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The Soapbox: Launch is optional, beta is forever

Rubi Bayer, @@rubi_

Disclaimer: The Soapbox column is entirely the opinion of this week's writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of Massively as a whole. If you're afraid of opinions other than your own, you might want to skip this column.

As the Massively staffer who puts together our Betawatch column every week, I can't tell you how many times I've heard some variation of "that game is not in open beta -- a working cash shop equals launch."

While I can certainly see what these readers are saying, in the end it's up to the developer to dictate open beta vs. launch. On the other hand, I have to agree with our readers to a point -- particularly with games that have been in open beta for a year or more, have working item shops, and produce regular patches or expansions.

Let me start by being very clear: I'm not here to pick on any one individual MMO developer for its choices. I do want to take a closer look at the premise of "endless open beta," though. What exactly is happening here? In my time spent trying to solve the mystery of these endless beta periods, I found two situations pretty consistently. The first and rarer of the two is that a game will announce open beta but neglect to make any sort of launch announcement. Several games have been quietly removed from the Betawatch list after I spent a few sessions scouring the game site, searching for forums, looking for announcements via the publisher, and in more than one case, finally submitting a support ticket with my question. Every now and again, an answer will come back stating simply, "It's launched."

The second scenario is far more common. When I ask directly regarding the game's state, I ask three questions: is the game still in open beta, is there a launch window, and what is the launch window? I have never once received an answer to that third question, and I've asked that question of multiple developers. The most common answer is, "It's in open beta," and the other two questions are either disregarded or given some version of "we do not have a launch window yet but we'll keep you posted."

Frankly, the state of the game is up to the individual developers, but that doesn't stop us from wondering why some of them are so reluctant to even consider a launch. gPotato is an excellent example of this sort of thing. The studio has four games currently on our open beta list: Aika, which began open beta on March 16th of last year; Allods, whose open beta began last February; Dragonica, with a European open beta date of June 2009; and newcomer Iris Online, which has only been in open beta since November of 2010.

I've been watching these games with interest -- particularly Aika and Allods -- because their names pop up in my email more often than many others. I've contacted gPotato twice regarding the beta vs. launch status and was told the first time (late last summer) that there isn't currently a launch window but that the team would keep us posted. The second email, sent mid-January, doesn't have a clear answer yet other than that the team is looking into it.

Again, I don't mean to pick on any one studio in particular, because gPotato isn't the only producer of endless open beta games. If you go through the announcement list in the open beta section of Betawatch, you'll see a lot of old dates. The question with most of these games isn't whether or not they're in open beta, because they're usually pretty clear that they are. The question is, "Why not just launch and be done with it?"

It's easy to jump to the first conclusion, and I've heard people say it more than once: If you never officially launch, you don't have to work too hard to fix the game. If anyone complains about bugs or broken aspects of the game, you simply shrug and say it's still in beta. Meanwhile, you release expansion after expansion and make money hand over fist in the item shops.

I don't think it's that simple, though, particularly given several different factors. It's interesting to note that endless open beta seems to be reserved for smaller, free-to-play games. Can you imagine DC Universe Online or Star Wars: The Old Republic cruising along in open beta for over a year with nary a mention of a launch date? It wouldn't happen, if for no other reason than extreme player pressure.

But with free-to-play titles, it frankly doesn't matter as much. We don't need a launch date to tell us when we're able to purchase the game, because there is no box and there is no purchase. Once the game hits open beta, you're free to download the client and play to your heart's content. This leads to a larger question surrounding the state of MMO gaming and business models. The free-to-play market has changed and grown immensely over the past two years, so will beta vs. launch even continue to be a factor?

As MMO gamers, we're accustomed to four stages of development: alpha, closed beta, open beta, and launch. With free-to-play eating up an ever-larger slice of the pie, that line between open beta and launch has begun to blur over the past year or so. While I don't think endless open beta is a case of developer laziness, I do think the free-to-play studios as a group need to make an effort to keep up with and address these changes if they're going to stick with this method of development.

Like I said, we are used to a particular development cycle -- one that often includes a character wipe -- and there is a sense that our gameplay is temporary and unfinished as long as we're playing in open beta limbo. I have no problem with change -- if the concept of open beta is becoming obsolete for a significant portion of MMO business models, there's nothing wrong with that. A game can be successfully up and running, offering expansions, and maintaining an item shop, all while it's still in an ongoing state of development and improvement. Given how organic MMOs and their communities are, this should be the case anyway.

But developers have to choose one or the other: If you move forward with this concept, you can't saddle it with a term like "open beta" because it's not a true open beta -- and it leaves your customer base wondering what's wrong with your game that you can't launch it.

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. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!

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