disassociated and busy viewpoint, that there wasn’t a lot of excitement." The same mistake was made at developer Sigil with the BETA release of Vanguard. If post-closure interviews are to be believed, the game was rushed to BETA and then to launch, when the majority of Sigil’s staff knew that it wasn’t ready.

The BETA is important. The hardcore MMO community will try out and pronounce judgement on a new game as soon as the servers open. Positive word of mouth at this point creates positive momentum, while negative coverage has the opposite effect. Playing an MMO with friends is a key reason for their popularity, and if a group of friends is influenced to make the move to a new title, this can help drive a game’s popularity, which underlines the importance of early adopters.

With this in mind, do games get a second chance to make a first impression? According to Erling Elleson, the answer is yes. "Most games of this type change quite a lot from BETA to release, due to the nature of how they’re developed." Nonetheless, he admits that a bad BETA can have a major impact. "Feedback from testers is extremely important and you’re right about the fact that if you haven’t got a good BETA then you might be headed for troubled waters. It’s definitely a challenging process."
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