Introduce a New Phase in the Development Cycle

Zubon over at Kill Ten Rats made a generic post that is an ultimate truth with MMOs. We all accept and are resigned to the fact that when an MMO launches it will be incomplete and buggy, and we will have to fight through the launch of a game with Rose Coloured Glasses until such time those things can be fixed. As evident in the responses to his article we as gamers just know it to be the case. While I agree with Zubon completely what way can we get around it besides outright denying it or plain accepting it? Developers already know their product won’t be up to snuff and often use questionable PR and Marketing techniques to avoid calling a spade a spade. Let’s start calling that spade the “Commercial Beta”.

Many MMO’ers plan on waiting for 6 months after a launch to start playing a game. That is the generic benchmark of how much time it will take a game to plow through launch issues, fix major bugs established at launch, and get a few good patches in to make a game. As gamers we are paying for the final beta stage. Developers should acknowledge that, embrace it, give it a title to meter expectations, and reward players who stick through it. The Commercial Beta phase should incentify early adopters to a game with a lower box cost, and lower monthly subscription fee until such time the game is more complete that it warrants full payment.

This could be a big win/win. Developers win because they can acknowledge their product is still in beta phase (albeit Commercial Beta) and it will give a little more lax room for player expectations as it is properly termed. They also will start getting a revenue stream to continue making changes. Players win because they receive a fairer value for their dollar for buying an incomplete product and pay less while changes are done, and also give a hand in shaping a game (that they obviously like, paying to beta and all) to be better positioned in the market to attract and retain a good player base after official launch. It also benefits the players because developers will have to make noteworthy changes and fixes to keep the player base after they go to “Official Launch”.

Once the game “Officially” Launches, box price goes to normal and so do sub fees. Commercial beta players get the benefit of the cheaper initial box, and in a nice world would keep the lower sub fee as well. People who stuck with it get rewarded, and people who want to try something new will finally know when the product is ready.

Of course we do this already, without the price breaks. Using some fun terminology and stretching out the development cycle with player incentives just seems like a smarter way to do it.

22 Comments

  1. Tesh

    As much as I love the idea of price breaks, I don’t think it would work. Latecomers wouldn’t take that kindly. If anything, we’re conditioned to getting a cheaper price later, letting the early adopters take it on the chin. (For good reason, I think.)

    Reply
  2. Chris F (Post author)

    Perhaps I should have qualified the timing a bit more. Will use WAR, since it was the last beta I particpated in.

    End of beta the game was a lot of fun. One server, good population, etc. I had high expectations. Then they launched, with too many servers, obliterated XP gain, and the like. Since launch, they have adjusted XP gain 3 or 4 times and found a ton of issues not prevalent in the beta now that population was spread around. They fixed it fast, but still not fast enough to keep a lot of subs.

    If they would have entered Commercial Beta in november- instead of launching live and gave incentives to players to play it would be a different story for me and a lot of the friends I play with.

    Developers say “hey, our game is almost ready to launch. We are nearing end of closed beta, and are opening commercial beta. We realize it is still a beta phase of sorts so here is the deal for joining up and playing while we sort out the issues”. They would have retained more players, I guarantee it.

    Most MMO’s don’t even know their problems until they are tested in live play environments. People pay, are dissapointed, and quit. They then scramble for months to improve and try to win customers back. Add to that problem nearing the end of beta I have noticed that players typically test LESS – since soon enough they will have to go through it all in a live environment anyway.

    With a six month Commercial Beta you can sort through those problems – servers, levelling, everything, and then go to the public and say our game is ready. We are all willing to pay $50 for a box for a game that is done – a more complete game.

    Other options are to let players keep their beta characters from the final phase (so they keep testing), or just extend beta altogether on a much grander scale – but I would argue players don’t test/play as much if they aren’t invested in a game.

    While people are conditioned to getting a cheaper price later, that is typically 2-3 years later – not months.

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  3. Tesh

    I’m not sure about the 2-3 years, Chris. I can usually get most games cheaper after just a few months. At least, boxed games. The longer “shelf life” of an MMO alters things a bit, but as yet, we don’t really see long-term discounts or benefits for loyal customers in MMOs, or reduced sub prices for latecomers.

    Still, it’s the perception that they are raising the price for the “official release” that is the problem. That’s the direction that a lot of people would be coming from; not that the extended beta was cheaper, but that the official release is a price hike.

    Perhaps that could be combatted by plotting the price schedule long in advance, though. If it were very clear from the beginning that the Extended Beta Bug Hunt (which I agree would be extremely useful, no argument there) were not representative of the true costs of the game, and that once the game goes “live” the true price would be installed, the shift might be more palatable. Especially if you incentivize the extended beta by doing your best not to need a wipe at the end of it, and by giving special thingamajigs or titles, that sort of thing.

