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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18 Responses to Pre-Purchase for Beta

  1. Ravious says:

    I dislike saying it, but I think marketing is just reacting to the prevalent sense of entitlement. It’s just the obvious next step.
    Gamer: “STFU and take my money!”
    Producer: “Uhhh, okay. We don’t have the game yet. Here’s some [future] candy.”

    I think the intelligent actor in this case is still going to be the Producer, as greedy as people can perceive them. The Producer is the only party that knows that the outcome could be very bad, whereas the Gamer doesn’t see anything wrong. It’s a weird scenario where the Producer could kill the golden goose, so to speak, but might have to almost limit the golden goose Gamer from offing itself by gorging on too much. Just some thoughts I had. Great post! Thanks for the link. :)
    Ravious recently posted..Balanced ForMy Profile

    • Gazimoff says:

      I think I’m pretty much in agreement with you here. I think that pre-purchases can be a great tool, especially when they’re for games or developers which I want to support and where I’ve got enough information that I know it’s the game for me.

      I guess what I’m nervous about is players pre-purchasing, getting into beta and finding out that they don’t like the game. Where do they go from there? I’m also nervous – like you said – about publishers over-promising by offering beta access in response to a large sum of cash.

      • DraconianOne says:

        This pertains to the question I asked in my other post about GW2 refunds. Looking around, I get the impression that a pre-purchase is non-refundable – which is contrary to UK consumer law of 2000 (distance selling act) which gives a consumer the right to cancel the purchase of or return any item they’ve bought online from the time they paid for it until 7 days after receiving it.

        Speaking to a Funcom representative, their current pre-order policy is that you’ve got 7 days from time of payment (for your pre-order…!) to get a refund. Again, this contravenes UK consumer law because you can pay now for TSW and not get the product itself until June.

        Obviously other countries may have their own laws.
        DraconianOne recently posted..This ain’t like dustin’ crops!My Profile

  2. DraconianOne says:

    What’s the ArenaNet line on cancelling GW2 pre-purchases? (Their FAQ doesn’t provide that information and I’m not about to pre-buy just to find out myself.)
    DraconianOne recently posted..This ain’t like dustin’ crops!My Profile

    • Gazimoff says:

      I don’t think there is one. Although if I’m honest, Guild Wars 2 is where I see the process beign done well. You’ve had a couple of large media events where almost every aspect of the game has been covered in detail by some really great writers. You’ve had oceans of footage uploaded to Youtube to show how the game works. For me, it’s a fairly safe bet.

      By contrast, there are other games which haven’t had nearly as much openness, yet are trying to drum up the same thing. I’m not sure if it’s putting the cart before the horse, but it does have a larger tinge of risk to it.

  3. spinks says:

    I think that with the F2P publisher mindset, publishers are very mindful of ‘not leaving money on the table’ so once it’s clear that a large number of early adopting customers will not be price sensitive, I can see from their point of view how it makes sense to get as much out of them as possible.

    Whether it’s going to cost them non-core sales, as people who might otherwise have been drawn in by open betas and good pre-order offers get distracted by other games instead, we’ll just have to see.

    For me, I’m thinking much harder these days about what I preorder and when and from who. I don’t like this trend, I don’t like feeling that being a fan warrents a surcharge, and if I have money to spend now, I’ll probably spend it on games I can play now. But mostly I want to try to educate people to be better consumers, whether they want it or not ;)
    spinks recently posted..So, was the EA anti-gay campaign for real or was it astroturf?My Profile

  4. Long says:

    Yeah, it’s indeed a worrying trend. But I guess everyone who commented here pre-purchased? See it works. We voted with our wallets.

    People did the same with the price tag for virtual ponies etc. etc.. It’s up to us to get fed up with such practices and to stop supporting them.

  5. Jacob says:

    I agree, and there’s a fine line between beta being a good marketing tool and really killing a game. If people get beta access too early, they might burn out and never actually pay for the game (or game subscription depending on the model).

