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Early Access Revisited

April 4, 2014

Dear Reader,

I mentioned the other day that my buddy and I were looking for games.  First, I want to thank everyone who made suggestions.  They were all brought to his attention and discussed.  More on what we ended up doing to follow.  Today, what I want to talk about was one of his hesitations – one of the features he considers a red flag – that I mentioned in the post the other day: games in early access (Alpha / Beta) development phases.

Many, many years ago, one of my old buddies who I don’t keep in much contact in any more was filled with vim and vigor over an idea he’d heard in one of his college classes.  Having a bit of an obsessive personality, over the next few weeks he regaled me with tales of this idea over and over again.  “Stubborn,” he’d say, “in the future, people won’t pay for software products any more.  They’ll pay for software service.  And the service will be necessary to so many because the software will be so complex.”  He was crooning about this because, in his mind, it looked like the triumph of the nerds, a veritable technocracy that would leave him with all the power and control.

He’s a code monkey now at a government contractor.  He has a kid and a wife.  He’s a nice guy; we just grew apart.

And yet, I see pieces of that future approaching.  The free-to-play model is dominant in MMOs now, even though the dominant MMOs still require subs.  The service you pay for isn’t what he had in mind – support service (though there are programs that work like that, too) – but is instead game services: more xp, better items, more bags or bank space, or the like.

So when I read Dahakha’s (that second H is tricky) response to Liore’s post on paying for alpha and beta development stage games, I had very mixed feelings.  If you haven’t seen them yet, I highly recommend you read both; they’re both well written and filled with good arguments, which is odd, if you think about it, since they’re opposing view points, but I think that comes down to why I’m so torn, too; really, it’s not right versus wrong.  It’s a clash of cultures.

I’ll say up front that I agree with Liore more – obviously, to some extent, since avoiding early development stage games is one of my buddy’s and my criteria.  Heck, we even want to avoid just-launched games because it seems they’re too often just late betas still full of bugs.

That said, games I’m super excited about I’m willing to jump into during the early development phases.  I played The Secret World beta as soon as I could get my hands on it, even begging a customer service rep (notice I did not say “booth babe,” as that’s sexist) at the TSW booth at PAX for beta keys (which she kindly produced for all my friends and me).  I’m likely going to jump into Shadowrun Online, too, just to see what it’s about, but not quite yet.

So I’m torn.  I agree, philosophically, with Liore.  I don’t want a service, I want a finished product that’s been polished as much as reasonably possible.  I don’t want to pay to be a beta tester, just like I wouldn’t want to pay for a car to see if it’s safe to drive (of course that’s a false analogy, as I won’t die from a faulty game, but I still like it).

Then again, if you know what you’re getting into, I don’t see any harm in volunteering to beta test a product that catches your eye.  Like Dahakha said (I keep wanting to put the H before the K), there’s a slew of potential benefits including development decisions with more player input.

Then again, I’ve never paid for early access.  But I suspect I will, someday, and maybe even someday soon.  That change, I think, is what Liore’s worried about, the idea that, if we keep paying for beta access, eventually there will be no free betas, so only those with the money to pay for early access games will get input.  Liore covers this pretty clearly in her post, and I think it’s hard to specifically refute that point; money talks.  Look at Washington, D.C., and all the problems money causes there.  Unchecked campaign donations, billionaire lobbies, and, of course, good ol’ fashioned pork-barreling have led to a ton of governmental vice.

I hesitate to accuse the game industry of such greed and malice, but then I look at how the biggest titles every year are basically just recycled versions of the previous years’ titles (sports games, Call of Duty-style games, another bad MMO churned out, etc), and I wonder if there’s not already a bit of a problem.

The catch is, of course, as I’m so fond of saying, only time will tell.  Dahakha may be right.  Liore may be.  Something totally different might come to pass.  But it’s interesting to think about these ethical quandaries that surround our shared pass-time.

