I think what got me started on this way of thinking is the fact that my wife and I recently brought home an eight week old Golden Retriever puppy and over the last three weeks, we've watched him grow and learn and adapt to just about everything.
It's an amazing experience to watch something develop so quickly right in front of your eyes and know that at no point in his life will he ever change as much as he will in the next few weeks and months. The changes that we see right now will provide the foundation for the dog that we will know and love for the next fifteen years.
I didn't tell you this story just as an excuse to post a picture of the little guy in my column (though that won't stop me), I did it because I actually saw a parallel with something in the MMO world.
As I'm sure that anyone reading MMORPG.com often enough to be following my column probably already knows, we've spent the last week in the Closed Beta test for Cryptic's Star Trek Online working on a series that we're cleverly calling: Inside Beta. This has got me pondering the idea of Closed Beta and its overall role in a game's development.
As with my now eleven week old puppy, at no time in a game's life is it changing and adapting and learning more than it does in the closed beta stage, and I'm not just talking about Star Trek Online here, but betas in general. The information that is collected in Closed Beta and the changes that are made because of it will go on to create a foundation for the game that will most likely last as long as it does.
All in all, a Closed Beta, if handled correctly, can be a very exciting time in a young game's life and, if they've got the right attitude, a player's as well.
Now, I'm usually the first one to criticize the beta process. I've read the riot act on more than one occasion to companies who use Open Beta as a time for marketing and promotion and not actual testing and improving of the game. Closed Beta though, is an entirely different beast provided that it hasn't become too firmly entrenched in the company's marketing plan as well.
It's been a while since I've been in on the ground floor of a game, even before other members of the media have had a go, and I had forgotten how genuinely impressed I could be by the dialogue that happens between players and developers during a good Closed Beta. I love seeing easy to find tools for reporting bugs, well maintained and monitored beta forums and the frequent patches and changes that happen as a result of it.
The success of MMOs, more than any other entertainment media, relies heavily on the communication between the people who produce the product and the people who enjoy it, and Closed Beta is, for better or worse, usually the best time to see that communication working at full capacity.
It is during Closed Beta that, for whatever reason, developers seem more inclined to see another point of view that they hadn't considered before. It is also during the Closed Beta that players seem more able to "roll with it" in terms of developer decisions, adopting a "we'll let them try it" approach.
It is at this point that communication is most valuable, when both sides are most willing to see the other's point of view.
One of our frequent forum posters recently implied that it was a bad thing that MMO developers ask their fans how they can improve their product. Personally, I don't understand that point of view. I think that the more the people who are doing the entertaining look back at those of us that they are trying to entertain and ask, "What can I do better?" the better off we're all going to be.
It's not that MMOs don't continue to develop and change over their lifetimes, and it's not as though as soon as that Closed Beta cap is lifted that no communication happens between player and developer, it just never seems to be the same again. Sure, you can teach an old dog new tricks, but it's much easier to do when they're still puppies.