Steam has an entire Early Access section that's dominating the sales charts, offering players a chance to hop right into an anticipated game while it's still in the middle of development. Kickstarter games routinely offer alpha and beta access to their financers as part of their reward structure. Trove, Elite: Dangerous, Shroud of the Avatar, Star Citizen, and EverQuest Next Landmark are among the vanguard of upcoming MMOs that have promised alpha or early access to players willing to shell out a few bucks right now.
It's not enough to covet and chase after a beta key these days; all of the cool kids are in the alpha, apparently. The willingness of developers to wield alpha access as a reward and the enthusiastic acceptance by gamers to literally buy into it has me very concerned that this could poison the industry, the community, and the future of our games.
Any given MMO typically goes through a similar testing process. There's usually an internal build first followed by "friends and family" testing, which is also referred to as pre-alpha because the Greeks didn't have the foresight to start earlier. Then there's the alpha test, made up of a small number of trustworthy outside testers who are brought in to fiddle with broken and incomplete systems, zones, and builds. When the alpha is feature- and content-rich enough, not to mention stable, the beta begins. Beta usually marks a larger player participation and includes closed beta (invites only and typically covered by NDA), open beta (or public testing), beta weekends, stress-test weekends, and so on. Then when the testing has helped to create a polished product or when the publisher says, "It's time," the studio launches the game.
Not every MMO studio has done this the exact same way, but more or less, that's how it's always been done, barring infrequent "soft launch" beta games, until recently when the over-enthusiasm for crowdfunding gave rise to the use of alpha access as a reward for donations. Really, when you get down to it, it's the studio dangling alpha keys and players paying for the right to test the game. That right there is a little messed up, but hey, demand and supply and all of that.
In which I establish two things
Now as I dive into why all of this is creating a potential disaster for players and the MMO industry, I want to establish a two things. First, alpha testing in and of itself isn't bad. Testing needs to start somewhere, and studios eventually need to bring in people to do this. There are many unsung alpha testing heroes who have given a lot of time and genuine effort in giving feedback and hunting down bugs in order to make a game better for everyone, and I don't want to downplay their efforts.
Second, while we're seeing the explosion of alpha tests as rewards, we haven't witnessed where this leads yet, so I'm not basing this on historical fact but on an opinion backed by observations of both gamer psychology and studio blindness. I'm also basing it on how incredibly uneasy I feel seeing how prolific this trend is and how few people I see questioning whether or not widespread, pay-for-alpha access is beneficial for everyone involved.
So let's start by looking at why alpha tests are being used this way, particularly within the context of Kickstarter. Studios now have to see these backers as investors who want some sort of return for their investment, and the promise of a game that will take two more years to make is a hard sell for money given right now. So to sweeten the deal, studios feed the instant gratification crowd by letting people in early, as long as those people have bought their ticket to the party. Money now, reward now or shortly in the future, everyone is happy.
But is it that simple? I see this arrangement as terribly lopsided in favor of the studio. The studio gets so much out of this, starting with up-front funding. Players are ponying up the cost of a full game or more without getting back a full game right now. Yes, that's part of the whole crowdfunding process, but it's still strange to me.
In addition to money, the studio gets two other things: loyalty from players (who have invested money and are more likely now to be less critical of a game that they've already paid for, falling prey to a type of bias known as post-purchase rationalization) and breathing room. The studio currently holds money for a game from you and will have that money no matter what. It could make a good game, or it could make a bad one, but no matter what, it's secured your money and isn't as accountable or motivated to make a genius product. So why not offer up alpha access? The suckers already paid. If they hate the game, oh well, we got their money.
The player who is keen on the idea of the game gets a lot less out of the deal. He or she gets to satiate that curiosity somewhat by barging in the doors early, but for what? A house that isn't fully built and isn't ready to be occupied. A game that will be wiped and is still a good long while away from release. Once the curiosity is satisfied, it doesn't leave the player with much unless this is the odd alpha that is so eminently addicting that he or she can ignore the wipes and the bugs to want to keep playing it night after night.
Some people are attracted to early access because they want to see how the sausage is made. They want to walk step by step with the developers through every stage, and the developers have egos as we all do and would love to be appreciated now instead of way later at launch. As a guy who is fascinated with the development process, I can see the appeal. The modular or episodic approach to creating MMOs is fascinating and could have potential if done carefully and done right.
But I still maintain that as a whole, this use of alpha can be poison. Will studios really get the feedback that they need to fix and polish a product? Will players who get in super-early really be so fascinated that they'll stick around through months of character wipes, buggy features, and limited tests to make it to launch and beyond? Will peer pressure to be among the first to see this wondrous broken fantasyland push gamers to jump in before they're comfortable doing so? Will the testing process break down into a muddled mess or evolve into something new entirely? Will having the community breathing down the necks of developers at every stage of the process result in stagnated ideas or a game-by-committee? And if I may invoke a slippery slope worry, where does this virtual rewards arms race end?
Studios should be alarmed at the very real possibility that their games will take a bad hit if backers get into the alpha without realizing how alphas are and then go out to spread damaging word-of-mouth testimonials. First impressions are incredibly important, especially among gamers because there are few of us willing to give second chances to anything disappointing. Do studios really want alpha tests to be that first impression?
Obviously, I have concerns, but maybe I'm being too alarmist. As someone who does pre-order collectors editions regularly, I'm not innocent of handing money over to developers for an unproven product. However, my gut tells me that the studios will never say no to more money, and players can lose sensibility when on an artificial high of being the very, very first to see a game. I don't see a lot of ways in which this will result in a better game for anyone and plenty of ways that it could just backfire horribly.
Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday (and sometimes Friday!) as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews and not necessarily shared across the staff. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!