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Jon Wood: Sellin' Betas and Pimpin' Box Sales

By Jon Wood on November 12, 2009 | Columns | Comments

Sellin' Betas and Pimpin' Box Sales

I've got a real problem with the way that some MMO companies these days are selling and promoting their products. I know I've used this column to complain about marketing practices lately, but I was reading through a few threads on some of the most popular games on our site today, and they really got my ire up.

Star Trek Online

First, there's an issue that's been plaguing Cryptic and Star Trek Online ever since they started their closed beta. You see, back when they were trying to sell Champions Online as quickly and heavily as possible, the powers that be over at Cryptic decided to offer a $199 lifetime subscription to the game. We'll ignore the part where they were asking people to buy a lifetime subscription to a game that wouldn't be released for at least another month and move right along to the part that really gets my goat: The Champions Online lifetime (or six month) subscription's big selling point was that buyers would get access to the closed beta test for Star Trek Online.

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"But Jon," you may ask. "The beta access was only one of the things the lifetime sub offered, why would you say it was the big selling point?"

To you, my hypothetical friend, I say that this would be acceptable if the STO beta access hadn't been the very first thing listed in the promotion. I would concede your point, perhaps, if the offer had been made at the bottom, and a Star Trek Online logo hasn't appeared on the ad (there was no Champions logo at all).

I can not stress enough the fact that selling access to your game's closed beta is a hideous mistake and sets a precedent for more hideous mistakes to be made in the future. I've written before about the fact that developers have, over time, eroded way at the usefulness of the beta process in MMOs. I've written before that by promoting both closed and open betas as though they are showcases or free trials for the game will result in participants not so much being interested in trying to help you fix the issues with your game, which is the purpose of beta, as giving the game an early try and complaining bitterly about its lack of polish and general crappyness to anyone they come across.

Now, when I said those things, I was just talking about times when developers over-hype their beta process. I have to say though that it goes double or even triple when you've essentially charged your customers money to participate. You thought they unreasonably expected a polished gameplay experience before? Well, now that they've ponied up the dough those expectations are going to be high and they're going to rightfully complain when the game that they get to play is, you know, still in testing.

Really, that should have been the end of my rant about this issue. I mean, sure I don't like the fact that some of the people in the closed beta are going to be there with expectations based on the fact that they shelled out to be there, but hey, it's not the end of the world. The thing is though, that according to reports, these paid for beta slots weren't the first ones given out. When closed beta started on October 22nd, there were many complaints from CO lifetime subscription holders that they had not been invited to participate, at least not right away.

Now, I know that nothing in the advertisement stated that purchasers of the lifetime membership would be given any kind of priority in closed beta invites. The thing is though, and here's where that pesky charging them for access thing starts to come back and bite you... You set up that expectation, even without explicitly stating it, once money got involved.

Look, I really want to see Star Trek Online succeed. I've been a lifelong fan of Star Trek and have been over the moon excited to see what Cryptic comes up with. I'm not even one of those people who disagrees with the premise of the game's design. I just hope that these very silly promotional mistakes won't end up hurting the game experience in the long run.

Aion

Now, let's shift our attention over to NCsoft's Aion where business, at least so long as you look at their press releases, has been great since launching in the Western market on September 22nd. So great, in fact, that a recent press blast was sent out earlier this week boasting that the company has sold nearly 1 Million units across North America and Europe.

So, what's my beef? Well, it's the fact that MMOs are still pointing at big numbers in box sales as a sign of success. Yes, box sales are great. Its revenue coming in, don't get me wrong. The thing is though that while in single player and limited multiplayer games the initial box sales numbers are the end game goal for developers in terms of revenue, MMO companies don't get into it for the boxes, they're into it for the long term subscription revenue.

My issue on this point isn't just with Aion. In fact, a quick look into the not-so-distant past and the launches of Warhammer Online and Age of Conan really do a much better point of highlighting my concern.

A little over a month after its launch back in 2008, Mythic's Warhammer Online was reporting that they had moved a whopping 1.2 million copies in only 12 days. Age of Conan, shortly after its launch, boasted similar numbers. The thing is, a year later, neither of those games is enjoying the rampant success that those initial forecasts would indicate with both games suffering horrendous overall retention rates and both companies having suffered through major layoffs.

I just wish that MMO companies would stop promoting box sales as though they were an indication of the overall success of their games. To me, early box sales aren't so much a testament to the game and how it's constructed as it is the success or failure of the studio's marketing efforts. The truth is in the turnover numbers, which have less to do with sheer force of marketing than it does with the quality and staying power of the individual MMO.