Ever since their open beta was announced, Norwegian development company Funcom has come under fire from fans of their upcoming MMORPG, Age of Conan, and the criticism has had very little to do with the content of their game.
The complaints stem from a decision to partner with IGN’s Fileplanet for distribution of keys to their beta. In order for players to qualify for an AoC beta key, they have to be the proud owners of a premium membership at Fileplanet (which costs $5 per month for a year). While many has applauded a beta through Fileplanet, is has also led players to feel as though they are paying to participate in a beta and that Funcom has done this in an attempt to a) draw in extra funds for the game and b) to disguise some kind of failing in the game itself.
Yesterday, I had the opportunity to speak with Jorgen Tharaldsen, the Product Director for Age of Conan about the beta and the choices that were made:
“First of all,” Tharaldsen began in response to a question about Funcom charging for their beta, “I think it’s very important to point out that Funcom has not charged anything throughout our beta process, including the 20.000 keys on Gamespot last weekend, the many, many thousands of keys given to Eidos or the tens of thousands of people we have selected through the ongoing closed beta.”
The Product Director went on to say that “running the Age of Conan beta is and will remain an expense, as it should be for us as developers. The focus for us when running a beta is to get invaluable feedback from as many testers as needed, helping us to get ready for launch, not to make money on it”. He also outlined more on this “It is correct that Fileplanet requires you to be a paying member to get hold of the Conan beta, as well as many other things, but as far as I know they have far more members than the 50.000 keys we make available. For them, I would think that things like the Conan beta is an important stimulation for their members.
In terms of the decision to go with Fileplanet as the distributor of the beta keys rather than either going through a free access website or distributing it themselves, Tharaldsen told us that while they very much wanted to offer an open beta, it was crucial for Funcom to be able to “focus on the game, the closed beta and the launch, and not on the infrastructure related to the Fileplanet Open beta.” He went on to tell us that download speed was a consideration in the decision. After all, the client itself is a hefty 13Gb in size. “I know of hundreds of gaming sites around the world, but I do not know of anyone able to do this better than Fileplanet. We have been working with them for many, many years by now, we know they have a great infrastructure, and that they handle MMO betas in great ways.”
So, why not just go with a free Torrent download?
“To that I can only say we were one of the first gaming companies to start Torrent distribution a few years ago with Anarchy Online, and of course we know a lot about Torrents, but setting up this for such an event would have served to make us lose focus right before launch. It would not have helped any of us, and running Torrents are about a lot more than just letting the world do it themselves. It needs a lot of work to get it right, and ensure good speed and a smooth customer experience.
When asked whether the company could handle a 50.000 player beta by themselves, and whether not doing so is indicative of the company not being ready for launch, he stated ”we are of course ready for much bigger numbers, both on the servers and for distribution. We already have infrastructure in place for serving around 600.000 players on launch day.”
From there, I asked Tharaldsen if there was any financial incentive at all in distributing the beta through Fileplanet and while, as stated above, he told us that the Conan beta was a needed expense to get feedback on the game, he did outline the benefits to choosing Fileplanet beyond their reliable download speed and prior relationship:
“We are just a few weeks away from launch, and when moving into the final push beta stage it’s important for any MMO to ensure a final push attention as well. In my experience most all MMOs these days use the last few weeks for a more marketing orientated beta process, and Fileplanet seems to be the #1 gaming site in that regards.
Speaking of content, I asked Tharaldsen to address the growing concern that only allowing Fileplanet beta players to progress to level 13 indicates a lack of faith or more serious problems in the game beyond that point and that the company is trying to hide it until launch.
“We have nothing to hide,” he answered, “in fact, I have heard from so many testers that the game gets even better as you move beyond Tortage.”
While Tharaldsen tells us that the reason for the level 13 cap has nothing to do with the quality of the game beyond that point, the decision was indeed carefully planned beforehand. He told us though that it was a question of story rather than a question of quality that prompted the cap.
“We have made an MMO with a very different production approach than most of our competitors, including putting more money and time into story than you have seen before. Stories are about emotions and experiences, and we want as many as possible to have a great emotional journey when we launch.”
“We have therefore found a point in the game which will allow you to get a deep taste of the game, allow you to: play solo, group and multiplayer, test all of our classes, all the interface, emotes and other aspects of the game. It doesn’t take you days to get to this point, true. It was never intended to, but it will give you a fantastic overview of what to expect (perhaps even with a couple of surprises, we shall see;). At the same time, we get to stress test what we need to stress test, giving us both automated and personal feedback, and enough time to fix any stress issues popping up. The testing of content for higher levels is happening on different servers, also with tens of thousands of people involved, and this will go on until launch.”
When asked if Funcom could have done anything else in regards to this open beta issue, he stated that, “Looking back on this I think that if we had called it simply ‘Fileplanet beta’ instead of ‘Open beta’, many would have reacted differently. ”
Tharaldsen ended off the interview by stating that the team at Funcom is “incredibly proud” of their work on the game so far and that while they are looking forward to the launch and getting players into the world, they are also going to use the remaining weeks before launch to “crunch and get ready for the big day”.