    This is all assuming a subscription model, of course, and all the misrepresentation of costs that comes with it.

    If you were monetizing your game with a GW or W101 model, the “honeymoon” phase of the game’s introduction would still be important, but you could reward early adopters with doodads again, and not have to combat the price hike effect.

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  4. Tesh

    Put another way, the lower cost beta shifting to the higher live cost suffers from a couple of psychological issues:

    There’s the primacy in memory effect, which suggests that the initial cost for something is the “preferred cost”, which is why the shift to a higher live price would be at least subliminally troubling.

    There’s also inertia; very early adopters would get used to the beta pricing, and a change would have to be sold very very carefully to retain them.

    Also, what about “early latecomers” and the social effect? I’m not sure on the timing for the network effect, but let’s just say that it’s one or two months. A six month Extended beta allows for a generation or two of these networked adopters, and after one or two word of mouth advertisements, that whole “by the way, we’re raising the price in a bit” thing can get distorted. Just when the game is getting good and ironed out, people will get socked with a price hike. The initial players (hardcore MMO junkies) would know about the hike, and may well suck it in and take it, but would those coming in at the tail end of the Extended Beta?

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  5. Chris F (Post author)

    Good points Tesh.

    I suppose it’s all in the sales pitch. The game will NEVER increase in price. It will always be $50/$15. However, they are offering a small period of time for a price decrease of $20/$5 for a commercial beta phase to iron out bugs, during which the gameplay may change dramatically.

    If you clearly deliniate launch from Beta, then people should get that on Official Launch, they are paying exactly what they would for any other MMO/sub game anyway.

    Of course this method is all surrounding the sub model (which I am not a fan of) and the perceived value sets of $50/$15 (which you know I am not a fan of as well). That’s my experience with beta testing phases and seeing how they all launch.

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  6. Tesh

    Sorry for the repeated comments, but I keep thinking of things.

    Short story long, I think that an extended beta like this would be a great thing from a game design standpoint, and even for a PR standpoint to let people know that you’re working to make the game better… I’m just not sure that the implementation of such a design phase would be as simple as reducing the cost to early adopters, at least in a sub model.

    I like the idea… this is just the process I go through trying to hammer it out to make it work. 😉

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  7. Chris F (Post author)

    No need to apologize on repeated comments, I just grabbed the idea and ran with it. Figured I could flesh it out with a little input here =)

    My thought process behind going with a straight price reduction stems from the argument “This isn’t worth this value”. or “I am not paying to beta test this for them” (after the game has already been released).

    Doing it for free doesn’t always work well either as people aren’t as invested in the game or the characters.

    I dunno. We’ll sort it out =P

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  8. Tesh

    Aye, I figured that was the thought process. I don’t see anything wrong with it philosophically… just potential trouble in the implementation.

    What about some sort of kickback system? Keep the costs the same throughout, so no price “hike” perception, but for those who brave the Extended Beta period, give them a coupon for a free month or two (it’s a coupon so that they could pass it on to a friend or sit out for a little while then use it later), or a discount on their first six months of the Live game. Prorate it so that those who stayed the course in the entire Extended Beta (which really could use a new, more marketable name) would “earn” more of a kickback. This, on top of fluff that makes them feel special, of course. Special bonuses for especially helpful bug hunters might be good, too.

    This could give a reward to early adopters for their time putting up with crazy stuff and buggy code, but without derailing the subscription flat rate train. It might even serve as an added incentive for being an early adopter and doing the bug hunting; people love to “earn” free time in a sub game.

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  9. Yeebo

    I have mixed feelings about this idea. On the one hand, if MMOs generally being bugged out messes and having serious balance issues for their first six months is going to remain the de-facto standard, then by all means be open about it and start giving players that are willing to weather that mess some incentives.

    However, my instinct is that consumers should be demanding launches at least as smooth as that of LoTRO to be the norm. Oddly, LoTRO also rewarded open beta testers with a lot of the incentives you guys have discussed. Lower sub fees, free stuff in game(even a free horse at 25), and the ability to extend benefits to friends and family.

    I also wonder if a system like you propose became the norm, if we would start seeing MMOs be even buggier at launch than they typically are now. A developer could always make the argument that “retail beta players should have known what they were in for.”

    Still, an interesting idea.

    Reply
  10. Ravious

    Except box sales account for a huge amount of income. Personally, I think Mythic is doing it damn near perfectly. They are showing their “commercial beta testers” that they (read:subscribers) are shaping the game dramatically. However, WAR is still bleeding subs.