What do ya’ll think about early access gaming?  Do you agree more with Liore?  With Dahakha?  Or do you have a separate opinion?

Sincerely,

Stubborn (and on the fence)

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. April 4, 2014 4:23 pm

    From the perspective of someone with a background in software development, I both recognize the value of free software testing and the annoyance of people doing for free something that people like me used to be paid for (or maybe still are, I’m not sure if game companies still employ full teams of testers or if some or all of that has been replaced by public alpha/beta testing).

    I won’t alpha/beta test games personally since games are about the experience. I will beta test things like add-ons, software tools, etc… I don’t lose any discovery by doing that. I’d also MAYBE consider testing a game I have no interested in actually playing but I’d have to have nothing better to do which is roughly never the case. Never actually done it, though, despite plenty of opportunity over the years.

    I could do without folks playing themselves out in pre-release content and then complaining that they’re bored once the game is released. Maybe have some sort of limitation in the alpha/beta… restrict people to particular zones (each zone is limited to a subset of the testers), or limit gameplay to half an hour per day or 4 hours per week or something.

  2. Samus permalink
    April 4, 2014 6:48 pm

    Dahakha’s entire argument seemed to be centered around some crazy assumption that if we don’t have paid alpha testing, there can be no testing at all. Very little of his argument deals with whether charging money to be an alpha tester is something positive that we should be encouraging.

    I have to agree with Liore here. I also refuse to support Kickstarter games because I think gaming is one of the worst mediums for what Kickstarter does. You really don’t know what is going to be produced, what you will get for your money. As opposed to, “hey, we have this book, pledge money and we can do a printing,” or “we have this great product, pledge money and we can mass produce it.” Pledging to a game’s Kickstarter seems one step worse than buying a pre-order having never seen gameplay footage.

    Paid alpha testing is one step worse than that, because at least with typical Kickstarters, the game couldn’t be made otherwise. Established game studios don’t face that same dilemma, which makes it feel like a scam. Landmark won’t go unfunded without this, Sony just wants your money. Before you’ve even seen the product. That should be a huge red flag.

    • April 5, 2014 4:33 am

      I’m not sure how you came to that conclusion about my post, Samus. It was not an argument that early access is something we should be encouraging, and it was most certainly not implying that without early access there would be no testing at all, that is just ridiculous.

      My post was an attempt to counter Liore’s statement that early access is bad and should never happen, that it is encouraging companies to sell us unfinished games. All I did was point out some benefits of paid early access, both to consumers who do buy in and those who don’t (but still want to buy the game when it is released). I made some assumptions about the development process in general, of course, but I don’t think any of them were crazy.

      I’m not saying that it’s necessarily a good thing or that we’ll stop getting good games without it. I’m saying that it’s not necessarily a bad thing.

      Along the same lines, while I don’t think I will ever back a Kickstarter game myself, as I don’t like laying down my money for a promise (I’m not an angel investor!), I strongly disagree that Kickstarter and other crowdfunding methods are bad for game development in general. Just because you personally don’t like betting on a project doesn’t mean that others shouldn’t be able to, or should be discouraged from it.

  3. April 5, 2014 4:49 am

    Thanks for the link, Stubborn!

    I’d just like to point out that my argument was in the context of MMO’s, since the spark for Liore’s post was the topic of EQN Landmark. I really don’t know that my arguments translate over to non-MMO games – maybe some of the points are relevant, but certainly not all of them.

    I think that, like you and your friend, I’m a bit frustrated by the number of games showing up in the Steam store, looking really cool, only when you go to the store page for it it turns out to be in early access. I refuse to buy an unfinished game (i.e. a game that the developers aren’t happy enough with to officially release as a complete experience), I’ll add it to my wishlist to remind me that it looks interesting, but I’m not a fan of that particular marketing strategy by Steam. It’s strange to me that there are fully completed indie games patiently waiting for Greenlight approval, but dozens of games in alpha appear on the store homepage as if they are finished and ready to buy.

