Last week, Goblinworks’ Ryan Dancey released plans for the upcoming Pathfinder Online alpha test. The game will open up first to Kickstarter backers, and as things stabilized, more testers will trickle in. Pathfinder’s players will be greeted with a two week update cycle, under which there will be requests for community feedback and transparency in what the team is working on one week, followed by a changelog the next. Given the game’s debt to its Kickstarter backers, involving the community isn’t a surprise, but the degree of transparent design and the alpha’s lack of an NDA shows both an openness to feedback and suggestion and confidence in the project. It’s also a really great example of the greater influence of community input on MMO design and marketing.
Other games currently in various phases of testing and development are also following this NDA-free, community feedback driven experience. Where earlier testing phases have had a history of being covered up under legalese, there seems to be a shift toward more openness lately. Games like EverQuest Next: Landmark, ArcheAge, Shroud of the Avatar, and Trove are just some of the titles that join Pathfinder in this openness. In addition, those games also share having been at least somewhat funded by community members. Yet crowdfunding isn’t the only reason to have a more transparent development path.
Bringing a new IP to life is always a bit of a risk, even if you are a notable developer with experience. The public might be more likely to trust you enough to open a few wallets or buy your game at launch, but being able to show confidence and steady progress on a game is sometimes also enough to win over new fans. Despite how much technology everyone is connected by these days and how many voices are out there, sometimes good old word of mouth is the best sales tool. To borrow a well-known movie quote, “If you build it, they will come”. Build a good game, let everyone know, see the process from bones to finished project, and they will invite friends.
Greater transparency can also be useful if a developer is launching something unexpected or different from previous work. EverQuest: Next is one such project. With Landmark being one way for the community to actually make an impact upon EQ: Next, it’s understandable that SOE would want to include the community in an open way from very early in the process. Landmark is integral but separate, like an appetizer while the entree is cooking. SOE is an example of a company that has embraced free to play and hedging its bets on a community-centered model. Ryan Dancey is another outspoken supporter of free to play and responsibility to the community. It’s hard to ignore these efforts.
Despite talking about word of mouth and technology, there are still important roles for all this tech we have before us in getting players to want to play a game. One of the more important ones now is streaming. Streamers are a huge, important part of any ambitious game studio’s arsenal these days. One only need look at the recent agreement by Google to acquire Twitch for $1 billion. Being able to see and experience some of a game for yourself on someone’s stream or via video on demand is the way to get through to some gamers these days, especially with so many choices vying for our attention. Word of mouth, as stated, is important, but streamers are also a source of trusted word. Those with built-in audiences or even just gamers streaming to a group of friends are important sources of experience and advice in decisions of what to play in a crowded market. Skeptics and the curious alike can see a game for themselves in its earliest stages and even judge the studio upon its development decisions, and possibly influence them. People have voices on social media, streamers can become known and attract hundreds or thousands of viewers. They can build trust.
I’m not knocking traditional alpha and beta testing. Those have their place, and studios will continue to iterate behind closed doors on many projects. Yet even those studios do sometimes relax their NDA rules for streamers. Zenimax and Carbine did that for their respective recent releases, The Elder Scrolls Online and WildStar, knowing that streamers reach potential customers. All of these sources show that the community’s collective importance is alive and well, and maybe more so than ever in some cases.
While founder’s packs and backing campaigns are some of the ways access and input are possible today, traditional testing is still alive and well. Sometimes you’re just invited to test, even in the age of alpha and beta invite as marketing tool (which isn’t really all that new - I remember beta keys for preorders quite a few years ago). NDAs can frustrate players and even lead to theories or speculation about perceived quality. Yet an NDA isn’t evil. Having testers give feedback on games and changes made before opening up to the public is a way of controlling the narrative, though word spreads today even so.
With the rise of crowdfunding as an option, more transparent and open games being developed and prepared for audiences, and independent devs taking a real shot at the MMO market, there is a need to know potential and even potential limitations. Reaching out to the community on matters like crowdfunding or polls can show potential player numbers for a project. If something has 500 backers with very open wallets or 100,000 backers with slimmer contributions, it helps with planning the scope of a game, as well as even possibly deciding on economic model.
While the community has always been important in the development process, we might have reached a new level and a new type of importance in both development and marketing. Word of mouth isn’t new, testing and feedback aren’t new, but we have multiple new methods of delivery and player importance that have shifted the landscape.
Christina Gonzalez / Christina is a freelancer and contributor to MMORPG.com, where she writes the community-focused Social Hub column. You will also find her contributions at RTSGuru. Follow her on Twitter: @c_gonzalez