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The Devil's Advocate: Preview Panic

Column By Victor Barreiro Jr. on February 22, 2013

Aliens: Colonial Marines may very well be a defining game in the history of video games. This isn’t because the game is good (most reviewers say it isn’t), but because it made gamers and games media take a look at one of the staples of gaming coverage: the preview article.

While Aliens: Colonial Marines is not an MMORPG, the preview system also manages to be something of importance in the MMO gaming industry because most MMOs are constantly adding new elements to spice things up. The preview process for online games is also a bit different from a non-MMO.

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For today’s Devil’s Advocate, let’s discuss what makes an MMO preview different, as well as what various sectors of the MMO-loving world can do to let previews best serve consumer interests.

The MMO Preview

Unlike other video game types, the MMORPG preview has the distinction of being multifaceted. Some MMO companies will send out invites for press previews where games media and bloggers can watch a guided demo or actually play the game, with the devs offering feedback and possibly taking notes while the press plays.

One other aspect of MMO previews is the open testing process that is unbound by a non-disclosure agreement (NDA). Dropped NDAs provide an essential free-for-all experience among writers to discuss the likes and dislikes of a game. In the case of open alphas or betas and stress tests, gamers get a (mostly) unfiltered experience of how a game plays relative to their connection speed and location, as well as of the customer service they might expect from a company on a busy day.

A significant thing to note about an MMO preview in its later stages is the general immutability of the process. Unlike the demo for that Aliens game I mentioned above, the possibility of bait and switch-like tactics happening between an MMO demo and an MMO at release is less likely, unless the MMO was designed specifically to have wildly different elements between its opening moments and its middle-to-endgame, such as in Age of Conan’s Tortage experience, which had more voiced content in it than the rest of the game at launch.

My Personal Beef

Some of you may remember I posted a Devil’s Advocate on virality and hype in January. Parts of that article apply here, mostly because I think there’s a disconnect between what people think about previews, and what actually comes out in previews.

For the game developers, I get the impression that previews (just the preview aspect, and not the beta aspect) exist to drive eyeballs to a game. They want the attention to drive sales, because sales and longevity provide funding for a game’s wellbeing, as well as the wellbeing of the people working on that game.

The media, whether bloggers or journalists, want content for their sites, and at the same time, they want information on games that will allow them to properly entertain or provide insight for their readers. Representing media to some extent, I feel that motivations for writing particular previews differ among writers due to the editorial processes in place at various sites as well as individual definitions regarding what’s fine to do for an MMO preview. Standards differ and the quality of previews differ as a result.

For gamers, the response to previews is varied. Gamers can look at previews to maintain or gain interest in a game, or they can use it as fodder to reinforce their beliefs on how good or bad a game is (see Tobold and Syncaine from last week). The premise behind a gamer checking a preview is the desire to learn more about an MMO due to some kind of curiosity.

Do note, however, that the above paragraphs may be overly simplistic in their analysis.There are more wrinkles to what previews are about to different sectors of the game community, but the juxtaposition of differing concepts of what a preview means is what’s important

Improving the Process

To improve the process of giving previews, thus, there needs to be some kind of common understanding between game developers, games media, and game players about what a preview is about, and that understanding, unfortunately, has to come from a balance of power between the three competing interests.

The corporate community within a game development studio currently seems to hold the most power, both against consumers and against games media.

I say the above statement without any certainty, but the general idea is one evidenced in the gaming history. If corporate game dev interests have enough power to blacklist media from previews due to unfavorable coverage and the ability to mess with the end enjoyment of a gamer upon launch, then there is an issue that needs better checks and balances.

On the part of games media, I feel that the ultimate goal of a preview is to be informative and entertaining. We have to be upfront about what we’re actually able to experience versus what a game developer wants us to see.

We can be impressed by a game and still point out that a developer is walking us through an area with overpowered gear or god mode on, for example. Generating hype is fine, so long as the hype is warranted and the writer is open about what’s happening.

On the part of gamers, understanding how previews work and being a savvy consumer of games and the games media is important. Previews are meant to be primarily positive hype builders, so you also have to ask the right questions to games media in comments if they’re not providing enough information to give you the best informed decision. Do note that saying, “How much were you paid by company X to write about Game Y?!” is not the right question to ask.

For example, a number of media outlets have previews today of Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, including MMORPG.com. You can take the preview for what it’s worth, which is fine, but you can also ask for more information in the comments, such as whether the previewer was actively playing the game, or was he being brought along by a developer, or about the specs of the computers they were using.

On the part of game developers, there are three things I think that should be important in terms of previews to games media or with regard to open beta testing. The first is being open about what your game’s current state is, as well as any issues that might pop up. Open beta patch notes do this, but you don’t usually see disclaimers in preview articles with games media, which is either a fault of the writer, or an omission on a dev’s part.

The second one is to treat gamers and games media with respect. Do not think gamers and the media are replaceable. Provide feedback to people asking questions without too much PR speak whenever possible.

More importantly, and this is based on the Aliens issue, do not think so highly of your creations that you become blind to its deficiencies. Square Enix is an example of a company that saw issues in how it handled an MMO and took steps to rectify the issue, often being open these days about what it’s doing to make a better MMO (just don’t mind their horrible Final Fantasy non-announcement during the PlayStation 4 reveal).

The Bottom Line

Previews for MMORPGs are an excellent way of getting information on upcoming games and features for existing games, but the preview process is mired by a lack of understanding between developers, gamers, and games media about what previews should be like.

While using previews as hype is fine, the preview as a source of information can be improved. Game developers and media can be more transparent and open about a game, while gamers can improve the appreciation of the preview article by asking the right questions from games media or developers.

Stay tuned for Bill Murphy's rant on the subject this coming Monday.

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Victor Barreiro Jr. / Victor Barreiro Jr. maintains The Devil’s Advocate and The Secret World columns for MMORPG.com. He also writes for news website Rappler as a technology reporter. You can find more of his writings on Games and Geekery and on Twitter at @vbarreirojr.


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