    Anyway, I don’t know that early access for MMOs is a good thing overall, it’s quite possible that in the long run it will hurt the industry. But I am a contrarian, and Liore saying that we are encouraging companies to sell us unfinished games, as if that practice can only be bad for everyone except the company suits raking in our money, irked me. I just wanted to show that there CAN be some benefits to early access, both for those who buy in and those who don’t.

  4. Sylow permalink
    April 7, 2014 8:52 am

    I still believe that all the “open beta” or even “open alpha” access is not a step into the right direction for the quality of future games. Truth to be told, i out of curiosity at some time joined some open and even closed betas of some games. I even for MWO and GW2, due to peer pressure, paid for early access, but this is a mistake i will not repeat.

    I won’t make a complete list of all games i was in beta, but of all of them only one, Fallen Earth, had a halfway acceptable way of handling bug reports and feedback but still was “dumbed down” a lot to make it useable by all players. Even there it was too much of a “one way ticket”. Each tester reported blindly, unable to check other reports and supply additional information. But seeing how things turn out in games which use a forum for reporting problems, where bug reports are then shot down with “it is beta, so shut up” comments instead of helpful additional information, and developers would have to sift through masses of static noise to get a tiny bit of useful information, i can understand why most games in beta rather have a >dev0 for their feeback than actually using it.

    So, from my point of view and my experience, very little useful testing is being done and even can be done by the “average” beta tester, the best use of them seems to be a stress test and (unfortunately) not much more.

    This is even more true as soon as people start speaking about “balancing”. During my university time, we built up a MUD (Predecessor of MMOs. Look it up if you are interested. ) Our players were “proving” that different classes in the game were unbalanced, which kept us amused for years. For example all priests used the very same code, only accessed different text passages describing what the spell did, so when the good priest hit the enemy with a ray of light, the evil one was withering his enemies flesh, etc. Despite the code, damage formula, etc. were perfectly the same (no copy-paste, but the very same code due to inheritance) we actually received several pages long mathematical analysis of why the evil priests were much stronger than the good ones, so the people “analysing” the issues seem to have had some scientific background. What they were unaware of was, that they basically tried to prove that “1 != 1″, as both sides they “analysed” and found “unbalanced” used the very same code.

    So there might be some good people out there who could do some reasonable testing, but in current betas (or alphas) the only criteria to be a tester is either “won the lucky roll” or “spent some money” and the small ratio of actually useful testers is drowned in the masses of players who just want to play early. Additionally, even some scientific background clearly is no protection against misconceptions, the only “advantage” the scientific background seems to offer sometimes is that people can make disguise their missunderstandings behind walls of math, resulting in more likely changes to the game. I don’t see that as an advantage for the game, though.

    Thus i really have my doubts that much of the “testing” going on in open betas these days are doing any good for the games. I for myself, i have my ISTQB certificate and make my money in software testing outside of the gaming world (so somewhere where serious testing has to be done, for example i spent some years dealing with tire pressure sensors, airbag sensors and the likes, where you can’t just “roughly guess” if something is correct). I will strictly stick to the guideline, if a company wants my testing, they have to pay me, not the other way around.

    So for me the purchaseable “early access” is simply a money grab. I mean, which developer would not dream of that, already having the customers money before having a working product? The quirk for the player is: why should the developer still strive to deliver a high quality product when he already has your money?

    Anyway, as long as we, the masses of players, are ready and eager to throw money at developers for unfinished games, to do subpar “quality control” ourselves instead of demanding appropriate quality before paying the money, there is nobody but ourselves to blame games being released with low quality and many bugs. It would be great if we as players would understand this lesson and act accordingly, but the piles of money being thrown at unfinished games clearly prove that this lesson won’t be received for years to come and thus dealing damage to our hobby for probably decades. But hey, the things we do to ourselves…

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