So Liore over at Herding Cats has expressed her opposition to the practice of companies selling early access to beta and lately, alpha games. While I can understand that position, I don’t think the main justification, that “we shouldn’t be encouraging companies to sell us unfinished games”, outweighs the potential benefits. So what are they?
(Disclaimer: I am not and probably never will buy in to an alpha or beta. I just don’t have any interest in participating in such things.)
Firstly, the obvious point applies that all these people are not being forced into buying into alpha. There is no shady dealing here, no dishonesty about what people are getting into. Compared to a rushed release where people are being charged for a supposedly finished product (mechanics-, balance- and content-wise), I don’t think there is anything misleading about alpha buy-ins. And with a rushed release, you have to cop a big hit to your reputation. What is the worst that can happen with alpha buy-ins? Some bad ‘reviews’ from unhappy people? Not only can you shrug that off (“it’s alpha!”) but you can then point to the ways you have incorporated that criticism into your development process later. That can turn out to be a PR win if you do it right.
Isn’t one of the more common problems on release for MMOs that certain bugs, balance and server issues only come to light when hundreds or thousands of players are playing together at once? Obviously, normally developers can’t afford to employ that many people for testing, so it is left until open beta – quite close to release, almost certainly after an official launch date is announced – to do that testing. Now, this might well be the best way to do such things, I don’t know. But I find it hard to imagine that it is better than having a willing, extensive tester base from alpha onwards. Surely being able to identify problems earlier is going to lead to a better product, right?
The idea behind crowd intelligence is that when a large number of people work on a problem, it is more likely the best solution is found. Surely this applies to MMO development. Not only will these early alpha buy-ins help identify problems earlier and faster, they can suggest ideas for improvements or solutions that the devs may not have considered. Also, a larger testing population means that balance problems come to light earlier, something that a lot of developers only discover after a game has launched. I can only imagine that the hundreds (thousands?) of alpha buy-ins will end up making the finished product better – with the assumption, of course, being that the devs are open to using the feedback and ideas. This means a better, more accurate marketing platform as release approaches, which in turn should mean more sales.
Speaking of sales, the financial upsides should not be overlooked either. Several people have commented that they are backing a game (kickstarter, early alpha buy-in, etc) because they want to support and encourage studios. The alpha buy-ins are good not only for a better end product, but they would reduce the reliance on shareholder/corporate investment approval, possibly encourage the suits to allow greater budgets since the fan support or customer base is clearly there, and reduce the chances of a studio pulling the plug on a title due to a perceived lack of interest or profitability. Or reassigning staff to other, more ‘important’ titles.
I don’t know whether I am even making any valid points here, but I think the above reasons are significant benefits for alpha/beta buy-in practices, and IF IT IS DONE RIGHT, will result in better games for us all in the long run. The next few years will tell, I guess.