Sunday, October 20, 2013

Blizzard: Last Bastion of the Real Beta

In a comment over at Azuriel's place, Zardilann says my post about Hearthstone had him worried about the game's business model.  It hadn't occurred to me that my post might be an example of the trend which has caused us to cease to have real MMO beta's anymore.

Hearthstone hits two of the three main criteria for a free to play title that claims to remain in beta for marketing reasons, but has actually soft-launched.  The game has a functioning cash shop and recently conducted its last wipe of beta account data.  It also has a level of polish - albeit not necessarily balance - that most live launched titles would envy.  Thus, I'd all but forgotten the final missing piece - the beta is still a closed beta (not open to the general public). 

I wasn't thinking of this product as a beta because MMO's don't do public closed beta testing anymore.  Say what you will about them, but Blizzard is basically the only studio that still does multi-month NDA-free come-as-you-please public testing of its upcoming products.  Pretty much every studio out there uses one or more restrictions:
  • Many beta tests remain locked down under a non-disclosure agreement until the last possible moment (see increasing grumblings about LOTRO's Helm's Deep expansion), while heavily marketing non-refundable pre-purchases.  Some titles have gone so far as to offer long-term or lifetime subscriptions as an offer that expires before the NDA on the beta test does. 
  • Games that do conduct public testing often restrict access to limited time weekend events.  These are unrealistic for three reasons - they artificially cram word of mouth into a single weekend because that was the only time when people could play an upcoming title, they prevent players from digging too deep (both due to the short time and restrictions on available content/levels) and by doing so they create unrealistic populations for open world events during the beta weekend that will not be seen in the live game as players spread out in levels.  
By contrast, Blizzard's approach is to let their product speak for itself.  To be clear, Hearthstone's positive buzz is not in any danger from a negative post on Player Versus Developer.  If anything, more than one lower profile title has taken an overly critical article and turned it into a publicity stunt for the game by calling media attention to protest how their poor little game was wronged.   The real concern is that if the underlying title is actually bad, it won't just be one post on one blog, but bad posts on all of the blogs.  This is why we don't get to have nice things such as real beta tests anymore from anyone other than the too-big-to-care Blizzard.  It never occurred to me that in accurately reporting my experiences, I might be part of the problem.

Aside: More Hearthstone commentary
Not the main point of today's post, but I figured it only fair to address some of the comments about my earlier Hearthstone impressions. 

Commenters make a case that my criticism was unduly harsh given the game's beta status.  There is some question about whether match-making is working as intended, or at all, at the moment.  Meanwhile, my win-loss record seems to vary dramatically based on what class I'm playing, which suggests some combination of balance issues and/or nuance to certain classes.  I lost six games in a row - including a 0-3 Arena elimination - playing as a druid, and then immediately won two games to finish the daily quest after blowing up my custom deck and starting over from scratch with a completely different strategy. 

Because they are accepting real money for entry into arena tournaments, I maintain there is a limit to how far the "it's still beta" excuse can be carried.  Moreover, if there is no good way to learn to play the game because of the game's focus on sending players to be slaughtered by general PVP population, that is a legitimate flaw with the title.  Time will tell, especially as more of the general public gets into the game. 


  1. I agree completely about the Beta methods to be wary of. NDA heavy Beta's and limited play amounts are HUGE warning signs not to trust the hype about a game. They are hiding something.

  2. My first ever MMO beta was Funcom's Anarchy Online thirteen years ago. Back then most players were on dial-up and downloading the entire game wasn't a realistic option. I got my Beta disc through the mail.

    I can't recall whether that beta had an NDA but I would be surprised if it didn't. Having acquired a taste for testing I went on to apply for a large number of MMO betas over the years, often but not always successfully. My memory (not always a reliable witness) tells me that betas came with NDAs pretty much from the start.

    If there ever was a golden age of closed betas with no NDA it must have been before my time. It's true that the development of betas as marketing tools is a later invention, but when I was in, for example, the EQ2 beta in 2004, running concurrently as it was with the WoW beta that I never even applied for, there was most certainly an NDA, the beta most certainly lasted for many months and it was very definitely and firmly closed. We had EQ1 guilds break up because of who did and who didn't get into EQ2 beta.

    Was the WoW beta both Closed and without NDA? Was DAOC (another one I never applied for)? I find that very hard to believe. Was it really ever common practice?


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