    I think the early release really hurt SWTOR because a lot of people burned out early, and they started losing out on subscriptions.

    For models like gw2 it only helps them because they get a lot more sales. Then it’s a matter of the microtransaction system (which I dont’ think we have enough info about yet)
    Jacob recently posted..Roleplay PhobiaMy Profile

  6. Syl says:

    I think it depends on your viewpoint; for one thing, who says the standard edition will get much cheaper pre-release? and why would it not be worth few more bucks to someone wishing to play the beta? I spend 20 bucks on watching a cinema movie here – that’s 2 hours of “may-be” entertainment.
    Overall I don’t quite get how this is such a problematic sales model; if ArenaNet wanted to they could just abandon all pre-order/pre-purchase and make everyone pay the same anyway. less options for everybody – simple enough for them and people would still buy it for the same price. I don’t doubt that for a minute.
    Syl recently posted..GW2 pre-purchase ponderingsMy Profile

    • Gazimoff says:

      First up, I think ArenaNet have done a much better job with managing the whole pre-purchase and preorder thing than some other firms. They provided a lot of media outlets with beta access, which resulted in some very detailed coverage of the game. This isn’t a bash at ArenaNet – I’ve pre-purchased a copy and I have faith they’ll do a good job.

      This is more of a bash at using beta as a carrot anyway, such as the Annual Pass debacle (yes, I’m still bitter) and other pre-purchases for games where not as much information is known. And even then, only a minor bash.

      Ultimately, it’s a reminder that these pre-purchases aren’t completely risk free, whatever side you look. It’s why I specifically avoided any current betas apart from Blizzard’s, as it’s a more universal thing.

    • spinks says:

      The standard edition costs £50, if they want to sell it to non-fans, it will get cheaper after release.
      spinks recently posted..So, was the EA anti-gay campaign for real or was it astroturf?My Profile

  7. Keidot says:

    Once upon a time beta was a mysterious thing that a small group of company related people and special invited got to test, comment and rate the in-development game. The results were little leaked details and improvements to the game depending on the professional input and critics of the players.
    Now beta seems to be a playground for the impatient, a massive commercial show with little to no direct influence of the beta “testers” to the development.

    So I guess companies have BETA, where qualified people still test and critizes, and they have beta, which is a low quality demo where bugs are accepted and people even pay for it.

    • Imakulata says:

      Actually, “low quality demo” betas are quite old, there were MMOs 10 years ago which had them. I remember Ragnarok Online had one, although it was F2P unlike MoP and GW2.

  8. Strutt says:

    So dont sign up for them then… no one is forceing you to. If you do sign up dont get upset when the company does something that they have the legal right to and that was in the contract you signed… EX. Blizz saying Beta invite could be changed at any time, and they changed them, and people cried.

    • Keidot says:

      It was not my intention to make beta a bad thing. I only wanted to point out that the term ‘beta’ has changed from being something slight mysterious where players contributed to the development of the game into a sneak preview option who is willing to go an extra mile/pay for it.

      I geuss players still feel the excitement of being in a beta event, because of the name and the past impact, but the companies now have a very different approach to it, or so it seems to me. More of a ‘let’s see if our server can handle a million people’ than a ‘let’s see what the comments and evaluation of our skills/quests/gameplay we get from individual people’.

    • Gazimoff says:

      Yep, Blizzard changed the terms. Yes, they’re within their rights to do it under US law.

      But…

      This isn’t about law, this is about reputation and player experience. There is a likelihood that Blizzard will fail to get the same level of interest in any future Annual Pass deal. There is also a likelihood that Blizzard will suffer a drop in trust from players who feel they were misled by the deal. That’s the larger issue at stake. Sure, they might have some short-term gain out of it, but long-term it’s caused some damage.
      Gazimoff recently posted..Pre-Purchase for BetaMy Profile

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