Firefall
Over the last few years, we have been witness to dramatic shifts in the way the video game business does its...erm...business. Crowdfunding appeared out of nowhere and turned people like Chris Roberts into money tornadoes. Digital distribution created an environment in which anyone with an internet connection and a laptop can create and release a game. Here in the MMO niche, early access, paid betas, founders packages, and extended soft launches became the norm.

My opinion on soft launching and paid betas has been well established on this site. I dislike the idea that players must jump in to aid a flailing development team while it buys time on a project the team clearly should have reigned in. I also hate the environment soft launching creates in which studios are not accountable for their mistakes; a game like Firefall can have its entire PvP system wiped while its developers say, "Oops, our bad, beta! But thanks for all the money."

However, there is another enormous problem with the prevalence of the soft launch system. Namely, it kills fans.

Living on passion

Like films and novels, a great number of video games survive primarily on the raging enthusiasm of a select few fans. Sure, Guild Wars 2 is the fastest-selling MMO of all time, but it could not have reached that success without the fervent loyalty shown by people who loved the original Guild Wars and helped to build its community into a lucrative marketing target. Fanbases serve the development of a new game by lapping up its coverage, sharing its trailers, commenting on its dev diaries, and downloading its demos. Those same fanbases also allow sites like Massively to exist; our core mechanism for generating revenue hinges on your willingness to care deeply about one or more games.

Guild Wars 2
And care you do. Fan passion is on display in all corners of this site and others, in addition to the real world. What else would compel a person to defend a video game and its creators from an anonymous internet stranger? What other explanation is there for a grown man getting a tattoo referencing a game that hadn't even come out yet? The passion people feel for specific games is a vital component of building a community; it is an ethereal, durable bond that allows individuals to share, grow, and feel safe with one another while engaged in a common joy.

It is also an exploitable weakness.

Taking advantage

The games industry is a business. Studios exist to make money. Certainly developers care about their creations, but those creations rely on your dollars to become reality. There are very few, if any, game creators out there who are working entirely for the love of the field, never hoping to receive a financial return on the time they spend buried in code, painting textures, or sculpting revealing breastplates. People who work for free are hobbyists, not professionals.

Neverwinter
Soft launching is the next step in manipulating fan passion into a viable revenue stream. It is a natural evolution of pre-ordering, which established the nasty habit of buying a game before it comes out based on love for the franchise, opinion of the developers, or marketing-manufactured hype. Soft launches take this practice one step further by not only asking players to purchase a game before it releases (via in-game transactions or a founders/early access buy-in), but to suffer through an indefinite final development cycle in which core game mechanics are often reset, rebuilt, revamped, or removed. How many MMOs can you think of right now that are in some weird form of extended beta?

"The people who care the most...are the ones being treated the worst."



The only way this scam works is by harnessing the loyalty of the people who care most about a project and transforming that loyalty into income. Average Joe Gamer isn't going to buy a founders pack or early access rights to a game he's curious about. Instead, passionate, caring fans are the ones who bear the financial burden for a soft-launching developer's mistakes, and they are the people who end up slammed by server outages, glitchy mechanics, broken economies, and unstable releases.

The people who care the most, who should be the most valuable to the development team, are the ones being treated the worst.

Nonrenewable resources

There is a potential danger to turning passion into profit and riding to riches on the backs of those who truly care about a product. Eventually, that bright enthusiasm turns into a bitter hatred. A casual visitor to a game might indeed be able to enjoy it for a while and leave amiably, but an individual who cares deeply enough about a title to invest in its beta, participate in testing, offer up feedback, and work with the dev team to steward the game toward release might not be so accepting of that same dev team's inability to finish the game as promised on a reasonable timetable. A studio running in paid beta/soft launch mode can only re-scope its project so many times before those early adopters start demanding results. Frustration kills enthusiasm.

Dragon's Prophet
Game developers now seem to view their most ardent fans as a newly-tapped financial resource capable of generating infinite sums of money for a protracted development period with no clear end. The only problem is that passion, when stifled by mismanagement and judgment errors on the part of the creative team, quickly becomes a spewing anger that erupts across forums, social media, and website comments before cooling forever. Developers can't simply patch the passion of fans back into a game once the people who cared walk away. There is no way to recapture loyalty once it has been squandered by money-grubbing schemes designed by studios on life support.

In short, a continued run of botched soft launches and paid betas will sap the enthusiasm of fans and drown passion in a sea of microtransactions and progress wipes.

Moving forward

There is room for community involvement in the development process. Studios seeking beta testing and other such assistance should simply offer it free to fans. Instead of punishing the people who love a game by asking them to pay money for a broken product and dragging them through development hell, perhaps developers should try rewarding those fans with an opportunity to take part in a title's evolution without shaking the coins out of their pockets.

Fans won't feel burned, the industry won't continue down this black hole of "buy now, play later," and studios might even end up with stronger bonds to their communities. In the end, it's those bonds that help ensure a game's long-term success.

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews and not necessarily shared by Massively as a whole. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!

This article was originally published on Massively.