Launching a Beta Product

I mentioned I would talk about this, and with Star Trek Online launching, I figured it was as good a time as any.

The MMO side of the industry has had the nasty habit of launching their products in beta-quality. When I say beta-quality, I mean that the game is in a state of development that you would expect to find in a beta. Features are not complete, not polished, excessively buggy, or even not yet implemented at all. Servers crash continually, are not prepped properly for the influx of customers, lag excessively, etc. In short, the game looks terrible, plays terrible, and the overall experience is less than satisfactory. In a beta, this is acceptable. You are playing the game for free, after all, and the developers make it very clear that this is a work in progress, not a finished product. You should expect these kind of issues in a beta because they are still working on fixing them.

Given that, one would assume that at least some of these issues would be resolved by launch day. I mean, I’m paying for the game now ($50 for the box copy plus usually a subscription fee, if not lifetime fee). I would expect the game to launch in a finished-product state. But this is rarely the case with MMOs. A normal video game would never be able to be successful with this model. Imagine you purchase a brand new single-player game only to find that it is going to be about 3-4 months before they release the patch that makes the game enjoyable and playable. You’d probably be pretty upset. But, for some reason, this practice is acceptable in the MMO world. Gamers expect this sort of poor practice from MMOs. They expect the game to release in a sub-par form. Which is something I am thoroughly baffled by.

So, why do MMOs continue to launch beta-quality products? A number of reasons.

1) It has been the practice since the beginning of MMOs.

Since the beginning of the MMO genre, the vast majority of the MMOs have released in what is, more or less, a beta state. Some games moreso than others. Certain games launch in what is essentially an unplayable state. Others launch with a few features missing or buggy, or even with a finished game that is simply unpolished and unbalanced. And very, very few exceptions have launched in what could be called a “finished product“. And as such, development studios have simply accepted this as the standard practice. It is not out-of-the-norm to launch in sub-par condition.

2) Hardcore MMO players accept this practice.

Hardcore MMO players are willing to shed a few dollars to fund the final stages of development post-launch. Unfortunately, more casual MMO players are not. World of Warcraft didn’t explode in popularity until well after launch. Why? Because the average gamer wants at least the appearance of a finished, polished game. So, launching in a beta state can drastically limit your market to only the hardest of the hardcore and fanboys of your IP. I’m looking at you, Star Trek Online. When hardcore MMO players and hardcore Star Trek fans are concerned over the state of your game, that’s a pretty good indication that serious work still needs to be done. If you still haven’t won those two areas of your market, you are unlikely to draw in gamers from outside those two groups.

3) Poor management, scheduling, and publisher pressure.

MMOs are the cesspit of the industry as far as talent, management, scheduling, hiring practices, overtime, crunch, and any other negatives aspects you may hear about. Chances are, if you’ve heard a rumor about some horrible practice in the industry, it is probably from (or happening at) an MMO studio. I don’t know why this is, you’d think the massive investment or potential return on investment would draw the best of the best, but it seems to have the exact opposite effect.

Poor management and scheduling accounts for most of why a game will launch in a beta state. Managers are very poor at accurately determining how long the game will take to finish. They will over-promise to the publisher and then hope that their team can somehow manage to finish 5 years worth of work in 2 years of scheduled time. And then wonder why nothing is finished two weeks before launch.

This is compounded by 11th hour changes handed down from upper management and publishers alike. They’ll demand that the development team drop everything they are doing and implement Skirmishes (LOTRO), Arenas (WoW), or Battlegrounds (EQ2) in the last month of development. And then they’ll wonder why these features are implemented with haste, buggy, glitchy, unbalanced, and in some cases – break the entire game. And, while the developers are forced to put all their resources into this new feature, the rest of the game’s development is put on hold, halfway finished – and then launched in that state.

So, how do we fix this?