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  11. Chris F (Post author)

    @Yeebo: Thanks for stopping by and contributing! I am with you there. My first instinct was the same – what would stop developers from going into Commercial Beta (Will think of a new wordsmith for that Tesh) earlier and more often? Especially if funds are tight?

    Players have a natural distrust of MMO developers. I think that stems from early release products to begin with. This idea could either help – or as you mention, exasperate the problem. Like anything would have to be done right, and very carefully.

    @Ravious: You still subscribing to WAR? I was a big fan during beta. I even told a friend there is no way this game doesn’t have a million subscribers in year one. That was from the beta product. Once launched, all the issues arose (population, imbalance, broken end game, unfriendly levelling curve) all things that weren’t clear in beta with a one server setup.

    I would argue WAR is still bleeding subs because of the way it was launched. Big promises, leads to big let downs, which leads to big dissapointment. Count me as one of those people. I resubbed for a month when new careers launched, but it wasn’t enough (relevelling was basically all KOTBS vs BG in scenarios). People paid big bucks for a PVP product not tested in a live environment. I would still be playing through the growth if the costs recognized it isn’t complete – because it was close. May be getting closer, but it will take an awful lot for them to win me back.

    Regarding the box sales – smart businesses go for the long haul, not the initial push. Look at AOC. 800K boxes sold.. how many since then? How many subscribers? Hype and the big push for initial sales only make the drop off (and impending death) that much more dramatic. Ramp it up slowly, meter expectations, and deliver. Don’t misrepresent then focus on catching up later.

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  12. Rog

    Released / Launch / Commercial Beta is terminology that’s been applied to virtually every online game I can recall, but always as a derogatory term by unhappy players.

    Making an actual official Commercial Beta? Where players play to be within Beta? Well I guess you could say it’s been done with some of the pay-to-play ‘Open’ Betas, but that’s probably not what you mean, since those are more about pre-release tease than actual testing.

    I think the limiting factor here is that most of the MMO publishers are Public Corporations, where image and mindshare is sometimes even more important than sales. You’re just not going to get this kind of blatant honesty out of the likes of EA, Activision, or Sony. Maybe a privately owned company, but even then it depends on where their investment pool comes from.

    And that’s also the same reason why the long haul is less valued, most of these corporations are much more concerned about what their stock price will be tomorrow, instead of two years from now.

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  14. Chris F (Post author)

    @Rog: Perhaps that why the term was on the tip of my tongue although my memory is a little blank of it being common. I have played too many MMO’s for too long!

    Honesty is the big barrier and the pub corps are going to be looking at two options (dependant on the launch of Bioware MMO). If it follows the way of AOC and WAR, who lost 75%+ of their boxed sales playerbase within months of launch there are two possible outcomes. 1) Stop making big budget MMO’s (they will make them with 100,000+ players in mind, instead of thinking millions, and budget accordingly) or 2) find a new way to smooth the launch process.

    Option 1 is the easiest for them, and probably the route they will take.

    Option 2 would work. 1000’s of people BUY beta accounts already (check ebay and related sites) often paying hundreds of dollars just to beta. Having a commercial beta phase would funnel those dollars to the company and allow them to make changes with income.

    I’m not even sure the math works out – WAR got an injection of 60 million from their box sales but due to non-retention lost even more than that from subscriber revenue. That’s a 50%+ drop in revenue that publically traded companies would love to figure out how to NOT lose.

    The easy answer is build the game and launch it ready, but we all know in MMO’s you can’t beta a live environment, which goes back to the point of this post.

    There has to be a better way, and this could be one of them – or it could not – I just enjoy throwing out ideas and seeing what the end discussion product looks like.

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  15. Melf_Himself

    /signed

    To those who disagree: we’re going to be in this ‘commercial beta’ if we play a game < 6 months after release either way. With this suggestion, at least

    a) we’re not paying full price for it
    b) we’re therefore not expecting a fully polished product

    Yes, there will be people who QQ, but the only people QQ’ing will be those pathological QQ’ers that QQ about everything whether it makes sense or not anyway (therefore, if this wasn’t implemented, they’d just be QQ’ing about something else).

    As for the corporate types to invested in the game and are going to be wanting a return, all it requires is to be upfront at the beginning and say hey, look at all these so-called ‘AAA’ MMO’s that failed horribly due to bug-filled releases.

    Of course, the golden ideal option is to just release a finished product… but we all know that’s never going to happen.

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  16. Rog

    The whole honesty vs public corporation thing really does stick in my craw. I loathe how capitalism has been skewed into this image > everything mentality. I feel like our economy is in some kind of highschool popularity contest.

    Anyway, back to the main topic–

    I’m gonna play devil’s advocate and say that the few MMOs that have launched cleanly haven’t been the bigger sellers. City of Heroes was the best launch I’d ever seen, it’s been moderately successful but not huge.

