Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The NDA and me

If you plotted my "alignment" on an old-fashioned Dungeons & Dragons alignment chart, I'd be somewhere on the "lawful" side. I respect rules, even those which would be easy enough to circumvent. Thus, although it would be easy to sign up with a fake e-mail, I use my real e-mail address to sign up for beta tests, and I respect the non-disclosure agreements. I might make a honest mistake, like once I posted a paragraph from an NDA and somebody told me afterwards that under the NDA the NDA itself is secret. But otherwise I keep my mouth shut and don't even mention the names of the games I'm beta testing, unless the NDA allows it.

As I'm currently in three betas, this makes my blogging life difficult. I'm used to blog about what I'm playing. Only now I can't. One of these betas was the first thing I played after coming home from my recent trip, and I'm absolutely hooked and can't wait for the game to come out. But I can't even tell you which game it is.

Now at first I was thinking that the game companies are hurting themselves with those NDAs. Why not get the free publicity? But after thinking it through, I can understand why they prefer the silence. For example take the review of EQ2 I wrote during it's beta, when the NDA was just lifted. Most of the bad stuff I'm saying about the game back then: bugs, server lag, feature incomplete, has long since been fixed. The review was fair insofar as that was the state of the game at the time the NDA was lifted, and even still pretty much true a month later on release. But if EQ2 had postponed their release by a couple of months and kept the lid on, the review would have looked a lot better for them.

If the betas I am playing were release versions, I would complain about lack of content, bugs, balance issues, or server problems, in various degrees. But these things are normal for a beta, and experienced beta players just log the bugs and then ignore them. The amount of bugs, or the magnitude of the gap in content gives you an idea how realistic the announced release dates are, with postponements or a release in a half-finished state being both unpleasant options, but that is about it. Sooner or later the bugs will be fixed, and more content will be added. Either in added development time, or after release. Sometimes it is even hard to tell which is the better option. With both WAR and the second WoW expansion expected for the first half of 2008, the temptation must be strong to release a game now, even with some remaining bugs, and not go head to head with the big guys next year. But then, Vanguard is a good counterexample of why postponing is sometimes the better option. Of the three betas I'm playing I can see two having a realistic chance of being released this year in a playable form, while the developers of the third would need to be crazy if they released it now.

So with bloggers and other beta testers being too critical, especially with early faults of a game, I can understand why developers rather keep everyone under an NDA. Far easier to present the best bits during E3 or similar events to traditional media journalists, which are more reliable producers of hype and often less critical in previews. So what I should do (and already did in one case) is to write some "first impressions" piece on the game and stick that file on my hard drive for later use, when the NDA is lifted. There is a risk that I'll need to rewrite the bits that have significantly changed before publishing. But that is something I'll need to live with.

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