The Think Tank: How do you feel about press-only beta coverage?

Elder Scrolls Online
Here's a thing that happens sometimes: A high-budget MMO has a tiered beta with an NDA that is lifted in parts. Sometimes those parts include early access for press, and sometimes that NDA lifts for press before anyone else. This has only happened a handful of times, and it never really works as intended. Almost everyone thinks that everyone should be able to talk about what he or she is playing and that games press is wrong.

After going through one of these episodes just last week, we figured it would be a good time to share our (wrong) opinions on how these press-only beta NDA lifts play out.

I'm not sure it would matter if I had an issue with them because I benefit from them so much. There's nothing inherently wrong with an embargo or press NDA, as usually the problems are in the details. I can admit that I like being "the person who got the exclusive." That's just fun and gives my ego a bit of a boost. Call me human. The problem I have with it is when the specifics are so ridiculous that writers are literally worried about even mentioning the fact that they are playing the game. In the end, I'm not sure it matter with AAA titles. No matter how negative the NDA or how much we claim to all hate hype, certain IPs will sell to a point. If we want to see change, we'll have to see a change to how companies charge for pre-orders, betas, and all that.
I really can't stand NDAs and the media circus they generate, for press or for anyone. I'm always appreciative when we get to test out a game and post our thoughts for our readers, whether it's a year or a month or a week before launch, and I appreciate the page views we get thanks to exclusive previews because it's part of my job to consider page views. But I've seen far too many press events (and their subsequent NDA lifts) become carefully structured hand-holding that misleads us into praising games that don't deserve it -- and vice versa when the studios neglect to show us the truly great parts of the game. When we're close to an MMO launch, the barriers need to come down -- for everyone -- else the conversation is one-sided and frustrating for everyone involved. Not every genre needs to operate that way, but MMOs survive on community and feedback. Don't stifle it.
It varies. A lot. If you're giving press plenty of time to play and plenty of opportunities to interact with potential fans, it's an acceptable way of doing things. Arguably not ideal, but stuff like WildStar's open streaming mean that you have plenty of opportunities to show off the game and let people really understand what the game looks like. On the other hand, if you're putting a tight leash even on press with a game that's less than two months from launch... it doesn't exactly scream confidence in the game that's being developed or its reception upon launch.

So what it comes down to is developer transparency. Press-only beta stuff is a part of the process, but it should be inviting discussion rather than squashing it. If the press can talk about beta experiences and other long-standing beta testers can't, flags are raised.
I think press only beta coverage is BS. The blurry distinction between "press" and "not press" drives me crazy, and it irritates me that I'm considered more legitimate because AOL sends me checks. There are plenty of people with quality YouTube channels, Twitch streams, or blogs that aren't considered "press" by default, but they're pumping out content that's influencing game purchases just as much any member of the press I've met.

Developers are slowly catching up and beginning to include nontraditional press, but they are too slow and their reach is insultingly limited. If someone's putting out quality content but has only a few hundred subscribers/followers, he or she is likely to be passed over while "press" access is given to some openly bigoted livestreamer who pulls in big numbers by being a huge jerk. The major issue here is that finding smaller (or larger) content creators who "should" be let into a press beta and therefore be allowed the privilege of a lifted beta NDA would be an absurdly massive undertaking. I think the most reasonable solution is to drop the idea of press-only beta coverage entirely. Go ahead and special invite whoever you want, but anyone else who happens to get in shouldn't continue to be gagged while a special pen of media players is released onto the world.

There's no guarantee that someone will be better at producing content just because we've crossed the magical barrier into a world where attending E3 is a chore instead of a privilege. How often have you read a major site's beta preview/review and thought, "I could do better than this"? Well, you should be allowed to try. When a beta NDA drops for the people that company considers press, it should drop for everyone else too.
I really don't care for the fact that beta coverage is even a thing, whether it's press-only or a public beta or what have you. Hype is counterproductive for both developers and consumers, and though it will never happen, I sometimes think I'd prefer it if the games industry returned to the days of devs being holed up in their cubicles working on products that gamers rarely even know about until they launch. That might put me out of this particular job, which would be a shame because it's usually fun, but if the tradeoff was a saner, slimmer industry that featured fewer PR people and other marketing types who add no value whatsoever to a given game from a consumer perspective (and in many cases, actually subtract value), it would be worth it.

In terms of the bad vibes circulating around Elder Scrolls Online, it's the exact same song-and-dance that we saw with SWTOR. BioWare's game also had a press-only beta reveal, an NDA that overstayed its welcome, and lots of negative buzz in the MMO community. And none of that mattered in the slightest, nor did any of the negative reviews, because the IP guaranteed its (eventual) financial success. ESO will follow that same path.
Well, let's be frank about it: Press doesn't like to complain about it because when we get to talk about something others can't, we get more attention and hits. It's unfair, but it's unfair to our advantage. That said, I hate it. When I was "just" a blogger, I seethed when press got to talk about something that I was still under NDA regarding. Generally, I'm just coming to the opinion that once beta hits, the NDA should go away. Players are far more educated about what alpha/beta entails these days, and they understand that it's a process, not a finished product. Having an NDA for the players but not the press stifles conversations and discussions that really should happen in order to make these better games.
I don't see any reason studios should be drawing lines between "press" and "player" when it comes to allowing conversation about a game. The line between "professional games writer" and "enjoyer of games" has almost evaporated. Twitch, YouTube, and other innovations have completely democratized the process of providing feedback about games. From that point of view, there's no rational argument for locking down the comments of one group while letting another speak. Honestly, doing it that way seriously damages the possibility of creating an actual conversation (as we saw last week).

There will always be a need for professionals who create content about games, I think. Studios obviously can't rely on people whose jobs aren't on the line to live up to the agreements of an NDA and some gamers prefer to read reviews or previews from "trusted" sources rather than from some Pokemon fan's personal blog. But if a developer is opening up part of a game for comments and coverage, that developer should open the conversation to everyone with access to that part of the game. Otherwise fans and players who disagree (or agree, even) can't engage, and all that does is create frustration for everyone.

Also, stopping players from talking about your game certainly gives off the vibe that you're not super proud of it. SOE practically threw a parade when EverQuest Next: Landmark's alpha launched, but ZeniMax Online seems as if it's trying to sneak Elder Scrolls Online past the prying eyes of the gaming populace and directly to store shelves. If I were a developer and I loved my game and thought it was beautiful, I'd be re-tweeting and sharing every stream, YouTube video, or player comment I could find, press or not.
Betas and alphas are a joke now, and NDAs are a way to funnel the coverage and extend the hype as long as possible. While people are demanding that Bethesda "take control" of our opinion articles (no, seriously), the truth is that the publisher is eating this up because it keeps its game in the spotlight for a long time. Marketing folks don't get paid a lot of money to just look good. But it's the actual quality of the game that should always mean the most, not what we're allowed to talk about during the honeymoon stage. And that's a whole different discussion.

What do you get when you throw the Massively writers' opinions together in one big pot to stew? You get The Think Tank, a column dedicated to ruminating on the MMO genre. We range from hardcore PvPers to sandbox lovers to the carest of the carebears, so expect some disagreement! Join Senior Editor Shawn Schuster and the team for a new edition right here every other Thursday.
This article was originally published on Massively.