I could probably make this a video rant, but in the interest of just getting it all out there, I thought I’d keep it to the old print format that we serfs have dominated since the movable type was invented (thanks, Mr. Gutenberg!). It’s a topic that’s been bothering me quite a bit lately: the idea of “open beta” meaning “we’ll take your money, there will be no wipes, but please don’t call it launch”. The most recent case of this is of course Neverwinter, but Firefall seems to be doing the same thing (someone can correct me if there will be character wipes there). And it’s been the standard practice of the F2P MMO industry for years now.
Really, I suppose it’s not hurting anyone. It’s like when a friend you haven’t seen in awhile shows up to a party and suddenly they have a missing mole, or capped teeth, maybe even butt implants... but they won’t admit there was work done. We all know they had some cosmetic touch-ups, but no one says anything because you don’t want to embarrass the poor bugger. “Open Beta” is just the act of a company trying to hide something we all can see. There’s little to no meaning in the words if the NDA is down, the character wipes are over, it’s being treated like a launch by PR, press, and players, and most of all... if you’re taking money from customers.
If you’re reaching into your players’ pockets, and I’m talking about more than just for “founder’s packs” that grant closed beta access or early head-starts, your game can’t be called beta anymore. Look at Facebook games: how long was (is?) Farmville in beta long after it was taking people’s impulse purchases for faster crop finishing and fancy French residences? Similarly, how long are we supposed to buy (pardon the pun) that a game is in “Open Beta” before giving it a review?
We gave Neverwinter and Cryptic the benefit of the doubt and are calling our normal “Review in Progress” series of articles “Open Beta Diaries”. But we don’t anticipate holding off on a review score until they decide the game can be called launch. Issues with bugs, exploits, and whatnot aside: the game is taking player’s money (and an awfully lot of it if you look at the cash shop prices). We’ll be reviewing it by early June at the latest, which is on par with our other big Review-in-Progress timelines. If the game isn’t out of “Open Beta” and launched by then, it’s not really our concern.
What’s most striking about this conundrum, and I hate to keep picking on Neverwinter here, is that for the most part our reviewer (Suzie Ford) is loving the game. It’s not like Neverwinter couldn’t be called “launched”. I mean, we’re not talking about The War Z here. Though there are issues, the core gameplay is a lot of fun, and it’s poised to be a lasting themepark MMO for a lot of players. In fact, I’m playing it nearly everyday by choice. I don’t have to either, because I’m not reviewing it. I just genuinely enjoy the jump-in and jump-out gameplay it allows on my current RL schedule. So why not hoist up the big boy pants and call the game “released”? We all know it is, so own up to that fact.
In the meantime, we’ll keep seeing more and more F2P developers and publishers touting their “open betas” as a form of real beta that they’ll gladly take your money during. I’m sorry, but that’s just not how it should go. For review purposes, a few of us at MMORPG.com were given Hero of the North founder’s packs. That’s $200 worth of Astral Diamonds, an epic spider mount, and a bunch of other perks that we didn’t have to pay for. Without them, the game would be far less enjoyable as Suzie’s article states.
Would I like Neverwinter as much without all these freebies? Probably not. The game itself would still be fun, don’t get me wrong, but my freeloader’s convenience items are part of the enjoyment for sure. So, as a wise reviewer, Suzie’s gone ahead and ponied up for a $40 horse herself. Good on her for that! The Founder’s Packs are clearly the game’s best deal, as you’re paying $6 a re-spec, $30 for companions, and $40 for mounts of the highest quality. And frankly, if you’re charging that kind of money for an “open beta” you can afford our site to consider your game released.
Bill Murphy / Bill Murphy is the Managing Editor of MMORPG.com, RTSGuru.com, and lover of all things gaming. He's been playing and writing about MMOs and geekery since 2002, and you can harass him and his views on Twitter @thebillmurphy.