11 Apr 2012

Pre-Purchase for Beta

Let me be frank: I’m nervous as hell about the pre-purchase trend emerging within MMOs. While it’s understandable that publishers want to recoup earlier some of the oceans of money they sink into these games, I can’t help but feel that there’s a big potential for problems later on. The latest offer of Beta with Everything can, I think, compound the issue.

I’ll start off with the issues around pre-purchasing. In the UK at least, this is a fairly recent phenomenon. Within the space of three years we’ve gone from a free preorder system, to paying a nominal deposit, to paying full price for a pre-purchase. Sure, I can choose to wait until the game launches and the previews are our so that I feel more confident in my purchase, but then I might miss out on getting a spot on the same server as my friends or not getting the character name I wanted. Add to that special pre-purchase bonuses like early access and in-game items, and delaying that purchase can seem like a bad idea.

As Spinks  and Ravious points out, this could be the start of a worrying trend.  As more bonuses get added to pre-purchase sales, the the pressure increases on us to take the plunge and sign up.

So what can we do about it as gamers? Making a pre-purchase is a risky activity, much like placing a bet. We’re taking a gamble that in six month’s time, there’ll be a game that we want to play. If we win, we get the game we want, plus some extra bonuses. If we lose, we get a game we don’t want or (rarely) no game at all.

I think that if pre-purchases are going to become more prevalent, we need to accept that they’re a risky proposition. They might not be as risky as backing a game on Kickstarter, but there’s still a gamble there. We can mitigate some of that risk by reading previews and attending conventions to get some hands-on time with the game, but that’s not always possible. At the end of the day, we’re being asked to have faith in the development team and publisher to deliver the game we want to play.

Moving from the whole pre-purchase topic for a bit, I also wanted to talk about the big carrot being offered to gamers who sign up to all sorts of MMO deals at the moment: beta access. What used to be a lottery process to encourage willing gamers to sign up to email lists is slowly changing into a substantial marketing token. That said, it’s a token that can be misused in a way that can cause more harm than good.

It’s hard to dispute that Blizzard’s Annual Pass fiasco has damaged the World of Warcraft franchise. By guaranteeing gamers with beta access in the upcoming Mists of Pandaria expansion, the firm were inundated with over a million signups. As the start of beta approached, Blizzard then began a massive climbdown, stating that invites would go out in waves. And although there were assurances that priority would be given to long-standing subscribers who took up the offer earliest, I have direct experience that this is simply not the case.

That’s not to say that getting beta access is the only hurdle. The beta servers themselves are swamped with players, particularly in areas of new content. Compressing hundreds of thousands of invites into four servers creates a dismal playing experience. Questing, experiencing content isn’t made difficult because of the game, but by the sheer volume of other people.

Sure, beta is beta. But it’s not. Beta is a pre-release playable demo, a marketing tool employed by developers in order to build up interest in their product. Although there are a number of people in betas who work to give good quality feedback in order to improve the game, there’s also a large number of gamers who just want to take a peek, look around and decide for themselves if it’s something they want to buy.

Going back to where I started, where do these two concepts marry up? Basically, if you’re asking gamers to part with a substantial amount of cash in return for beta access, developers need to make sure that what they’re offering can meet player expectations. This may mean ensuring that media access has been granted beforehand so that they can help to describe the game experience. It might also mean delivering a more polished beta that’s accessible by a greater number of players, in case the promotion that you offer becomes unexpectedly popular.

Pre-purchase and commitment schemes are a gamble, either against the initial game or against a continual flow of content. But they’re also a more substantial bet against the goodwill of the developer. A good pre-purchase followed by a good beta and good final release can earn a developer extra fan approval. By contrast, a badly handled pre-purchase or commitment, followed by bad or mishandled delivery of the beta or finished product can damage fan opinion of a developer and their publisher, as well as harm future sales and subscription revenue.

Caveat emptor, but caveat venditor too.

Update: Since this article was published, Arenanet made a post on their Guild Wars 2 Facebook fanpage. In it, they stated that “if we max out our beta server capacity, we may *temporarily* make pre-purchase unavailable until we can bring more capacity online”. In my opinion this is a responsible, good thing.

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