We can’t. When I say “we” I mean, developers. The overall idea that the common practice for MMOs to launch in this state cannot be easily changed. It would take a few MMOs launching in a very polished state for the industry to begin to change their opinion on this. We can’t control the mindset of gamers either. Their acceptance of this practice is largely determined by the industry’s own perception and actions. If we continue to launch beta-quality games, the perception of gamers that MMOs normally launch in this way will go unchanged. And finally, the decisions made by management and publishers are completely out of the control of the developer and the customer. We are, in essence, at their mercy.

Overall it comes down to a dynamic shift in what is considered acceptable business practices by publishers and management. They consider it acceptable to launch in beta-quality. They consider it acceptable to have sub-standard QA practices; to have zero traceability, accountability, and documentation for feature sets and content releases; to have last minute decisions made, without the consent of the development team, that drastically change the base game play and mechanics of the game or add completely new features; to schedule 5 years worth of development into a 2 year window and just tell the developers to magically “get it done“.

Until the publishers and management make sweeping changes to the ways MMOs are made, you should expect to see MMOs launch in beta-quality and continue to struggle to survive in today’s MMO market.

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8 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. As a developer I have to say I sympathize with you about “being at their mercy”. It’s sad, but a shift in the market requires an impossibility: That gamers, the people who buy the MMOs, stop putting up with sub-par releases. That they unsubscribe from their unfinished MMOs and demand a polished product. Games with remarkable potential fail to gather an audience and crumble before achieving greatness due to this very problem.

    • If games with potential are failing to gather an audience are crumbling, then it seems the MMO gamers have already started fighting back against sub-par releases.

      Unless these crumbled games somehow manage to make enough money to be profitable and justify all the resources spent developing them, it would seem to be on the industry to realize this is *why* the games are failing to live up to expectations.

      I would love to see a true alpha/beta testing cycle in one of these games some day. The “beta” as it is now (especially if it is being played mere days before the live release) is more a marketing tool than a development tool.

  2. This is the dark side of “live” games. Devs (perhaps at the mercy of publishers) have to get *something* out the door to satisfy the financials, and everyone knows that a live game will keep being updated.

    If you have to get it right the first time and make all your money on box sales, your financial impetus for perfecting the game for release, not after, is much higher.

  3. Maybe the MMO devs should aim lower and more realistically. Simplify and perfect the launch product so that they can make their launch date and then add more as revenues pour in. I think its as much a case of reaching for too many cookies as it is consumers being too patient with crap in hopes of getting better product later.

    • That would be a great idea; if the developer was in any way able to control project scope or project time line.

      Trust me, if I was able to cut features, set a *proper* deadline, or lock down the scope, I would. But developers control none of that. For the most part, we are implementors. The management and publishers tell us what to do, we do it. We may get some input into the direction of mechanics during the beginning of development and we get to put our own little touches on quests, NPCs, and zones here and there. But most of the big ticket items – Battlegrounds, Arenas, Skirmishes, etc – are decided by Publishers and management, usually without involving the developers. And also usually after the development schedule has been made. So, they’ve just added +6 months of work but haven’t changed the final deadline.

      So yeah, it is about “aiming lower”. But its the publishers/management who need to aim lower and the managers who need to organize and plan out the scope and time line more accurately.

  4. Part of the problem to me has always been the size of an MMO compared to a single player game. I would say on average an MMO has far more systems to balance than the typical single player game, and that’s before you factor in the added complexity of those systems working properly between thousands of players (rather than just one player in his own world in a single player game). I think there is a difference between launching with systems that don’t play nice with players, and launching with obvious bugs (like BSOD errors).

  5. I remain astonished at the level of polish that LotRO launched at, and the fact that no one else in all the myriad of MMOs that have been launched in the past 2-3 years have sought to emulate even that level of completion. Then again LotRO was technically in development for what… 7 years? ;-}

  6. it was in development for 7 years on paper, but active development was more like 3, since they didnt reuse too much of what the folded “MiddleEarth Online” they inherited.


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