    So there’s not much incentive for a perfect launch, just incentive to pretend at one (see corporate image above).

    As for making more stable and complete product, that’s not as easy as it sounds. I tend to argue the ‘creative business’ side, because from my perspective the games that I’ve seen follow tighter budget discipline, have usually been more shallow and pale as a result. Works great if you’re making a database product, not necessarily a game.

    It doesn’t help that the biggest success in this genre (WoW) was designed without a constraining budget or timeline, using a reiterative (throw away what doesn’t work and start again) design process. It also, as I painfully recall, did not release cleanly, but the merit has been in the recovery.

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  17. Chris F (Post author)

    @Melf: Indeed – while it seems like accepting something evil, it is just realistic circumstances.

    I was involved in my Governments “White Paper on the future of Post Secondary Education” – a round table of University Professors, bankers, government officials, and I was the student rep. In Canada, education is subsidized by the government – meaning that I could go to a GREAT school, and pay about $12,000 a year for a full education (compared to the USA where good schools can be $50,000 a year). During those discussions the talk of tuition fees came up. All of the professors said “It should be free!” and argued about it passionately. When it was my turn, I simply said “Free would cost taxpayers too much money. I don’t mind paying my share because *I* am getting the education. While I understand the sentiment of my professors, it just isn’t realistic”. They managed to keep tuition fees down (NOT free, of course) so Canadian kids can get a good education at a fair cost.

    In gaming it’s the same. While it would be awesome if games launched perfectly, its just not realistic. Much how I was willing to invest a little in my own education, I would be willing to invest a little in my preferred game to make it smoother.

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  18. Chris F (Post author)

    @Rog: You are right about the publically traded company sentiment. Pick up a copy of last week’s The Economist if you want to see how the rich bankers were playing with fire, and how ego’s and oneupmanship were much the cause of the collapse. There is a 14 page spread about the banks.

    In one article, a senior Risk Manager for the Lehman brothers (which is now a gone company) told the CEO in 2004 that the current growth wasn’t sustainable and it was going to bust.

    The CEO said “If you recommend that officially I will have to fire you on the spot”.

    He then said that they needed to focus more on asset management and get out of the whole CDOS scheme, and the CEO said “Everyone else is pushing harder on it, and you want us to scale back? You have a short future here”

    So the ego of the CEO, not wanting to be left behind on what “everyone else was doing” was ultimately the collapse of the company. If he would have listened to his Senior Risk Manager Lehman Brothers would still exist today. The downfall of Lehmans was what sparked this entire burst.

    (I paraphrased that article, but that was the “gist” if it – I don’t have the mag in front of me).

    In the stock world, it is “cool” to layoff thousands because investors know that the stock will hold more value, as operating expenses decline. Now is a PERFECT time to lay of thousands, as it is EXPECTED in the market. So you make stock analysts happy, who now recommend your stock for “frugal cost cutting procedures”, and people buy your stock, and your company is valued higher.

    It is a bullshit scheme. I don’t (won’t) invest in the stock market. I *AM* going to invest in RRSP’s this year though. Their values have plummeted by 50% so buying now and riding the climb back will be equivalent to have invested 20 years ago. 20 years of gains have been wiped clean from the stock market, due to ego, lack of consistent regulation, and sheer greed.

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  19. Tesh

    You probably know my take on Wall Street by now. Long story short, I’m no fan of the Ponzi economy, fraud and inflationary usury (interest). Inasmuch as it intersects with game design, giving beancounters too much latitude inevitably means bad game design.

    I’m still wondering about the spectrum between “open beta” and “full release”. I really like the idea you outline here that would wind up spending some time in the middle of those two… but again, how would you sell it?

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  20. Chris F (Post author)

    I think it is carefully sold on the current MMO crowd with honestly (no snickering!)

    “Hey, we realize although this game was extensively beta tested we need to test it in a live environment. Our core mechanics are set and we need to learn how to make this game the best possible – which can only be done with your involvment.

    Early adopters get the full copy of the game for $25, and a subscription fee of $8. Those who play through the entire commercial beta will get to keep the subscription going onwards. Thank you for helping us shape Teshland to be the best game possible! (insert other marketing propaganda here)”

    Players already do this – look at the 300K or so WAR players clinging to the upcoming changes, sticking through their game waiting for it to be “done”. It may be a hard sell on the whole community (tourists, etc) but many of them may also be enticed by the comparitive value.

    Again, this is in a sub model only, but keep the thoughts coming.

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  21. Tesh

    Good call on the WAR players sticking in there. If it were quickly obvious that the devs are making significant effort to polish the game and address flaws, it would go a long way to helping people hang in there.

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